Although Avi Gordis has lived in Jerusalem since he was 9, he had never had a conversation with a Palestinian until last year. “I was afraid of every Palestinian I saw,” Gordis, 17, told the Forward. That changed last summer, when the Face to Face/Faith to Faith Program brought Gordis together with Saleh Alzjary, a 17-year-old who lives in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Beit Safafa.
The two teenagers traveled to New York City several weeks ago to talk about the summer program, known as F2F. “Before attending the program, we considered each other enemies,” Gordis told the Forward. “We now consider each other best of friends.”
Run jointly by the New York City-based Presbyterian-affiliated Auburn Theological Seminary and the Denver-based nonprofit Seeking Common Ground, F2F was established six years ago “to bring people together across the range of religious [and ethnic] traditions, to try to help people talk and to bridge those differences,” said Auburn executive vice president and F2F co-director Katharine Henderson. At the two-week summer program, held in upstate New York, 50 students ages 16 to 18 from groups that have historically been “enemies” — blacks and whites from South Africa, Catholics and Protestants from Northern Ireland, and Jews and Palestinians from the Middle East and America — are brought together to begin a dialogue.
Students participate in multi-faith education and communication-skills classes. Everyone bunks together. (Except for the segregation of boys and girls, “it’s entirely mixed up” in the cabins, said Henderson.) After the summer program, the kids regroup in smaller units on their home turf to continue working together throughout the year. Along with their “home group” of 10 other students — five Palestinians and five Israelis — Gordis and Alzjary have volunteered at a Jewish school and an Arab orphanage and started a parents’ group for their friends and families to get to know each other. Alzjary also visited Gordis’s school to have a conversation with the Jewish students there. “When I came into the room, they were totally in shock,” Alzjary told the Forward. “It was a challenge to be one of your kind in the middle of a group [in] which, maybe they hated you. But it was so good, and it benefits me and them to know things they didn’t know before.”
The young men’s New York trip marked the “fund-raising kickoff” for the beginning of the new program year, Henderson told the Forward. The program costs more than $400,000 per year, or about $8,000 per student, to run. Participants are only expected to pay what they can — which, in some cases, is $50 or $100 — so almost all of each year’s budget must be fund-raised from scratch.
During their visit, in November, Gordis and Alzjary spoke at religious and educational institutions all over New York “to try to recruit more friends and supporters of the program, and to try to get the word out there that this kind of dialogue is happening,” according to Gordis. The two young men attended services together at several area houses of worship, including Rodeph Shalom, Central Synagogue and Kehileth Jeshuran, as well as at St. James Episcopal Church and Brick Presbyterian Church. They also visited Ground Zero together, which Gordis said “gave us more motivation to build a better world.”
Gordis said that after the young men’s presentation at St. James Church, a parishioner approached them. “She came because she was curious,” said Gordis. “She said, ‘I came with curiosity. I left with hope.’”