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The “Israeli Obama” takes on the Y

Posted By Karin Kloosterman On May 4, 2010 @ 12:00 am In | No Comments

A young Muslim Israeli is set to make the Jerusalem YMCA financially sustainable and to transform the established meeting place for three faiths into a dynamic peace center.

 

“The more you give, the more you get, especially in being part of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” Forsan Hussein, the CEO of Jerusalem’s YMCA.

Mahatma Gandhi once said that the happiest man is the one who never left the village. Forsan Hussein, dubbed the “Israeli Obama,” left his village in Israel some time ago. But his roots in that village have helped him to grow into one of the most influential of Israel’s young Arabs – a man whom Americans, Israelis and Palestinians believe represents the new generation of Middle East thinkers. His latest challenge is to take the helm at the Jerusalem International YMCA.

Hussein has worked as a spokesman for the Abraham Fund, a US-based organization that promotes dialogue and programs to further the Arab-Israeli peace process – and has obtained degrees at Brandeis University and John Hopkins – and an MBA from Harvard.

For the past eight months Hussein has been the CEO of the Jerusalem YMCA, one of the hottest addresses in the Middle East where international diplomats and activists from east and west Jerusalem meet for intimate tête-à-têtes in the Y’s cafe, and also come together for bigger, more lavish functions.

Unlike usual Y establishments which Americans have come to know as cheap and simple places to sleep, and to go for a swim, the Y in Jerusalem is a real cut above. The beautiful old building, described as the most beautiful YMCA in the world, attracts an affluent crowd. 

One of six children, Hussein was raised in the Israeli Muslim Arab village of Sha’ab, 15 minutes east of Acre in the Western Galilee, population 6,000. Although he completed high school with a near perfect score of 98 on his exams, Hussein couldn’t afford university and went to work in an industrial park.

Hussein meets his fairy godfather?

He discovered an opportunity to study in the US on a scholarship after reconnecting with a friend he had made at age 10, when he attended the Shemesh interfaith peace camp – a summer camp program aimed at fostering friendships among children from his village and the neighboring Jewish communities.

Handpicked by the Abraham Fund’s chairman, multimillionaire Jewish philanthropist Alan Slifka, to be the Arab recipient of a scholarship to study at Brandeis during the years 1996 to 2000 (an Arab and a Jew from Israel are chosen for each scholarship), Hussein’s is something of a Cinderella story. However, he isn’t entirely comfortable with the analogy, or with the Obama reference.

“I heard that, but I don’t really get too much into these things. I hold Obama at a very high standard, and I am glad that [what I do] makes them react. They see a young CEO with the renewed energy to make this a better place for all of them,” he tells ISRAEL21c.

Since his time at Brandeis, Hussein’s work and studies have been dedicated to interfaith dialogue and coexistence projects. A resident of Jerusalem’s Arab Abu Tor neighborhood, he believes that he is the first non-Christian to take on the job of managing the Jerusalem International YMCA, which embodies the unique cultural and religious aspects of Jerusalem. Hussein is also the first managing director (he changed the title to CEO) to be appointed by a local board.

Fitting in with and moving easily between life in America and life in Israel, including both the Tel Aviv nightlife scene and the small Arab village where he grew up, the soon-to-be-married Hussein is hoping to use all his life experience to turn the Jerusalem Y into something bigger than it already is.

Yes, together we can!

“I was born and raised as a Muslim. What sets me apart here is that my appointment is groundbreaking. I’m the first Muslim to head the Y since it was established,” says Hussein, whose duty it will be to make sure that the Y, owned by the YMCA of the USA, will gain financial independence.

“My goals here are to make the Y financially sustainable and profitable, its programs relevant and excellent. What I can tell you for sure, is what we are trying to make the Y an example of what Jerusalem should be – a dynamic interfaith peace center,” says Hussein.

“In our renewed vision we want to position it, and develop and empower its ethical values and moral citizenship. There will be many different activities tackling this,” Hussein continues.

“We will try to capitalize on the diverse center of the Jerusalem community, what Jerusalem is and what this entire region can be, the way Lord Allenby described it,” he says, citing Allenby’s words from his dedication speech at the Jerusalem Center in 1933, now emblazoned on the wall at the Y: Here is a place whose atmosphere is peace, where political and religious jealousies can be forgotten and international unity fostered and developed.

“I come from a very modest place. I’ve honestly lived a life so far that I would not have imagined in my wildest dreams and I have been very pleased with these opportunities.

Like Lord of the Rings

“It’s like the Lord of the Rings movies: With these great responsibilities come great powers. But I believe the more you give, the more you get, especially in being part of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Those who have given much have much to get back. My role as a moral citizen is to contribute to the well-being of my societal values of tikkum olam [repairing the world] in the three religions [Muslim, Jewish and Christian].”

Hussein calls himself a Palestinian Israeli, but says that the words don’t matter much. “I am Palestinian in terms of nationality, or peoplehood. But I am also an Israeli, as a citizen, someone who is loyal to Israel, it being my only country.

“I’ve been given something by my community and now the privilege to serve this community of Jerusalemites of the west and the east,” Hussein declares, hoping that he will usher people from all over the Middle East through the majestic doors of the center (the building resembles a palace). Let them come from Jordan, Iraq, wherever, he says, as long as there will be harmony between Islam, Judaism and Christianity.

Returning to the Gandhi quotation, Hussein says that he often reflects on his home village: “The village, the mountains, the olive trees planted by the Romans. Sometimes I enjoy hugging a tree, even. There is something grounded in that environment. It gives me an ability to relate to people and analyze situations. But I’ve also got my Israeli street smarts, plus the people in Israel are kind and willing to help,” he concludes.

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