Muhammad Abu-Leil says that he “always thought Jews were human like anyone else.” But until the Israeli-Arab high school student participated in two projects with Haifa’s progressive Leo Baeck Education Center, he never had any Jewish acquaintances.

“I have a lot of friends from Leo Baeck now,” he tells ISRAEL21c. “I just got together with a few of them last night.”

Muhammad’s first encounter was through the Rotary International-sponsored Friends Forever: World Peace Grown Locally, originally aimed at conflict resolution in Northern Ireland.

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“It was so successful in bringing Catholic and Protestant youth together that Rotary decided to see if it could have a similar impact on Muslim and Jewish Israeli youth,” explains Carol Brauner, Baeck’s immediate past director of international relations. “And last summer, Leo Baeck was invited to participate.”

Muhammad was one of five students from Ein Mahel School near Nazareth who joined five Leo Baeck 11th-graders and an adviser for a two-week retreat at a New Hampshire house. Having no contact with home, the group went on an overnight trek to an Indian reservation, volunteered in a brain trauma unit and in a soup kitchen, and gave talks in pairs in a mosque, a synagogue, a church and a community center. By mutual agreement, they communicated in English.

Back home, the students all wanted to do more, including joint music and sports events. The Baeck participants approached Brauner last July for ideas, and she suggested to CEO Dani Fesler that a performing arts project could be facilitated through Baeck’s 27-member Carmellim choir.

Fesler readily agreed. He engaged a professional choreographer and director, and a musical score in Hebrew, Arabic and English was written with student input. He then invited kids from Ein Mahel to come for tryouts, and was surprised to see 50 kids show up. Muhammad and 14 others made the grade.

“We presented them with a fait accompli — an Arab-Jewish original musical — and if they didn’t like it they could drop out,” Brauner tells ISRAEL21c. “All of them wanted it to succeed, and they understood they had to cooperate.”

Step by step to peace

Step By Step-Sauwa Sauwa is loosely based on Broadway’s long-running hit show A Chorus Line, giving glimpses into the lives of young performers auditioning for a musical starring Arab and Jewish teens. Each candidate walks to the front of the stage to answer questions about his or her aspirations, dreams and national identity.

Muslim and Jewish Israelis learned to share the stage and their friendship.
Muslim and Jewish Israelis learned to share the stage and their friendship.

The characters include, for instance, self-centered Eyal; insecure Ortal; rebellious Keren; high-school dropout George; Haula, who dreams of being a dancer and escaping her family home; and Daud, who told his friends that he’s a dancer in Britney Spears shows.

The play opened the 2012 Haifa Young Artists Festival in March, and was performed in Zurich and in London in April before premiering back home in Haifa on June 13. A performance in Nazareth is being arranged for September, and the teen troupe is invited to tour Germany in December.

From his Friends Forever experience, Muhammad was clear about his goal for the play from the start: “To show people that there is a lot in common between Arab and Jewish kids, and they can be together peacefully without war.”

Easier said than done.

“It was a roller-coaster of emotions — not an easy ride,” Brauner admits. “There are serious issues among the kids, and if you give them a safe space, they want to discuss and confront these issues. But they can express their emotions and then get back on stage together.”

The mixed cast performed so far in London as well as Zurich.
The mixed cast performed so far in London as well as Zurich.

‘When you cooperate, things happen’

Many staffers and parents were skeptical that the project could succeed. However, “When you cooperate, things happen,” says Brauner. “Just sitting to eat together at rehearsals four times a week after school together makes a difference.”

Muhammad says his favorite part of the play is “singing one song together in Hebrew and Arabic. That is so cool.”

The Carmellim members had the advantage of professional training, but rather than displaying impatience with the novice Arab actors, they aided them and even covered for their mistakes, says Brauner.

“We had to be united as a troupe, not as a group of Jews and a group of Arabs. And that was hard for us,” says Jewish cast member Kim Ben Akiva in a documentary that Israeli director Yuval Ben Yehuda filmed about the making of the show. It’s available for schools, discussion groups and special events in Israel and abroad.


New actors waiting their turn

Most of the cast members have become close friends, and the project has also had a salutary effect on their parents, who sat together at three Haifa performances supported by the municipality. Private donors contributed the rest of the budget.

“It’s not just about the kids, but about all of us,” Brauner says. “We see Step by Step as an ongoing process.”

Some of the performers graduated in June, and “there’s already a long line of kids who want to join. The existing cast will mentor the incoming members,” Brauner explains.

“We do a lot of Arab-Jewish coexistence work here at Leo Baeck, including a summer camp and early childhood program for Arab children at risk, but it’s getting harder to get teens together. This was a creative experiment and, thanks to our visionary CEO who had the guts to do this, it works.”

Adds Ronni Sabba, a Haifa student: “I don’t believe that after this project, anyone could hate the other side.”