Over a hundred Arab and Jewish women and men -- equally represented -- gathered in fellowship when the 2-year-old Jewish-Palestinian Living Room Dialogue Group of San Francisco partnered with the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco for a Palestinian-Jewish Reception. This was the dialogue group's first public outreach.
Next morning a news report of the gathering was broadcast across the United States, with taped interviews on the Mutual Radio network.
Half of the audience being Arab was a remarkable and historic statement. In our experience, however limited, we are not familiar with such a proportion of Arab participation in a local Jewish institution in the past.
The Thursday evening setting included live Middle Eastern music by Almarjanah Ensemble, a generous offering of Middle Eastern food by Dialogue Group participants, and half of the exquisite 30-panel Middle East Peace Quilt exhibition which now will travel for showing in Pasadena, California. (The Quilt is described at www.igc.org/traubman/quilt. Consider bringing it to your city.)
The Jewish Community Center of San Francisco was extraordinarily generous with personnel for graphics, publicity, and planning, and with funding assistance and facilities. They could not have opened their doors and hearts wider.
As one of the attendees said, "I am interested in understanding the conflict through real people, not just the media." In this spirit, content was provided by four 3-4 minute talks of personal experiences by four Dialogue Group participants: Elias Botto, Jacob Mandelsberg, Melek Nasser-Totah, and Gladys Wagman. (Their introductory biographies follow.)
Amy Tobin (ARTobin@earthlink.net), the JCCSF Manager of Cultural Arts and Community Development, said this about the evening:
"Hosting the Middle East Peace Quilt exhibit and reception has been a wonderful opportunity for us at the JCC and for myself, and I feel proud that we have had a success on behalf of community building and forward thoughts for peace. You have . . . been a pleasure to work with. As I said, this has been an educational process for me as well -- my own preconceptions and media-informed misunderstandings of the Middle East have been challenged and changed (always with more growth to come!). Thank you for bringing the quilt here, for your generosity, and your tireless efforts for peace. Thank you also for sending me off on a vacation with a sense of a job well done! I look forward to bringing people together with you again."
Finally, we thought you would be interested in the one-paragraph biographies of the four Dialogue Group participant-presenters, in the order they spoke. They represent the quality and authenticity of Palestinians and Jews who are choosing to reach out to each other today in sustained dialogue to build their shared future.
ELIAS BOTTO was born in Jerusalem, Palestine. In late 1947, due to increasing violence in the region, his family moved to Bethlehem, in the West Bank. Elias owned and directed daily operations for San Francisco’s Grand-B Garment Manufacturing and Contracting, serving Esprit, Levi Strauss, and other smaller manufacturers nationwide. He is a member of the San Francisco Fashion Industry Association. A 32nd degree Mason, Mr. Botto supports the medical assistance work of the Shriners. He is active in the charitable work of the Bethlehem Associaton and of U.S.O.M.E.N., the United States Organization for Medical and Educational Needs, providing needed humanitarian services to people in the Middle East.
JACOB MANDELSBERG grew up in a traditional, observant Jewish family in Chicago, where he attended Hebrew school. In 1938 his father's family had fled Germany and the torching of synagogues and businesses, and increasing anti-Jewish violence. Jacob went to Israel for a year with the Institute for Youth Leaders, and he ended up staying for 12 years, serving in the IDF in Gaza and becoming intimate with the history, people, and cultures of the Middle East. He is presently an Information Architect with 415 Productions, designing Internet Web sites for education and industry, including for McGraw-Hill and the San Francisco Symphony.
MELEK NASR-TOTAH was born in Des Moines, Iowa. Her father grew up in Haifa, Palestine, in the 1930s and '40s before fleeing in 1948. Melek graduated from Drake University in 1988, majoring in International Relations. She later earned her M.B.A. in International Business. Strong on volunteerism even from childhood, Melek was volunteer Chief Financial Officer for the non-profit Grady Community Council in Atlanta, Georgia, to establish pre-school programs for inner city children. Melek is now Manager of Financial Planning and Analysis for a Silicon Valley software company.
GLADYS WAGMAN was born in Philadelpia. Her father's family had fled to the United States from Czarist Russia when their village's first-born Jews were being killed during the pogroms. Gladys attended Hebrew school and grew up in a traditional, observant Jewish family. After raising their own family, she and her husband followed their three children and six grandchildren to California. Gladys was Regional President of ORT -- the Organization for Rehabilitation Through Training, initiated by Jewish women to serve both Jewish and non-Jewish boys and girls worldwide. Gladys is presently on the Board of Directors of the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco.