Artsbridge summer session in Williamstown brings together Israeli, Palestinian and American youths


WILLIAMSTOWN -- From an open window of a music studio on the Buxton School campus in Williamstown, the harmony of a small chorus of voices filtered into the early Sunday evening air.

"Artsbridge, a place to learn, a place to change, a place to find new direction," they sang.

Artsbridge Inc. is a Boston-based nonprofit organization that uses art and dialogue to bring together Israeli, Palestinian and American youth and foster long-term constructive partnerships.

Now in its fifth year, the Artsbridge summer session is being hosted for the first time by Buxton School, offering 23 youth and just over a dozen faculty members a vast, quiet space in nature to connect and grow with one another.

This week is the third and final week of the Intercultural Leadership Development Program, which will conclude Sunday with a showcase and family day that is free and open to the public.

Debbie Nathan, Artsbridge's founder and executive director, is an arts therapy specialist, who describes herself as being "passionate" about Middle Eastern culture and its people. She said she ultimately hopes to help participants, who are typically between 15 and 17 years old, to learn to become leaders among their peers and in their communities.

The year-round program begins taking applicants in April, with orientation beginning in June.

"I look for curiosity," Nathan said about candidates for the program. "I'm looking for a spark, for someone who can be a leader in their community. I've learned from being here that leadership can come in different ways," she said.

As summed up on the Artsbridge website, Israeli and Palestinian youth have witnessed and suffered trauma for generations. Though many have never met their Palestinian or Israeli counterpart, they have come to see each other as the "enemy" in an ongoing conflict -- an attitude that may carry over when these youth come together to work on something as seemingly simple as an art work, song or film.

"One of the most important things to maintain here is structure for the students in terms of how they can learn from each other," said Ilia Esrig, a counselor and showcase coordinator for Artsbridge.

She said each day begins with a morning meeting and dialogues in which students can discuss anything, from ideas for projects, to the emotions they might struggle with, to personal reflections on identity. Afternoons are spent working on either art, music or film. The program also includes field trips to places like Boston and the Berkshires' own Jacob's Pillow.

Eden Zohar and Dania Birakh, both 15, said they've been enjoying their travels, the Buxton campus, as well as their time together. Zohar is Jewish and is from Neve Shalom, a community jointly established by Jewish and Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel. Birakh is an Arab from Haifa, the third-largest city in Israel.

On Sunday afternoon, Birakh put her full trust in Zohar, as Zohar covered Birakh's face in plaster strips to make a cast of her face for an art project, then led her across the room.

The theme of this year's Artsbridge Showcase is "Young Voices -- New Choices." "People make the choices so we needed to make the heads. So we started with our own selves," Zohar said of her cooperative art project with Birakh.

"If were in Israel, Eden and I would have never met," said Birakh, "But here, outside the conflict area, we have more freedom. You get to know a lot more people and get to know what we have in common."

In a nearby computer lab, Ezzat Badir, 16, a Palestinian from Haifa and Adin Feder, 15, a Jewish-American from Sharon, Mass., sat side-by-side, editing footage they made about their Artsbridge peers and the various way they identify themselves, be it by culture, religion, socioeconomics or interest, like music.

Badir said he and Feder have had some differences, mostly artistic ones, but have worked past them.

"Here you learn how to deal with things in a constructive way instead of a destructive way," said Feder.

"You come to learn how to become a better listener, and learn about art more and become more respectful," Badir said.

We have more photos in our Media Gallery.


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