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Program brings together Israeli, Palestinian youths in Canada

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From left, Zena Abo Zarka, Jenny Isaacs, Karen Mock and Savyon Tzorf. (Jacob Mazer photo)

Zena Abo Zarka and Savyon Tzorf, two Israeli teenagers, spoke about their friendship at a gala in Toronto on April 26. They had bonded at a Jewish summer camp in 2015 and, over time, discovered that they shared many similar values. Their relationship seemed to typify that of many 17-year-old girls, except Abo Zarka is Palestinian and Tzorf is Jewish.

They met through Heart to Heart, a summer camp program in Ontario that helps Jewish and Arab Israeli teens break through the social and political barriers that divide them.

Abo Zarka and Tzorf were two of three keynote speakers at a Heart to Heart fundraiser, which drew more than 170 people.

Every summer, 20 Israeli teenagers – 10 Palestinian and 10 Jewish Israelis – spend three weeks together at Camp Shomria in Perth, Ont.

Heart to Heart is a joint venture between Givat Haviva in Israel and Hashomer Hatzair – Camp Shomria in Canada. The core program is the summer experience at Shomria, but Givat Haviva facilitates alumni programming, to further the work that’s started at the camp.

The gala was also an opportunity to honour Karen Mock, who became a member of the Order of Canada in December.

READ: JEWISH AND ARAB YOUTH FIND COMMON GROUND AT CANADIAN SUMMER CAMP

She was thanked for her eight years of leadership with the organization by Heart to Heart director Jenny Issacs. Mock was a founding member of the Heart to Heart steering committee and now chairs its advisory committee.

Issacs recounted how Mock was one of the first people she approached in 2010, when Heart to Heart was in the planning stage. “She jumped in with both feet and got the work done,” said Issacs. “You gave us guidance and so much more.”

Mock spoke about her belief in dignity, self-determination, equity, human rights, peace and civil rights. “I believe in taking action to turn those beliefs into reality,” she said.

Heart to Heart is “a project in keeping with my beliefs and values,” Mock continued. “It is about building relationships and finding the allies necessary to work towards ending inequalities and oppression to build peace.”

Abo Zarka said her parents have many Jewish friends through her mother’s involvement with Open University, but Heart to Heart was an opportunity for her to meet Jewish people her own age.

“Heart to Heart gave me the chance to break all the stereotypes that were built from the media, parents, schools and the environment in our communities that each one of us is surrounded by,” said Abo Zarka.

Participants of Heart to Heart’s 2017 summer camp trip

“It wasn’t just about what Jews thought about Arabs, but also what Arabs thought about Jews.”

She said her relationship with the other participants in the program was strengthened once she got back to Israel, where they meet up and stay connected through social media.

“At camp, we were able to become so comfortable with each other. We discovered that we could actually talk about these more sensitive things, because we did it every day for three weeks,” Abo Zarka said.

“When we got home, it was so nice to see that we could bring that comfort back with us and keep the conversation going.”

Tzorf expressed similar thoughts about their experience at Camp Shomria and she, too, has stayed close to others in group.

“We met several times and kept on reminding each other of all the great adventures and moments we shared. It bonded us deeply,” she said. “No other friend of mine could understand what I felt after returning from the delegation like they did.”

Heart to Heart gave me the chance to break all the stereotypes.
– Zena Abo Zarka

Tzorf also deplored the language barrier in Israel, explaining that, in Canada, her group had to communicate in English, because they don’t learn each others’ languages in Israel. “There is actually almost no direct communication possible in Israel between both sides, since there aren’t many Jews that speak Arabic,” she said.

She said that, to help address this issue, she joined an organization that will provide Arabic and Hebrew instruction for free. “I think the moment we understand each other better, we all will realize how similar we all are,” said Tzorf.

On April 30, Tzorf, Abo Zarka and Mock participated in “Understanding Palestinian and Jewish Narratives: Transcending Bias and Dogma,” an interfaith public discussion that was held at Jackman Hall in Toronto. The event was organized by Raja Khouri Conversations and the Mosaic Institute.