Intern for Peace to tackle Jewish-Arab relations in Israel

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"I feel like this is my calling, my destiny," he said. "I have always had such a deep love for Israel."

At the end of his tenure, McClean says, he will remain in Israel to fulfill a longtime dream of making aliyah.

He eventually wants to create a "neo-Chassid eco-village" in the Southern Galilee, where residents will observe a vibrant yet open form of Judaism and cultivate ecologically sound practices such as composting and using solar power.

He already is quite familiar with his future home, having lived, worked and studied there numerous times in the past decade.

As peace intern, McClean will supervise up to 10 different projects that teach democratic and egalitarian principals as well as highway safety to Jewish and Arab children in different communities. He will live in several Arab communities during the two-year internship, beginning with the town of Tamra in the Southern Galilee.

McClean is an experienced cross-cultural diplomat, active in local Jewish-Arab relations work and intimate with Palestinian communities in Israel. He says he is committed to healing the rift between Jews and Arabs and has pledged to make it his life's work.

"I could go to a yeshiva or back to university, but with all that's happened in recent years with terrorism and hatred between Jews, this project is the best use of my energy," he said.

McClean speaks fluent Arabic with a Palestinian dialect, which has helped him to earn many close friends among Palestinians while living, studying and working with them in Israel, as well as fluent Hebrew.

But perhaps the intern's most influential trait is his understanding of cross-cultural dynamics. He focused his college studies on Islam, Jewish studies and Middle Eastern history.

But the confluence of cultures in his own life began much earlier. He was born into a long line of Protestant missionaries on his father's side. His Jewish mother left behind her Judaism to pursue studies of Sant Mat, a mystical branch of Sikhism, and a hippie lifestyle.

McClean grew up in Hawaii with only Chanukah candles to link him to his heritage. But he felt curiously drawn to Judaism when he attended his first bar mitzvah at the age of 12. By the time he was 13, he had learned enough to have one of his own.

"It was a real healing for the family," he recalled. It was then that his Jewish grandfather gave him the name Eliyahu.

He joined Young Judaea and traveled to Israel for the first time on one of the organization's Zionist courses. By then, the youth was hooked on the Holy Land.

He knew early on that he would one day make aliyah, but McClean continued to study other religions and cultures including Rastafarianism, Sufism, the international hippie group called the Rainbow Family and even "Grateful Deadism."

While he considers himself modern Orthodox, he has studied with Chabad in Berkeley and at a Chassidic yeshiva in Jerusalem.

"Eliyahu is a bridge between many worlds," said Rabbi Bruce Cohen, founder of the 21-year-old Interns For Peace program, during an interview from New York. Soon after recruiting McClean, Cohen found himself at a community meeting in Gaza, where a local resident asked him if he knew McClean.

"It's very interesting. Every time I mention Interns For Peace, [McClean] comes up a lot," Cohen said, adding that his new recruit came highly recommended.

While McClean may have a knack for fitting in just about anywhere, being a "bridge" presents its own dilemmas.

He once was threatened by a Hamas member while staying with Palestinian friends in Hebron.

On another occasion, he found himself caught between two friends — a Chassid and a Palestinian — when he bumped into them nearly at the same time in Jerusalem.

The black-hatted Chassid was an old friend from Young Judaea who had come to live in Mea Shearim. The Palestinian was a co-worker of McClean's on a construction project to rebuild the Jerusalem City Hall. As McClean stood chatting with the old friend, the co-worker hailed him in Arabic from across the street.

"The two looked at each other in horror, each wondering what my connection to the other was," McClean said. "Here they had lived for years within a block of each other and never even looked at one another."

For that reason, some of McClean's friends say the task ahead of him is impossible for an Orthodox Jew. He considers it a challenge.

"I may wear a kippah and tzitzit, but I've got a mellow California demeanor to defuse those kinds of situations. I speak to people's souls," he said. "People open up to me."

McClean is staying with his father in Arizona while saving for his airfare to Israel. He leaves for his internship Oct. 18.

Lori Eppstein

Lori Eppstein is a former staff writer.