Dancing toward harmony

In a Berkeley yoga studio on a recent Sunday evening, a group of teenagers learned a few Israeli folk dance classics. After a few warm-up stretches, they were clasping hands, sprinting around in circles, moving in the grapevine step or Yemenite step. They tried to avoid bumping into each other while laughing the whole time.

What made this scene out of the ordinary was that the teens were both Jewish and Muslim, and they came together not only to learn about each other’s culture, but to get to know each other as individuals.

And, according to some of the teens, it worked.

Ahmed Hashem, 19, who came to the United States from Iraq when he was 10, had mixed feelings when he started the 10-week program. “Sunday is your weekend, and you don’t want any responsibility,” he said.

“But as time passed, we really got to know each other on a deep level. It became something I want to do, not that I have to do.”

The program that got them together for 10 weeks was “STEAMM: Soulful Teens Exploring the Arts, Music and Movement,” the brainchild of Aliza Rothman, a Berkeley-based Jewish educator.

Rothman says her work at a bilingual school for Jewish and Arab children while living in Jerusalem some years ago had a profound effect on her. She wondered whether she could replicate it here.

Rothman, 32, teaches in the East Bay’s Midrasha program, and is studying for a master’s degree in arts therapy. She is also a Tikea fellow, a project of the S.F.-based Bureau of Jewish Education and the East Bay federation’s Center for Jewish Living and Learning. The fellowships are funded by the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund.

With the help of a grant, STEAMM was born, and Rothman found a co-facilitator in Dina Ramaha, a 28-year-old Palestinian American educator and counselor who jumped at the chance to get involved.

“I didn’t even know I got paid until after I signed up,” said Ramaha, who lives in Concord.

Born in Amman, Jordan, though her family is from Selema Ibzera, a village in modern-day Israel, Ramaha came to the United States when she was 2.

Her activism so far has been related to fund-raising and spending time in the Al Aksar refugee camp on the West Bank. She hopes to work in the mental health field in Ramallah after she gets her master’s degree.

The two women met several times to plan out the program. Though Ramaha shared with Rothman a video she had made about her time in the West Bank, Rothman said she felt strongly that politics should not dominate the discussion.

“I wanted the teens to learn more about their religion, practices and culture, and individually, who each person is,” said Rothman.

And that’s precisely what happened as time progressed. Despite their carefully planned sessions, the two leaders often got sidetracked because once the teens got to talking, they couldn’t stop.

“They always wanted more time,” said Rothman. “They were so curious about each other and always wanted to know more and get more from each other.”

Indeed, during a recent session, by the end of the dancing, the participants were engaged in doing their own impromptu versions of the Macarena.

The Muslims were a mix of Palestinian, Lebanese, Iraqi and Iranian descent, and most were immigrants. The Jews were a mix, too: The one who was not born Jewish was probably the most observant of them all, another calls herself “extremely Reform,” two attend Jewish day school and one has a Chinese father.

The sessions were held at Berkeley’s Studio Rasa, an airy dance/performance, Buddha-adorned space donated for STEAMM’s use by the owner. Activities ranged from learning the basics of the doumbek, a Middle Eastern drum, to Israeli folk-dancing and variations of the debka, an Arab line dance. The teens also interviewed each other and wrote one another’s biographies.

One highlight was when Ramaha’s mother cooked a Middle Eastern feast for everyone.

For Ramaha, however, the most rewarding part was to see how supportive the teens were of each other, socializing outside of the program and making plans to stay in touch.

On the last night, the teens brought their families, shared some Jewish and Arab folk dances, and talked about their experiences in the program.

Lara Fowler, an 18-year-old from Piedmont, said she appreciated how safe the atmosphere was. “You can say just about anything and not get shot down.”

Like Hashem, the Iraqi American, Borhan Oskoorouchi signed up because he thought the program would give him an opportunity to talk with Jews about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But both said that initial disappointment quickly disappeared.

“The more you get to know people, the more you get to like them,” said Oskoorouchi, 20, who came from Iran at age 12 and joined Hashem in the weekly drive to and from their San Jose homes. Though he had Jewish friends before, and joked with them about being “non-pork eating,” this was the first time Oskoorouchi learned about a bat mitzvah.

Mayan Stanton, a 13-year-old from El Cerrito, said she never knew that observant Muslims can pray in a synagogue or church if a mosque is not nearby. “I think that’s really cool,” she said.

Their discussions about the way they pray and their belief in God led them to conclude that they had more in common with each other than with Christians. “Basically, we both thank God for the food, we just do it in a different language,” said Hannah Syr of San Francisco, adding that just taking BART with one of the Arab teens provided time for some fascinating discussions.

A student at Brandeis Hillel Day School, Syr, 14, faulted her Jewish education for teaching her only about Jewish suffering.

While she understood the enormity and uniqueness of the Holocaust, she said, “Jews are not the only victims in the world. Other people are suffering too, including the Palestinians.”

Hashem — who quickly became known for his hugs — was convinced by his experience with STEAMM that communication is of paramount importance. “People must understand that this has to be the next step,” he said. “Communication is the first step in creating any type of peace or understanding.”

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."