Picture this: a devout Arab Muslim woman enters a classroom for 3-D printing in Israel.
The class is an afterschool program filled with both Arab and Jewish youth, and the woman is the instructor. None of the teens is looking at his or her phone, and instead, each student is rapt, listening to the teacher’s every word.
There are a lot of things improbable about this scenario, not least of which is the fact that Arab and Jewish youth are learning together in the same space, a rare situation in a region where ethnic segregation is rife.
And yet the one-year old Akko Center for Arts and Technology, modeled on the Pittsburgh-based Manchester Bidwell Corporation, has turned an unlikely sight into a familiar reality.
ACAT celebrated the successes of its first year at the center on Nov. 15. Pittsburgh attorney Mark Frank, a longtime associate of MBC’s founder and CEO William Strickland and a key player in establishing ACAT, was in Akko for the celebration.
More than 350 people came out for the occasion, including Salim Joubran, Israel’s first Arab Supreme Court justice, members of the Knesset and the mayor of Akko, Shimon Lankri.
“We are really becoming part of the fabric of the Israeli community,” Frank said. “We are starting to have a nice and high profile.”
Pittsburgh’s Manchester Bidwell Corporation is a local nonprofit that provides at-risk populations with the opportunity to succeed by allowing them to learn in an environment of respect and beauty.
For the last four decades, MBC has reversed the negative trajectory of scores of Pittsburghers through such avenues as photography, horticulture, ceramics and the culinary arts, boosting self-esteem and providing people with skills they can use to find jobs.
The goal of ACAT — inspired by the MBC model — is to place a high percentage of its adult career training students in life changing careers and an equally high percentage of the public high school youth arts program graduates in postsecondary education.
The 11,000-square-foot ACAT center was funded by Jessica Sarowitz, and earlier from Steve Sarowitz, as well as the Ted Arison Family Foundation, with support from the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh and other individuals and family foundations in Pittsburgh.
Akko, a town of 45,000, is home to a diverse population: about 28 percent of its residents are Arab, and about 70 percent are Jewish. In some neighborhoods, Jews and Arabs work together, although their children attend different schools.
After one year, it is clear that the MBC model is working in Akko, not only successfully training youth and adults, but also supporting coexistence among Jews and Arabs.
“I’m astounded at the mark we’re making here,” Frank said, crediting ACAT CEO Naim Obeid for much of its success.
ACAT has been thriving, Obeid said, because it has been able to “adopt the model [of MBC] for our Israeli needs.”
“Our success is built on their success,” Obeid said.
Frank recounted coming to Israel several months ago for the graduation ceremony of ACAT’s first adult class in the hospitality industry.
“A middle-aged man spoke [to the graduation class] in Hebrew and then turned to me and broke into English and said, ‘Mr. Frank, you should consider changing the name of ACAT to A Life, because that is what you have given me.’”
More than 465 people have so far taken advantage of ACAT’s courses, with almost exactly half of the students Arab and half Jewish, Frank said. About 350 students were youth, and 85 were adults.
The second adult hospitality course has already begun, and the “diversity is amazing,” according to Frank.
“There are Arabs and Jews. We have a beekeeper in the honey business and two ladies from Nazareth who want to go into event planning. We have a guy who wants to start a trailer park and a physical therapist who wants to start a health-driven tour business.”
The diversity of the program is the key to its success, according to Obeid, who noted that by working together, resources can be maximized and “we can build better businesses together.”
One of the goals of the program, said Frank, was to build a community where ACAT alumni could network with one another. That is, in fact, now happening.
“We have Arab and Jewish innkeepers referring business to each other,” Frank said. “It’s really amazing to watch.”
While there are no plans in the works to open a second center in another Israeli city, Frank is not ruling out the possibility.
“We want to make sure this one thrives, but the idea is not completely in the back of my mind,” he said. “Wouldn’t that be something, if we could create a franchise to help the disenfranchised?”
In the meantime, ACAT is enjoying the support of a community witnessing the impact of economic empowerment in a shared society.
“So many people came up to me at the event and said, ‘God is smiling,’” Frank said. “It didn’t really matter whose God it was.” PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at