Pittsburgh-based attorney Mark Frank is accustomed to “preaching to the choir” when speaking about the Akko Center for Arts and Technology, the coexistence program he founded in Israel to bring together underserved Jewish and Arab youth while teaching them marketable skills. He thought he might have a tough audience when he took his message to AIPAC.
He was wrong. Instead, he found thousands of people willing to listen and learn.
“Other places I go, people are always nodding their heads. In this case, I think I saw people listening and then as I went on, they started nodding their heads,” said Frank, who spoke at a panel discussion at AIPAC’s Policy Conference on Sunday titled “Peace Through Technology: The Next Frontier.”
“There is a lot of discussion of shared society (at AIPAC),” said Frank. “I’m gratified to see that. But there are still a lot of people here who haven’t thought about shared society. It’s not that they are against it, it just hasn’t entered their consciousness, and we are sort of spoon-feeding.”
ACAT, which opened in 2016, was modeled on Manchester Bidwell, a Pittsburgh nonprofit that has proven that at-risk populations can thrive when allowed to learn in an environment of respect and beauty. For the last four decades, under the direction of founder Bill Strickland, it has reversed the negative trajectory of thousands of Pittsburghers through such avenues as photography, horticulture, ceramics and the culinary arts, boosting individual confidence and providing people with skills they can use to find jobs.
Since its launch, ACAT has followed in the footsteps of Manchester Bidwell, by providing arts and technology training to underserved youth, simultaneously supporting coexistence among Jews and Arabs in Akko. In a little more than three years, ACAT has trained over 1,400 students while providing a space for young Arab and Jews to learn, work and socialize together.
ACAT was featured prominently at the three-day AIPAC conference in Washington, D.C. In addition to Frank’s panel discussion, the center’s successes were touted at two additional breakout sessions, including Monday’s “Change from Within: Working to Create a More Inclusive Society” which had Strickland and ACAT CEO Naim Obeid explaining how the after-school program is working to engender a generation better able to deal with, or avoid, conflict.
In Akko, a mixed city of 45,000, Jews and Arabs attend segregated schools and are unlikely to get to know one another. But ACAT has given the students a chance to connect through art and technology.
On Sunday morning, Obeid also was a featured speaker at a breakout session on “The Future Leaders of Israel.”
“We feel ACAT is doing a great job in preparing the youth to be accepting each other,” Obeid said. “We have planted the seeds in a great environment for future leaders. If we don’t change the circumstances, probably the results won’t change. So, we are trying to give Israel the circumstances to grow different leaders, leaders who are more understanding of the needs of all communities.”
The ACAT students have been able to overcome the barrier of language through their projects in photography, filmmaking and three-dimensional printing, Frank explained.
“What we are finding is when the Jewish kids don’t speak Arabic and the Arab kids don’t speak good enough Hebrew, they are not communicating in spoken language,” he said. “But they are communicating by being in the same space together — and it’s a beautiful space, it gives them hope — and the projects they are working on, the technology.”
ACAT also exhibited at a booth at the convention’s AIPAC Village, showcasing a virtual reality demonstration that took the viewers inside a working ACAT classroom.
And a film highlighting ACAT’s mission and success was shown at the Monday evening general session before thousands of attendees to robust applause.
“This is an extraordinary validation of everything we believe it, multiplied by thousands of people,” said Strickland in an interview. “And this could be the basis of literally changing the world. It’s not just theory, it’s actually happening in real time, and we have to get on with this and accelerate it into process. You start to get into thousands of people believing this, and you can change the planet.”
Noting that there already are 14 centers operating based on the Manchester Bidwell model, including the one in Akko, Strickland said, “I am one Bill Gates grant away from changing this whole conversation.”
The response of the AIPAC delegates also “impressed” Obeid.
“I think this is a platform that can give us a stage to say what we have to say and to tell people about us,” he said. “It’s great exposure. And there is a lot of appreciation coming from the crowd. It charges our batteries, too, because people are very supportive.” pjc
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at