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‘We can make this happen’

Mark Frank (left), at the helm of ACAT, a co-existence project in Akko, with Naim Obeid, its new CEO. 

Photo by Adam Reinherz
Mark Frank (left), at the helm of ACAT, a co-existence project in Akko, with Naim Obeid, its new CEO. Photo by Adam Reinherz

Pittsburgh may have the seeds for Arab-Israeli coexistence in Akko. At least, Mark Frank and Naim Obeid believe so.

Frank and Obeid traveled to Manchester Bidwell Corporation (MBC) on Pittsburgh’s North Side last week to observe strategies and tactics for implementation at the Akko Center for Arts & Technology (ACAT), an MBC-affiliated center in northern Israel.

“I came to Pittsburgh for training and to understand how it works,” said Obeid, the recently hired CEO of ACAT.  

The Pittsburgh-based educational center and model provide programming opportunities for the self-described purpose of creating “empowering educational environments for adults-in-transition as well as urban and at-risk youth.”

“The environment is a little bit different there than here, [with] Arabs and Jews studying together. We need to deal with that,” said Frank, president and chair of ACAT’s advisory committee. “[The goal is to] get this going in the right way with our modification and make it happen.”

Frank, an American Jew, believes that Obeid, an Arab Christian, is the perfect person for the charge.

“He was on our board and was the hardest-working board member,” said Frank. “I have seen him work — his dedication, strategic thinking and dogged determination, and I thought what more could I ask for. I knew Naim. I had a known quantity, and here we are.”

Obeid, whose background is in sound engineering and acoustic design, explained his foray into nonprofit leadership.

He recalled a lecture last year by Strickland on the proposed ACAT project.

“Bill Strickland came to Israel, and I asked him a lot of questions,” said Obeid. “Is it real, is it possible or not possible. I didn’t want another lecture with nothing happening. He answered all of my questions in a way that I felt comfortable that it was possible and happening.”  

Obeid gave Strickland a business card. One month later, Obeid reached out and inquired as to the project’s prospects.

Frank then contacted Obeid.

“I told him we need you at the amuta (nonprofit organization),” said Frank.

Obeid agreed and became engrossed in ACAT’s details. At the time, construction and development plans were underway for the 1,000-square-meter Akko site.  

“He was very involved in a way that no board member should be,” said Frank. “I watched Naim tear through contracts and bids — Naim took it upon himself to get the right information. Thanks almost to Naim’s hard work and negotiating skills, he resolved almost every dispute with suppliers and contractors.”

While Obeid dealt with construction details, Frank searched for a CEO. The position was posted on several local websites, and feelers were put out throughout the region.

“It was very important to me to find a CEO from the Arab community,” said Frank. “It is important to me and important to Bill Strickland.”

Several members of the Muslim community recommended Obeid for CEO, said Frank.

Around the same time, Obeid began entertaining the thought of applying for the position.

“At first it sounded to me very weird. I was very involved in sound design, [but] I decided over two weeks that I can do something big,” said Obeid.

Near the end of 2015, Obeid informed Frank of his desire to apply.

“At first I was surprised as well. It never crossed my mind. Not that he didn’t have the intellectual heft, but he didn’t know how to run a business and fundraise,” said Frank.

Apart from ACAT, Obeid was involved in other local ventures.

He helped found an Arab-Israeli coalition in Akko and was busy with musical endeavors.

Apart from owning his own studio for recording, mixing and mastering, Obeid was assisting local centers with acoustic design — a task he explained as ensuring that the design of a space is consistent with the music that will be played.

“It’s relevant in churches, mosques and batei knesset (synagogues),” said Obeid.

“He designed the stage for the music conservatory in Akko,” said Frank.

Obeid said his connection to Akko pushed him to pursue the position at ACAT.

He was born and raised in the city, is married and lives there with his three children.

“I have a close relationship with the Arab and Jewish community,” he said.

Roughly 70 percent of Akko’s nearly 46,000 residents are Jewish, approximately 30 percent are Arab.

Obeid speaks Hebrew, English and Arabic fluently and routinely travels to Germany for business.

Frank said that with Jane Cynkus, ACAT’s COO and operations project manager, already in place, it was critical to have diverse leadership.

“We wanted one Arab and one Jew as our role models,” he said. “Our future policy is to have staff from both the Arab and Jewish communities.”

Much of ACAT’s work will be with area youth. In working with such a demographic, it is important for them to see a live model, explained Frank. “We need them to feel that change is possible, to be under one roof, and it’s possible to have a cooperative life.”

“We want them to be ambassadors to what is happening instead of what we hear on the news,” said Obeid.

Both Frank and Obeid elaborated on ACAT’s plans for youth programming. Opportunities are being made for 3-D printing, photography and arts education. Adult classes will also occur on site.

“Our goal is to work the way Manchester Bidwell suggested with a small modification for our needs in Israel,” said Obeid.

Both Frank and Obeid maintained that job training is an essential component of ACAT.

“To change their life for better living, they need to get jobs,” said Obeid. “To get people employed, they need to practice that in the right environment so that they can keep up on the market.”

In that way, participants will feel more “confident,” he added. “We want them to feel comfortable so there’s very little transition.”

The demographic that ACAT is trying to reach is one of “limited income” and “can’t afford education,” said Frank. “There is a perception that poverty, being poor, is a character flaw so [people] give up on them. There’s nothing about being poor that can’t be helped by getting a job. We want them to see the value proposition.”

When they see their self-worth, it changes their behavior, he added.

“They will think twice about doing something wrong,” said Obeid. “This will help them get into real life, of getting into work, life, family … and take them out of something bad that could happen. They will be ambassadors for coexistence.”

“We can make this happen. We can eat together, study together. We can accept each other as a human being.”

Assisting Frank and Obeid with their aspirations are ACAT’s vast facilities and aesthetics. The site will possess executive offices, an auditorium, student rooms, teacher rooms, classrooms, studios and an art gallery.

“We took a broken down warehouse and completely renovated it,” said Frank.

The third floor offers 360 degrees of windows, and the south view looks down to Haifa, he added.

“We’re spending a lot of money to take people that everyone has forgotten about and tell them that they’re special,” said Frank. “We’re not compromising on anything. We’re not going to skimp on these people. They deserve it.”

Part of the gestalt of the whole thing is that these people have been put in a space that’s transformational by its beauty, he said, adding that “it creates a value proposition that we see in Pittsburgh and other MBC centers that someone thinks, ‘I’m worth this, maybe I am.’”

And while Frank and Obeid are committed to ACAT’s success, certain fears resound.

“We’re not getting money from students, we’re getting money from funds. We always have needs of getting money. We have expenses, staff, commitments for students. We need to keep it going,” said Obeid.

Frank echoed Obeid’s remarks. “Funding this is always a concern. Bill said I’ve earned a life sentence.

“Also, I’m not Israeli. I know Pittsburgh, but I’m not smart enough to say that I know how Arabs and Jews will work together. I don’t want to pretend to understand issues that take place in the richness and diversity in Israel. But I have confidence in the model and my team to get it right.”

Adam Reinherz can be reached at adamr@thejewishchronicle.net.

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