A group of college students from Middle Eastern countries come to the Philadelphia area to learn about culture, religion and lifestyle in America.
Twenty College students from the Middle East had the unique opportunity to learn about democracy and religion in America when they visited Philadelphia on a program sponsored by the International Center for Contemporary Education (ICCE) and the Dialogue Institute at Temple University.
While in Philadelphia, the participants stayed at Temple University, and Congregation Beth Am Israel in Penn Valley hosted them for Shabbat from July 23 to 25; synagogue members housed them as well.
For many of the young adults, this was their first time in the United States, and they described it as an unforgettable experience. The trip was from July 5 to Aug. 9, with the majority of the first four weeks spent in Philadelphia. They also visited New York City, North Carolina and Washington, D.C.
The students are selected by American embassies in their country. ICCE, based in Merion Station, is a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting excellence in education and social responsibility.
“I never had much more of an opportunity than this one,” said Layla, an 18-year-old student who participated in the program. “This was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I never expected to come here.” (The names of all students interviewed for this article have been changed at the request of ICCE.)
Layla knew people who had gone on the trip, but it has far exceeded her expectations. Her group has gone to mosques, synagogues, churches and Hindu temples and it was her first time being in any of those other houses of worship. She said the Hindu service was strange because of the loud drumming and singing.
As a woman from the Middle East, she was a bit nervous in the synagogue, but everyone treated her very nicely, she said. She added that she enjoyed learning with Associate Rabbi Shelly Barnathan at Beth Am Israel.
“I was so surprised,” she said regarding how people treated her in the synagogue.
She liked staying with her host family, where she ate Persian food for the first time. She said unlike in her country, people in America are very accepting of different races and culture.
“When I knew about the history of the U.S.A., I felt hopeful for my home country,” she said. “For those who are going to come, they are going to get a lot of information that even American people don’t know.”
Mohammed, a 19-year-old student, said his friends told him the trip would be a fun experience, but he never imagined it would change his perspective on life. He said it was interesting to learn that most religions believe in love, peace, harmony and non-violence.
“It was nice to know how diversity is accepted,” he said.
He enjoyed spending time with his host family and said they made him feel at home. They cracked jokes about sex, religion and many other topics that are taboo in his home country, he said. Additionally, they had cheesesteaks, which he proclaimed delicious. “It was amazing,” he said.
Barbara Zasloff, the president of ICCE, said the goal of the program is to have young people experience America and its rich culture. Kids in the Middle East often have misconceptions of what goes on here and hopefully this trip changes those views, she said.
Since it began six years ago, there has been positive feedback from the participants, Zasloff said.
“Most find it very eye-opening,” Zasloff said.
Baranthan, who is in her first year at Beth Am, taught students about Judaism, basic beliefs and texts of Judaism and showed them Kiddush cups, a tallit, a shofar, a chumash and a megillah. She made sure to stay away from Israel and politics.
“A lot of kids came up to me and said, ‘You know, Islam and Judaism are similar,’ ” Baranthan said. “I felt like I was doing some peace work in some small measure. Overall, I think it’s an incredible opportunity for everyone.”
It isn’t just fun for the kids — the members of Beth Am-Israel enjoy it as well, she said. Everyone was invited to Shabbat dinner, where they had the chance to mingle and schmooze with the young adults.
“This really embraces the values we hold at Beth Am,” Barnathan said. “I think it’s the highlight of the year. They’re [the students] very impressive in a way that touches everyone.”
Jackie Needleman and David Cohen have hosted program participants since the synagogue began partnering with ICCE six years ago. Cohen said they do it because he knows his will be the first Jewish family that these young men have ever met, let alone lived with.
“For 48 hours, we are their family — their parents and their brothers — and we do as much as possible to show them that we are loving, caring people,” Cohen said. “We do everything we can during those 48 hours to provide them with experiences that contradict everything they grew up learning and believing about Jews and Judaism.”
Spending time with the students has been fun for everyone, he said. His family exposes them to new foods and culture, while the kids tell them about their lives.
In recent years, the Cohens have brought students to Times Square in New York City and to the National Museum of American Jewish History, where they stared in awe at the world map that displays every country that the Jews have been kicked out of. They also had a former student guest return to their home for a Passover seder.
“I have nothing but the highest praise for the program run by Barbara Zasloff and her team at the Dialogue Institute,” he said. “Each year, we are overwhelmed by the willingness of the international students — all of them from different cultures, countries and religions — to interact with each other and with us as a host family in a thoughtful, open manner.”
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