'We Sat Together, Palestinians, Israelis and Americans, and Talked. I Got Angry Sometimes'

This week at the Tel Aviv airport: A young Palestinian heads to Cyprus to study medicine, while a retired American heads to Nazareth to find the difference between the Bible and reality

Liat Elkayam
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Angie Juha.
Angie Juha.Credit: Meged Gozani
Liat Elkayam

Angie Juha, 18, lives in Bethlehem; flying to Cyprus

Hello, can I ask what you’ll be doing in Cyprus?

I am going to study in university. First year biomedical sciences, and then I can start medicine. I don’t know if I’ll like it, but I want to try and see how it goes.

Why Cyprus?

I sent out a lot of applications, not only to Cyprus. I worked really hard in my studies. It’s really hard to get accepted in the United States, and I did it, I got one positive answer, but I passed it up, because it’s very expensive and you need a scholarship. I got more financial aid in Cyprus.

Is it scary to leave home?

It’s not the first time I’ve left home for school. In 11th grade, I went to Kansas on a student exchange program with kids from all around the world, called Yes Program. I went to a high school with 3,000 students, many of them American, but there were also some from France and Japan and other places. As part of the experience, and to get to know America. We lived with an American family; mine wasn’t exactly my type.

What type were they?

Vegetarians, and I’m not. Not a great start. And it was difficult even without that, because the program allows a visit home only in an emergency, and everyone missed home. We spoke on the phone with our families, but it was hard because of the time difference. After two months I asked to be with a different family, and I lucked out. They were a lovely family and I felt I had simply found people who liked me. I cried when we left Kansas, because I didn’t want to go. Now I miss America.

Tell me more about high school there.

Being in an American high school isn’t like in the movies, but it’s similar. The school was big and there were lots of possibilities. There were cheerleaders but not nasty ones, there was gossip and cliques of boys and girls – normal ones, not dramatic ones like you see on TV, where they always make the characters extreme.

So did you go the prom?

Yes, but with a girlfriend. I really wanted to see what it was like. And I also went to the senior year graduation party. I also liked American food, even though it wasn’t healthful like I’m used to. It took me a few months to even try a peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich, it looked disgusting, but it was really good. Besides that, they have Coca-Cola and French fries. But they do the weirdest thing: They order fries at McDonald’s and then dip them in a milkshake.

A vanilla milkshake?

Well, strawberry is better. You should try it, it’s really good.

Strawberry milkshake with fries and trips abroad alone? Brave girl.

I really like to travel. This year I was in the United States for two months, too, one month with the family in Kansas and another month in California, on a program called Hands of Peace. It’s a program for Americans, Israelis and Palestinians that’s been going for 18 years.

Sounds like not just fun.

It was fun and also very hard. The fun part was trips and hiking, lots of time in nature, but every day we had about two hours of dialogue. We sat together, four Palestinians, four Israelis and four Americans, and talked about the conflict, about the Holocaust – which is something that’s hard to talk about – and about history and what’s happening in the world now. Many times people cried; there were people who couldn’t bear what others said and the Palestinians felt like they were confronting the Israelis. I got angry sometimes. On the one hand, I didn’t like what was said to me; on the other, I really wanted to hear what people had to say, and I felt like I was getting a lot of information about the other side; and on the third hand, I felt sad that there isn’t necessarily anything I can do about it.

Did you reach any conclusions?

We decided that there are different opinions and that at the moment it seems that there is no solution, and when there is a solution it will be bigger than all of us. I think we are all human beings, we all share the same feelings, and in case you didn’t notice, we all live in the same country, so it’s worth talking.

Gary Schaefer.Credit: Meged Gozani

Gary Schaefer, 75, lives in Rochester, New York; arriving from New York City

Hello, can I ask what you’re reading?

I’m waiting here for three friends of mine who are coming from Zurich. They’ll be here in about three hours, and tonight we are supposed to go to Nazareth, so I started to read this book about the history of the area and about Jesus, so I can think about what I’ll be doing there.

Where will you be besides Nazareth?

I’ll be happy to see the holy places. I’m interested in the differences between what the Bible describes and what these places are in reality. It’s not that I think I’ll have a deep spiritual experience or some sort of enlightenment – they’re just places and buildings, after all. But who knows? Maybe I will have a different experience here – after all, this is where Jesus the fisherman got out of his boat. In principle, I think we’ll go to some seashore.

Most likely. What do you do?

I am retired. For years I taught mathematics to the 13-to-18 age group. It was challenging work, especially with the younger students. On the one hand, they very much wanted to learn, but on the other hand, they were very concerned about what was happening to their bodies, what the future would bring or who their friends would be. But that’s the way it is; that’s very natural at that age. In general, there are students who have a hard time, especially with math, and with them I actually felt I succeeded.

Why do kids have such a difficult time with math?

I would say that they fall into a “right-or-wrong answer” syndrome, as though everything is black or white. It’s true that today’s teaching methods try to relate more to thought processes, but even so: If you’re studying English or history, you might get a question asking you to interpret a poem, which you can answer in all kinds of ways, from all kinds of angles – but in mathematics, when it’s over, you’re either right or wrong. If I tell you to multiply 6 by 7 and you tell me the answer is 48, you are simply wrong and that’s it.

Can anything be done about that?

I think the only thing we can do is to encourage students and tell them that they are not alone and that there are many people who find math difficult or challenging. I was always surprised when parents would say at meetings with teachers things like, “I wasn’t very good in math myself, so it makes sense that my daughter isn’t, either.” It’s like an excuse so that I, the teacher, won’t come down too hard on their daughter if she’s not good in the subject. Or they would say, “I don’t understand how he’s doing so well in math, because I didn’t understand a thing.” Parents tend to treat mathematics as though it’s genetic. All right, I can understand that if you have a boy with two short parents, he won’t be a basketball player, but what does that have to do with math?

I also thought there’s a genetic link. I’m not good at math, and my daughter isn’t wild about it, either.

I don’t think that it’s genetic, but rather that it’s related to the first time you are exposed to the subject. I remember being a boy sitting with my grandfather on Saturday morning, when he would give me arithmetic problems to solve for the fun of it, and I really enjoyed it.

Do your children like math?

I am very proud of my children. My eldest works for Xerox, another daughter is a third-grade teacher, and my son teaches kindergarten. The truth is that he’s teaching kids in the kindergarten what I learned at the end of primary school. In kindergarten, we played with blocks and there were tractors, and the girls had dolls.

So there was also a tendency to think that girls couldn’t be good at mathematics.

Well, it wasn’t just math. It used to be like that in just about everything – in sports, politics, the legal system, engineering fields. It used to be thought that men should be pilots and women stewardesses, but today I see a lot of male flight attendants.

Did some things used to be better?

I think that in general people don’t like change. They think, “When I was a kid it was done like that, and look how nice it was.” I personally think that change is a wonderful thing. I love to be in motion.

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