Earlier this month, our Chairman, Ron Shapiro, traveled to Israel and the West Bank through his involvement with PeacePlayers International, a non-profit organization that uses basketball to unite and educate young people in divided communities around the world. We recently had the opportunity to sit down with Mr. Shapiro and learn about his transformative experience.
Why did you go to Israel and the West Bank with PeacePlayers International?
Nearly ten years ago, a group of young men from what is now called PeacePlayers International visited my office and asked if I would join their Board and help them with fundraising. I initially resisted, but they and their cause were so persuasive that within six weeks I was a member of their Board.
Within a year, I agreed to be the Chair of their Board for one year on an “interim” basis. Somehow that one year became five years. During that period, I saw videos and heard stories of children in areas of conflict like Northern Ireland, South Africa, and Israel who, with the help of PPI, were building bridges and inspiring hope. I felt the power of the work we were doing. Yet despite invitations, I did not make any site visits, because of what I misperceived as an overwhelming professional and personal schedule. Although my involvement continued when I stepped down as Chair and assumed the role of Chairman Emeritus, I still had not interacted with the kids and the people of PeacePlayers working in the field.
Thankfully Brendan Tuohey is a persistent guy. As a result of his persistence, I ultimately agreed to make a site visit in July 2012. I never suspected, at this stage in my life and after three other trips to Israel, to have a transformative life experience while visiting the PeacePlayers team and children in Israel and the West Bank. I am so glad that I chose to share that experience with my granddaughter, Kate, who recently celebrated her bat mitzvah; my daughter, Laura; my son, John (Herb) Beatson; and my business partner, Michael Maas; and that I was able to have the opportunity to travel with Brian Ross, Ann Curry and their children, Walker and Mckenzie; Irina Pavlova; Leslie and Joe Schaller; Brian Kriftcher; Amy Selco; and of course, Anna and her father, Brendan Tuohey.
How did you spend your time?
Aside from spending 24 hours in airplanes (and I might add meeting a new friend, Joey Low, on my journey over, who accepted my invitation to join us on a visit to our program on a kibbutz in Sdot Yam, and after the visit was moved to support PPI going forward), we would rise early and retire late so that we could maximize our exposure to some sites, but more importantly to the people and the program. From the very moment we arrived (when we were graciously hosted by the parents of one of the leaders of the PPI M.E. team, Samer Elayan, for dinner in the Arab village of Bet Safafa), to being given a geopolitical tour of East Jerusalem and part of the West Bank, to visiting the religious sites (Jewish, Christian, and Muslim) in the Old City, to the Foreign Ministry in Ramallah, to the moving stories from PeacePlayers staff members on bus rides as we travelled from PPI programs in Jerusalem, the West Bank, Tel Aviv, and Sdot Yam, and the ancient ruins of Caesarea, our eyes feasted on unbelievable sites and our ears and brains were treated to a cross-current of views and ideas from morning to night. And most of all, our hearts were filled with hope because of the young people we met ranging in ages from five to eighteen and the way they played together as well as their interactions with the PPI staff members throughout our stay.
I might also add that we had the opportunity to visit with Laura’s uncle who is a Judaic scholar, Broadway level musical comedy actor, and peace blogger, and has lived in Jerusalem for the past forty years, and we had breakfast with Laura and Kate’s rabbi who was studying in Jerusalem. Both tried to help us maintain some perspective on the divergent and, at times extreme, views that we encountered during our visit. In an email to Laura addressing some of the harsh realities of Israel, her rabbi exhorted her to recognize that, despite troubling places and things about our own country, such realities do not make us renounce the totality of American society or the veracity of American democracy. He wrote then about Israel: “…I encourage you to be inspired by amazing people who continue to struggle to right the ills of Israel. There is so much here that is beautiful, honorable, profoundly ethical, and wholly inspirational.”
What impacted upon you most?
To use the rabbi’s words, those who were especially “beautiful, honorable, profoundly ethical, and wholly inspirational” were the children and staff of PeacePlayers International. The “twinnings” we saw at the various PPI sites in Israel were simply amazing. The Jewish and Arab children interacted – from practice to games – as if they were lifelong friends and with no gaps in religion, ideology, or politics separating them. They were even tolerant enough to accept people like me participating in their practices despite my total basketball inadequacy and frequent air ball shots. The sheer joy of the littlest PeacePlayers children (ages 6-8) dribbling their own personal basketballs (given to them by PPI) and going up and down the court in their games touched hearts and inspired all of us who came to see them. At the other end of the age spectrum, we spent substantial time with PPI Leadership Development Program (LDP) boys and girls (ages 15-18) who played hard, hugged lovingly, and shared of themselves and their lives openly. To say that those of us on the trip wanted to not only embrace them, but also to take them home with us, would be an understatement. What powerful lessons they taught us not only on the court, but also in their every interaction with each other, with the PeacePlayers staff, and their new American friends. Just as dinner at Samer’s house touched our hearts and opened our trip with feelings of warmth and hope, our closing dinner on the beach at Dag Al Hayam with our fellow PPI travelers, the PPI leadership team, and the wonderful girls of the LDP, reaffirmed for us the mission of PeacePlayers International: to close divides in areas of conflict by building bridges between children from all sides – in this case Jews and Arabs – through the game of basketball.
From time to time, I was consulted on the trip for perspective as a “negotiation expert”. The real experts on bringing people together, however, are in the field every day on behalf of PeacePlayers International. Just as I will never forget the children dribbling their basketballs, sharing their experiences, hugging each other and us, and igniting our hopes, I will not forget the greatest bridge builders of all, the PPI team, including: Karen, Samer, Nissreen, Githa, Sharon, Galit, Edniesha, and “younger, taller” Samer.
Any other thoughts?
Let me share some from our family group:
Laura: “Kate and I are still struggling with explaining to our family the true impact of this incredible trip. It is difficult for Kate to discuss it without getting emotional. The opportunities that we had to not only witness, but to join in and befriend these incredible PeacePlayers children were truly the gift of a lifetime…..”
Michael: “The wonderful smiles of the girls, you, and everyone on the journey have been with me constantly since we left our new family last night. Amazing how small the world is, how much we all have in common, and the goodness of most everyone we come in contact with. I’m sure we will be downloading impressions, lessons learned and relationships developed for quite some time…”
John (Herb): “We learned a lot about the conflict from both the Jewish and Arab perspectives and I left more convinced than when I arrived of the importance of the PeacePlayers International programs. Actions from both sides are making the situation increasingly intractable, increasing the importance of establishing some common ground between the two sides. To the extent the children in our programs can establish this common ground, perhaps a sustainable solution to the conflict will one day be achievable. I would have far less confidence in the probability of such a solution if PPI was not actively bridging divides on the ground…”