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Teenagers bring together a community strained by Gaza war through dialogue

They are only teenagers, but a pair of New Jersey high school students — one Jewish and one Muslim — are tackling an issue much bigger than themselves, bridging divides in their suburb shaken by the Israel-Hamas war.

The effort originated soon after the October 7 attacks by Hamas and , when Rawda Elbatrawish, 17, took to Instagram to pitch an educational event.

“I was originally going to do a protest, but I decided to do a dialogue instead,” recalled Ms. Elbatrawish, who is Muslim.

Liora Pelavin, 15, a fellow student at Teaneck High School, and a Jew, quickly responded and helped to pull together an initial session for the end of October.

Unexpected success

The unexpected success of that first meeting led to a second, larger one, and the girls since have enjoyed support — but also faced some derision — from their traditionally tolerant town.

Ms. Elbatrawish had expected the initial meeting would draw perhaps 10 people, but soon realised “we were getting way more than we can hold,” she said — about 60 in all.

Despite the strong turnout, the girls were not overly optimistic about the outcome of the meeting.

“We had a lot of people telling us that this was not going to do anything, and honestly we did not think it would either,” Ms. Pelavin said. “We wanted to try something out.”

Located less than 16 km from Manhattan, about 40% of Teaneck’s population of around 40,000 is Jewish. It also has a sizable Muslim community.

Mutual respect between religions has long been the tradition in the area, said Noam Sokolow, who has run the local Noah’s Ark delicatessen for 35 years.

In 2006, Teaneck elected an Orthodox Jew as mayor, and four years later, voted in a Muslim.

The city is known for having racially desegregated its schools in 1964, the first white-majority U.S. community to do so voluntarily.

Yassine Elkaryani, a resident who moved to the U.S. from Morocco, feels a sense of welcome in the city. “I love the community,” Mr. Elkaryani said. “There is no inherent problem between Jews and Muslims in Teaneck.”

But since Hamas’s unprecedented attack on October 7 and Israel’s subsequent invasion of Gaza, “the whole community has changed and divided,” said Mr. Sokolow, who said he has endured “harassing” phone calls.
In mid-October, the Teaneck City Council approved a resolution in support of Israel, enacting the measure as pro-Palestinian protesters rallied outside.

And in November, classmates of Ms. Elbatrawish and Ms. Pelavin rallied in solidarity with Gaza in a demonstration authorised by Teaneck education officials.

Despite the divisions, the teens pressed on, enlisting police officers and medical staff to help ensure security at their first meeting.

“I think we approached in a pretty safe manner that allowed everyone to feel comfortable,” Ms. Elbatrawish recalled.

Participants, all 25 and under, were required to attest that they would not engage in personal attacks or shouting.

The event went well enough that the teens decided to keep going, opening a second session in November to adults. The girls distributed fliers at local synagogues and mosques; more than 70 people attended.

‘Really scared’

“I was actually really scared that day,” Ms. Elbatrawish recalled, while adding that “it kind of went better than I expected.”

While much of the feedback has been positive, Ms. Pelavin has gotten online blowback from some in the Jewish community.

Ms. Pelavin, who embraces her Jewish identity, has learned to not read social media comments.

“There was a point where some of the people in the town were not really accepting of me,” she said.

Ms. Elbatrawish, a senior who is in the midst of applying for college, said she was a “bit scared” of taking on the Israel-Hamas conflict, but views the initiative as “necessary.”

Other communities throughout New Jersey have since reached out to Ms. Elbatrawish and Ms. Pelavin to ask for advice about hosting similar meetings.

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