Like many young Angelenos, Aaron Hahn Tapper and Gibran Bouayad are traveling to Europe this summer, and they're taking along a few companions -- 24 university students of both genders from seven American campuses. Twelve are Jewish and 12 are Muslims, mainly of Palestinian descent, and their destination is not some fun Mediterranean beach resort, but Balkan countries recently torn apart by civil wars and slaughter.
Tapper, 33 and standing 6-foot-5, and Bouayad, 29 and 6-foot-3, are the co-founders and executive directors of Abraham's Vision, dedicated to creating a new generation of young, mutually respectful, Jewish and Muslim leaders.
Both staff and students of Abraham's Vision are precisely balanced by ethnic backgrounds, starting with their founders.
Tapper is Jewish, an alumnus of four Orthodox yeshivot and 10 sessions at the Conservative movement's Camp Ramah. He lives at the Brandeis-Bardin Institute in the Simi Valley, where his wife, Rabbi Laurie Hahn Tapper, is director of the Brandeis Collegiate Institute.
Bouayad, a native and resident of Monterey Park, is a Muslim whose Arab father came from Morocco and whose mother is half-Jewish, through her father, and half-Christian.
By family background and conviction, both men early on developed an idealistic streak and a belief that, with hard work and education, conflicts can be resolved peacefully.
Both are multilingual and well educated, Tapper studied at Johns Hopkins University, Harvard Divinity School, Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Bir Zeit University on the West Bank and UC Santa Barbara. Bouayad graduated from UCLA, studied and taught at the American Language Institute in Fes, Morocco, and served in the Peace Corps.
These two tall, peripatetic Americans were thrown together as assigned roommates in the summer of 2003, when both were in Holland to attend the Institute for International Mediation and Conflict Resolution in The Hague.
After many bull sessions, the two student activists founded Abraham's Vision, named in honor of their mutual biblical ancestor, and all that remained was to develop a philosophical concept, create curricula and textbooks, raise funds and convince young Muslims and Jews to come aboard.
One conceptual challenge facing the two founders was to identify an approach and mission that went beyond the efforts of existing organizations striving for Israeli-Palestinian and Jewish-Muslim understanding, such as Building Bridges for Peace, Face to Face/Faith to Faith, Givat Haviva, Neve Shalom/Waht Al-Salam, Nir School and Seeds for Peace.
They finally arrived at a two-pronged approach, one called the Unity program ("unity, not uniformity," Tapper emphasized), the other the Vision program.
Unity is a collaboration between Jewish and Muslim high schools and focuses on interfaith studies, taught by educators of both religions. Classes and exchange visits deal with the sacred texts and rituals of both religions, analyzing their similarities and differences, as well as the history of Muslim-Jewish relations, stressing past eras of harmony.
The first Unity program began last fall as a cooperative venture between the Abraham Joshua Heschel High School in Manhattan and the Al-Iman School in Queens.
This September, the organizers expect to launch Unity programs between Jewish and Muslim schools in Los Angeles, Detroit, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and a second partnership in New York City.
The Vision program for college and university students focuses on conflict analysis and resolution, examining and comparing the Israel-Palestinian confrontation and other ethnic and religious conflicts.
Since early 2005, Vision workshops have been conducted at 16 university campuses across the country, in addition to adult education programs.
In the latest initiative, Bouayad, Tapper and their multiethnic staff left June 25 with two-dozen Jewish American and Palestinian American university students for a one-month study trip to Serbia, Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina.
These entities emerged from the bloody breakup of the former Yugoslavia and may be the ideal laboratory for conflict analysis.
"On the one hand, Christians, Jews and Muslims have lived side by side in these Balkan states for centuries," Tapper said. "On the other hand, the conflicts there involve religion, ethnicity, national identity, refugees, and the role of outside countries. By studying these factors, we can better understand the intricacies of the Israel-Palestinian conflict."
The program includes workshops, dialogues and meetings with local politicians, scholars, activists, journalists and students, and is cost free to the participants.
During the current year, Abraham's Vision has raised $450,000.
"Although the conflict is chiefly in the Middle East, these two American communities can play a major role in the conflict," Tapper said. "By changing their relationships in the United States through the younger generation, they can actually influence relationships in the Middle East."
The greatest obstacle facing Abraham's Vision is "widespread fatigue, born of a sense of hopelessness that anything can be done to resolve the situation in the Middle East," Bouayad said. "It's that sense we must overcome by showing that Palestinians and Israelis can work together."
For more information, go to www.abrahamsvision.org.