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Program helps Jewish, Muslim teens foster friendship, peace

Elaine Herther (center), a resident at Stonebridge, talks with visiting Israeli teens.

Josh Reynolds for the Boston Globe

Elaine Herther (center), a resident at Stonebridge, talks with visiting Israeli teens.

BURLINGTON — Some knew little about the Arab-Israeli conflict. Others didn’t know exactly where Israel was on the map. But, for the residents at Stonebridge assisted living facility in Burlington, the last couple of weeks have been a simple reminder that teenagers can be a whole lot of fun to be around.

“I’m getting a lot of pleasure being around them. I love them,” said Helen Shea, 83.

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Among the 10 high school teens, five are Muslim and five are Jewish. All are Israeli, though the Muslims identify as Palestinians. In a country roughly the size of New Jersey that stands next to two de facto Palestinian states — one in the West Bank run by the Palestinian Authority, and the other in Gaza, run by the Islamist Hamas — political discourse has been a daily part of their lives since they were born.

Far from the bickering and mistrust that dominates the relationship in Israel among Jews and Muslims, the 10 have lived quietly since early August in a modern, expansive structure off Route 128. The group was chosen to take part in a program sponsored by Friends Forever, a New Hampshire-based group that works with schools in Israel to foster coexistence.

Stephen Martineau, executive director of Friends Forever, thinks living with seniors helps reduce political tensions and shifts the focus to people helping others. “We bring them out of the nationalistic context,” he said. “People here don’t ask if the kids are Jewish or Muslim. That allows the kids to see themselves as something beyond their nationality or religion.”

The six girls and four boys live in apartments in the assisted living complex, and sleep in sleeping bags on air mattresses. They cook their meals together, decide on what music to play, and determine how long a person can spend in the shower.

Their days are a mix of community service — such as serving meals and helping to lead Zumba classes with the seniors — and confidence-building activities, such as the rope course and trees they had to climb in New Hampshire. When they return to Stonebridge, the residents say they see them not as Muslims or Jews but as teenagers.

“They are our friends,” said Elaine Herther, 83.

Residents said they just wanted to spend time with the kids, whether it was over dinner or listening to them take a turn at the downstairs piano. Sharon Ricardi, a vice president for Northbridge Companies, which owns Stonebridge, thinks both groups have benefited from living under the same roof.

“For residents, they’re just kids. It seems to make everyone at ease; there are no labels,” she said. “They use their first names, and we don’t know who is Jewish and who is Muslim. It’s just human to human.”

For the visiting teens, the last two weeks have been a whirlwind of day trips, Rotary Club luncheons, and museum visits. They toured Harvard, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Salem State University, where they planted a tree at the new library.

The teens, who all live in single religion communities back home — the Muslim village of Ein Mahal near Nazareth and Jewish kibbutzim in the Negev desert — also planned to share religious experiences, including attending services at the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center in Roxbury and Temple Emanu-el in Haverhill.

On a recent day, the teens gathered around the piano and plunked a few keys. There were a few seniors there too. Then Shir Siel played Mozart and the room went quiet. Afterward, Siel, who is 15, said she was determined to find a way to bring peace to her country. As she spoke, other teens listened.

“People think that Jews and Arabs are really different because of the culture and the language, but we’re all teenagers, we all go to school, we have a lot in common and it’s not all black and white. We can be friends and live together,” said Siel, who lives on Kibbutz Samar, near Eilat.

Raghad Habib-Allah, 16, from Ein Mahel, admitted to some trepidation about the experience.

In the past, she said, she has feared Israelis and she said that worry had yet to go away. Soma Abu-Leil, also 16 and from the same Arab village, said she was apolitical and had come to America to get to know her neighbors.

“I think if you believe in peace you can have it,” she said. “Here, we live like a family. I hope to learn to trust. We can live with our problems and solve them by understanding.”

Out in the courtyard, music was playing and the teens spread out and began to speak with some of the residents. Some danced together; others sipped lemonade and smiled.

Irene Hofstein, 92, said she liked what she was seeing. Hofstein grew up in Berlin and was forced to leave Nazi Germany in 1939, when she came to America.

“This is very important, it gives me hope,” she said.

“You have to talk to each other. You have to communicate. It’s the most important thing.”

Steven A. Rosenberg can be reached at Steven.Rosenberg@ globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @WriteRosenberg.

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