NEW CANAAN — The Arab girls had gone shopping last week while the Jewish girls were observing Yom Kippur. When it was time for this amazing group of young athletes to meet up, Jenan Maharmeh stepped inside the Connecticut synagogue.
Had she ever been inside one?
“Oh, no,” Jenan, 17, said. “Never.”
“In Israel, it would never happen,” Noga Tal, 15, said.
The two, a Palestinian Muslim and Israeli Jew, live seven minutes away from each other in Jerusalem.
At a prep school gymnasium tucked near the border of Connecticut and New York, this was a night where we would find young women unburdened by centuries-old hatred and mistrust. Where we would be buoyed by the possibilities of the future. This was a night when we could begin to appreciate, yes, the power of sports.
The PeacePlayers Middle East All-Stars played the St. Luke’s girls team. And it was beautiful.
“Jenan and I speak a common language,” Noga said. “It’s basketball.”
Brian Kriftcher had worked in business for 20 years when he decided to devote himself fully to a lofty cause. He is the global chairman of the board of directors for PeacePlayers International and founder of Stamford Peace Youth Foundation. He recently succeeded the legendary Mike Walsh as head basketball coach at Trinity Catholic.
“I’ve been able to cobble this life using basketball as a positive influence,” Kriftcher said.
The purpose of PeacePlayers is to bring kids together in conflict regions around the world. There are programs in the Middle East, South Africa, Northern Ireland. Nike funded PeacePlayers a few years ago to do fulltime projects in Brooklyn, Detroit and Baltimore.
“To bring kids and police departments together,” Kriftcher said. “To bring kids from rival housing projects creating constructive outlets with this methodology combining basketball and helping kids to see each other as people as opposed to objects and competitors.”
The Players’ Tribune hosted “A Night of Unity” last week at Canoe Studios in Manhattan for the benefit of PeacePlayers and Mentor. Jay Wright and Bill Russell were the honorary co-chairs. The night was designed to showcase the work of PeacePlayers, which has the only mixed team of Arabs and Jews in the Israel pro ranks.
“We were in the Middle East at the end of July and one of the board members said, ‘Let’s bring over these 11 girls who have been with the program for several years,’ ” Kriftcher said. “They were getting an award and we’re like let’s bring them over to get it in person and spread the word. With so much work overseas, it’s hard to get people to truly bear witness to what they are doing.”
Kriftcher coached at St. Luke’s. He reached out to Matt Ward, the school’s dean of students and girls basketball coach. Ward was all in. So here we were on this September night for this exhibition of basketball and real life opportunity to learn about each other.
“The essence of the program is that kids that play together can learn to live together,” Kriftcher said. “A night like this is a positive in breaking down the stigma associated with the Middle East.
“Not all Palestinians are terrorists. Not all Jews are occupiers. The kids just want to live and develop these really close friendships through basketball that they never would have had any interaction with.”
Some of the Arab girls have Jordanian passports. Jenan’s dad is from the West Bank, but has an Israeli ID and the family lives on the Israeli side.
“I started playing when I was 7,” said Jenan. “I joined just for the basketball. I wanted to play soccer, but my dad said no. This is no regular basketball club and this contributed to my love of the game. I made such amazing friends with people from the other side I never would have even talked to.
“As a kid, nothing is clear to you. You see Israeli soldiers at the checkpoints. I have actually lost some family members. You see stuff in the media. There is that aspect, but at the same time I have been growing up with Israeli friendships. You always have that contradiction. With time, the most important thing PeacePlayers gave to me is the ability to move that thing from your eye and see people as human beings. Not where did they come from? What did they do to my grandparents? What would they do to me now?”
Jenan is a senior in high school. Much of it depends on her parents, she said, but she is considering attending college in the U.S.
The girls have been to Baltimore, Washington, New York over 10 days. They return home Thursday.
Noga began playing when she was 10.
“I joined and I didn’t know that I would play with Arabs,” she said. “I didn’t even like basketball. My mom said, ‘You’re tall. You have to play basketball.’ I stayed because of PeacePlayers and the values you get from that and the friends you make.
“As time continued, I wanted to be a better player. Doing it daily after school, it becomes your life. I’d very much like to coach. So I coach young kids, too.”
Noga paused for a moment.
“To sit next to Jenan and try to explain to you what she means to me, it’s very weird,” she said. “Four years ago, I’d never think this would happen. My brother and father work in the security of Israeli army. My family, we love Israel. We love the country. To play with Arabs, to be their friends, even talk to them, it’s a very un-normal thing. But as a 10-year-old girl I’m not thinking she’s an Arab girl, I shouldn’t talk to her.”
So they talked. And now Noga said she looks at her old friends, ones that haven’t had the opportunity to meet Arabs, and knows that’s where she’d be if she hadn’t joined PeacePlayers.
“I feel I am more open-minded, I want to meet other cultures and societies,” Noga said.
So if they didn’t play for PeacePlayers, you wouldn’t have any friends from the other side?
“No,” Noga said. “Not at all.”
“We’re talking about girls that live five minutes from each other and literally would never talk to them,” Jenan said.
“You’d walk on the other side of the street scared,” Noga said.
Kriftcher understands this better than most.
“At times in Fairfield County you sort of get this view the world is really small and homogeneous,” he said. “It’s not, and it’s not supposed to be. If one friendship emerges, or one mind gets opened tonight, it’s a great thing.”
The girls? Of course, they play for lasting peace.
“We wouldn’t be here if we didn’t,” Noga said. “If you don’t believe, it will not happen. We want to give the world the hope we have inside ourselves.”
“When you make friends on the court,” Jenan said, “it is easier to discuss just about anything. We don’t have to agree, but we have to listen.”
“And respect each other,” Noga said.