Continued from page 1

Such barriers made little difference when 34-year-old Abu-Saleh promised parents a free bus to Metulla, 12 miles away, if their children took up the sport. Within weeks, 100 Arab youths turned up. They even had a translator.

Weinberg faced a new challenge: getting Jewish youths involved. Their parents were reluctant to allow them to play with Arabs, he said.

Weinberg won parents over with $5 classes, overcoming concerns with an affordable way to keep children busy. More than 200 Jewish children have since signed up, in addition to about 120 Arabs.

The school keeps new Arab and Jewish students in different classes, seeking to build their confidence on ice before introducing them to each other. But when they are skilled enough to compete, the youths are placed on mixed Arab-Jewish teams.

“Then they understand: `These are the team members I have _ and (getting along) is the only way to win the game,’” Weinberg said.

For a while, Weinberg also managed to bring in a small number of Lebanese children, thanks to another accident of history. The border runs through the nearby Israeli-controlled village of Ghajar, where the residents, while citizens of Lebanon, are allowed to enter Israel.

But the project collapsed when some Ghajar parents withdrew their children. An Israeli army checkpoint at the village’s entrance frequently delayed other players, holding up training.

Metulla, which sits right on the border with Lebanon, is no stranger to conflict. In 2006, Israel fought a brutal monthlong war against Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon. The fighting left Israel in control of both sides of Ghajar. While the area has been largely quiet since then, Majdal Shams experienced two deadly incidents last year when Palestinian protesters from Syria tried to crash across the frontier.

Ice hockey in Israel, a country of nearly 8 million people, is modest: There are about 6,000 players in Israel in three different age leagues, coach Ben Chernie said. But thanks to its rink, and a large local population of immigrants from the former Soviet Union, Metulla has emerged as Israel’s hockey capital.

The Metulla junior ice hockey team has trained together for more than 1 1/2 years now. They are ranked No. 4 in Israel’s Peewee league.

“Next year, if not first place, they’ll be second place,” Weinberg said. “A year ago they weren’t in a level to play in the league.”

Their patron, Greenberg, is hoping to improve their rank _ and love of the sport _ by flying them to Canada for a 10-day ice hockey tour.

They’ll watch the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Ottawa Senators play, meet some players, receive coaching and play against other teams, said Shoshana Rabinowitz, Greenberg’s assistant.

They’ll be hosted by Jewish families in each city. The Druse and Jewish youths were partnered off together to help foster friendships, Weinberg said.

“This is how it starts: in small things,” he said.

Story Continues →