- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 7, 2005

The WAIT team — Washington AIDS International Teens — just finished hosting the Jerusalem Multicultural Dance Troupe, a group of dancers from Jerusalem who are from the Israeli, Palestinian and recent-immigrant populations.

We in WAIT spent two weeks with these teens in artistic workshops, service projects and joint performances, also traveling to New York City and back to the District. Because it was summer, both home- and public-school students could join in, and everyone learned a huge amount through the project.

The learning began far in advance of the group’s arrival. We needed to prepare for kosher, halal and vegetarian diets as well as the less restrictive diets most of us follow.

My son researched the kosher dietary laws in great detail on the Internet, and my daughters plied the phone lines, asking restaurants and food suppliers how certain needs could be met. We found kosher pizza, kosher Chinese food and kosher spanakopita as well as Middle Eastern favorites, including falafel and hummus. We found that neither Jewish nor Muslim diets allow gelatin products, which may come from pork bones, and that marshmallows are off-limits unless made from non-meat gelatin.

A second area of learning occurred as we tried to arrange religious-service opportunities for the various members of the group: What time does Shabbat (Sabbath) start that Friday? What time is the Muslim Friday prayer service? What is proper attire? Can participants be from other faiths? Is electricity, music or singing allowed in the worship place? What activities are restricted on those holy days? These were questions we had to answer, so we called people of each faith and checked online to get the correct information.

Language provided another source of study. Hebrew, Arabic, Russian and several other languages were spoken in the group, so one of our students prepared printed sheets of 30 key phrases in English, Hebrew and Arabic. This was done with a combination of research and having bilingual students translate, sending the finished phrases overseas for proofreading. We also found that many organizations, such as the Smithsonian Institution, provide their brochures in other languages, so we were able to print out Arabic versions of the tour information, for instance.

But nothing forces children to learn like being immersed in the situation. When the two groups met, certain words became universally understood in short order. For instance, “yala” means “let’s go” in Arabic, and we all were using it liberally within hours. Bathroom is “sherutiim” in Hebrew, and we definitely got familiar with that one. By the end of the trip, we could wish one another a good morning, inquire about health, give blessings, and express likes and dislikes in several languages.

Because both groups perform, we also learned to work in the nonspoken communication of music and dance, which helped draw the two groups together quickly. We would crank up someone’s music on the CD player in the van as we traveled, and everyone would be dancing in the seats or singing along.

The groups collaborated on a dance that showcased each of their existing art forms but incorporated them into some new forms as well. Professionals in each field helped facilitate the interaction, but the children themselves did most of the actual arrangements. The result was a very cohesive production, which moved audiences of all backgrounds.

To see children of diverse nations, languages and faiths dancing and singing in total coordination was a kind of testimony that peace is an attainable goal.

In a dozen other areas, new skills and information were required, and the students rose magnificently to the demand. As a result, in a few weeks’ time, they expanded the scope of their knowledge in scheduling, navigation, event planning, correspondence and many other life-skills areas.

Summer is really a time when new learning can happen, and often it will take place through a challenging activity of some kind. Families can take advantage of the opportunities in their communities, faith organizations and service organizations to expose children to a wide range of new experiences.

The summer offers freedom from a lot of the time and geographic barriers that prevent children from trying new things. This is an ideal time to expand horizons, and I urge families to grab every chance to do something exciting and new during the so-called vacation periods. It’s not a time to vacate; it’s a time to invigorate.

Kate Tsubata, a home-schooling mother of three, is a freelance writer who lives in Maryland.

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