Reflections on a First Visit to Cleveland, February 2018
Mohamad: Until our visit to Cleveland, I knew little about this city. Honestly, I think the only reason I had heard about the city is because I am a big sports fan, so it was thanks to its fame as the home of the wonderful Cleveland Cavaliers!
Rebecca: And I, having lived in America mostly in California and New York – had told Mohamad when we landed that – please forgive me, but I have to be honest – that this would probably be an uninteresting Midwestern town. But how was I proven wrong!!
Mohamad: We came to Cleveland for Hand in Hand, as part of a trip to the US to increase support for the important endeavor we’ve taken upon ourselves — building a shared society in Israel through integrated and equal education for Jewish and Arab children, supported by integrated adult communities.
Our visit was meant to be short – less than 24 hours. But our brief stopover was, in fact, the beginning of a love story with this city. The main thing that caught my attention were the people here: warm, candid, welcoming and willing to help with any question or problem. The people I met spoke a language that opened the heart and gave a strong sense of acceptance.
Rebecca: We landed at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport in the evening. It was dark outside, we were exhausted, and we dreaded the cold that we knew awaited us outside. We got to the rental car agency and a young man named Patrick greets us to begin to process our paperwork. He was probably in his early thirties, African-American, with a close-cut beard. “What is Hand in Hand?” he asks curiously when he enters in our organization’s name. He is amazed when we explain that we work with an organization that is raising Jewish and Arab children to live together. “That’s God’s work! I will pray for you!” he says. And we feel blessed.
Mohamad: Patrick was disappointed when he heard that our trip to Cleveland was so short. He told us about how diverse Cleveland is with people from everywhere, white, black, Russian, Jewish, Arab. His favorite place is the World Food Market because all the cultures are represented there. Patrick made us promise to come back so we could get to know the city better and experience its spirit.
Rebecca: He was this amazing personality and hearing him talk with such passion about his city and its people and warmth, made us say there must be something special about Cleveland!
Mohamad: The special impression we got during our chat with Patrick followed us in every one of our meetings that evening and the next day. We heard about a city policy that promotes integration of immigrants from diverse backgrounds, countries and cultures, as well as stories about people and organizations working devotedly to support disadvantaged populations. Our exposure to many social change and civic integration initiatives, combined with an astonishingly kind, friendly, and accepting attitude we found in every one of our encounters, filled us with a surprising sense of connection to Cleveland and a desire to discover more about this city. The social and communal challenges that the people we met raised made me very curious to come back, learn more and delve deeper into these issues.
Rebecca: We met with a colleague at the Jewish Federation of Cleveland who, when he heard I had worked with refugees and migration issues, lit up and said we must meet his friend Joe Cimperman and hear about Global Cleveland and see the Thomas Jefferson school. We met Joe the next day and it’s like reconnecting with an old friend, even though we are meeting for the first time. We all talk a mile a minute to share our stories and work with each other.
Mohamad and I were deeply moved to hear about the work of Global Cleveland and the school to both enrich and be enriched by immigrants and refugees. And we heard about the local Arab and Palestinian community, as well as local Jewish and Arab efforts to forge cooperation; and organizations like Salaam Cleveland, Ishmael & Isaac, and the Jewish Community Relations Council. Joe tells us about how the Jewish Federation reached out to him and his father to help take in the Kosovar refugees who were landing as new immigrants in Cleveland, since Joe’s family was from Slovenia and the former Yugoslavia.
To me these are all important examples of America’s best self in action. The real question is not what kind of problems we face, whether in Cleveland, Israel or anywhere, but what can we do about them – and there is always something to do to improve things. Our trip was too short to meet the people we were hearing about or go see more of their important work.
Mohamad: I know that there must still be an “other Cleveland”, and that like many places, Cleveland must have its tensions and groups, individuals, who are desperate to be heard, and who might chuckle at our first impressions of the city. But all of this made me leave with a desire come back again, learn and discover more about this city.
And so, dear Patrick, we hope that we will meet again at the airport, and dear Joe, that we will go together to visit all the places you wanted us to see; and meet the people you told us about, and see more of the Cleveland that you are proud of. And maybe we can even squeeze in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame!