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Ishmael & Isaac Brings Humanitarian Action

Anita Gray bristles when her group "Ishmael and Isaac" is dismissed as a bunch of well-intentioned do-gooders who don't do much much than gather together and sing "Kumbaya".

Anita Gray: We are anything but "Kumbaya".

Gray is the national president of a Cleveland-based organization known as "Ishmael and Isaac," which aims at promoting reconciliation between Jewish and Arab groups in a non-traditional way.

Anita Gray: We are not a peace group. We are not a dialog group. We are an action group.

Ishmael and Isaac board member Samir Mohammad says he hadn't been impressed by past attempts to get local Jews and Arabs talking, but he adds this one is different.

Samir Mohammad: For the past 12 years, we've had a lot of dialog, but not much more than that. We sit there and talk and debate and argue. That's why Ishmael and Isaac was formed. We left all our baggage on the side.

Formed in 2002, the focus of Ishmael and Isaac is collaborating on humanitarian projects, rather than social mixers. A fundraising event in 2003 raised $130,000 towards building a pediatric oncology unit at a Palestinian hospital, and buying an ambulance for the Israeli city of Beit She'an. The name "Ishmael and Isaac" comes from a religious story that is shared by the three major Middle Eastern faiths.

Samir Mohammad: It's the sons of Abraham. Its significant to the Jewish religion, the Muslim religion and the Christian religion.

Sam Mohammad and Anita Gray were raised in separate faiths, but they both grew up with the story of Abraham and his combative sons, who would go on to found Judaism and Islam.

Anita Gray: This is what's so frustrating to those of us in Ishmael and Isaac. Our father is the same. He had two sons. I like to point out that those sons lived separately during his lifetime, but they came together at the burial of their father.

The Ishmael and Isaac organization is expanding. There are budding chapters in New York and Detroit. But, the Cleveland-based leadership says both are struggling, due to the demographics of those two cities - New York having a larger proportion of Jewish residents and Detroit being heavily Arabic.

Samir Mohammad: There's much more of a balance in Cleveland and we're closer to equal ground than the other two cities.

Since its auspicious start, the local Ishmael and Isaac organization hasn't produced anything as splashy as its medical fundraising event of three years ago. Anita Gray says that's partially because the group has built-up some independent funding. But, it's also due to the fact that they've been concentrating on less high-profile projects. For instance, most recently, Gray says the group has been working behind the scenes with the Jewish Community Federation to try and ease some visa problems for area Palestinian Americans. The Federation's Paul Samuels says such quiet efforts are often overshadowed by stories of conflict that seem to dominate the news.

Paul Samuels: I think its safe to say that there's always going to be a portion of both communities that are not willing to engage in dialog, that are not willing to accept positions of the other side. I think that the vast majority of us - in both the Arabs and the Jews - want to work together.

In Cleveland Heights, an interfaith group celebrates the rare convergence of Jewish and Islamic holy days that occurs this month. The Muslim observance of Ramadan and the Jewish celebration of Tishre won't coincide again for 30 years. A mixture of prayers bless the food that all will share.

Isam Zaiem, of the more established Council on American-Islamic Relations, says he's heard of Ishmael and Isaac, but not much.

Isam Zaiem: It's very rare that I have heard any discussions about it, simply because there is not enough publicity.

Still, he fully endorses it's efforts, especially in the face of recent world events.

Isam Zaiem: I've lived all my life seeing conflict in the Middle East, festering and festering and wasting lives and energy. But, I will continue to hope, because this is the only way I can live for the next day.

David C. Barnett, 90.3.