How hockey is bringing Jewish, Arab children together

In theory, every hockey team is a collection of disparate backgrounds, personalities and belief systems that are shoved aside momentarily in order to achieve shared objectives.

But what about when those cultural differences run unimaginably deep? When they span generations, when they're taught as gospel, when they're forged in bloody battles between hated adversaries?

When a hockey is made up of Arab and Jewish children?

Here's what happens: They play hockey, and they reach a new level of understanding and appreciation.

That's exactly what's happening at the Canada Centre in Metulla, Israel, where more than 200 Jewish children have joined around 120 Druse Arabs to learn and play the game in an afterschool program.

From Diaa Hadid of the Associated Press:

The two Arab girls and three boys on the team said they had never met Jews their age before playing ice hockey. Jews said the same about Arabs. The Arab youths have adopted a halting Hebrew from Jewish teammates.

Language aside, there are clear cultural gaps between the loud and mostly secular Jewish children and more conservative, polite Arab youths.

The coach, parents and sponsors all acknowledge the project is only a small step toward real peace in the region. And while many players said they were not necessarily close friends, they said the meetings have changed the way they view each other. "In a short period of time we got to know each other," 14-year-old Niv Weinberg said. "We aren't the only ones in living here (in Israel). This country isn't ours alone."

The catalyst for the project is Canadian philanthropist Sidney Greenberg, who has worked for close to 30 years in using sports as public diplomacy for Israel. He funded the Israeli youth hockey team that shocked the word by winning a Quebec pee-wee tournament last year — despite never having practiced on ice before the event.

According to the AP, Arab parents in the Golan Heights' Majdal Shams village agreed to send their children to the hockey program 12 miles away thanks to free busing. While Jewish parents were reluctant to allow their children to sign up, a low price point ($5)  for the afterschool program helped keep it affordable.

The Arab and Jewish players learn the game in segregated classes before coming together to play on the same team.

Greenberg is bringing a 14-member team -- including five Arabs -- to Canada this month for a 10-day tour. Pairs of players will be hosted by Jewish families -- as Druse and Jewish youths were partnered off together, according to Hadid.

Read the full story here from the AP. It's often said that hockey teams can be a melting pot, and that the game itself is a universal language. It's tales such as this that reveal how extraordinary, and hopefully lasting, the bonds forged through hockey can become.

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