JERUSALEM (JTA) – As Josh Martin painted bomb shelters and helped replant burnt forests in northern Israel after the 2006 Lebanon war, he wondered what it would be like to do something similar in Lebanon.
Six months ago he found out when he took a group of 10 New York University students – Christians, Muslims and Jews – to Beirut to pair up with Lebanese students on community service projects across the country.
During their week and a half in Lebanon, the group painted a peace mural near Beirut, did art projects with children at a Palestinian refugee camp and planted trees.
Now Martin wants to bring those Lebanese students to New York to continue the relationships and community service work they began in Lebanon.
“It’s important to show diversity on all sides,” said Martin, 22, a recent NYU graduate. “Lebanese society is very diverse and they don’t see Americans in the same way.”
“We plan to bring our Lebanese students to America,” he said. ” We don’t lack service opportunities in New York.”
Martin says inspiration for his Lebanon project came from his experience in Israel. He was among 500 American Jewish students who performed community service in northern Israel for a week in January 2007 on a program sponsored by philanthropist Lynn Schusterman.
“I said at the time that this is so great that the American Jewish community mobilized so fast to bring so many American Jews to Israel to provide such a strong show of support, and I started asking questions about who was doing this for Lebanon,” Martin said.
While volunteers were focused on cleaning up the physical damage from the war, Martin also wanted to address the war’s emotional damage. So he decided to try to use social service projects as a vehicle for enhancing understanding between Americans and Lebanese.
“There is a bond that forms between people when you are doing hard work and you are doing work that benefits a third party, so that was the bond we were trying to build,” he said.
In Lebanon, the trip’s participants held roundtable discussions with local mayors and residents of varying religious backgrounds. The goal, Martin said, was to break down barriers by shattering stereotypes Americans and Lebanese have of one another and fostering dialogue and respect.
Martin and the two other Jewish students on the trip were open about their religion. Martin told his Lebanese hosts, who included Christians, Druze, and Shia and Sunni Muslims, that he had spent time in Israel.
“They asked me how it is here, what it looks like,” Martin said in an interview in Jerusalem. “The people are very interested to know about the character of Israel and our opinions of Israel.”
The discussions sometimes became tense, as when the group met people who expressed support for Hezbollah, but things went smoothly overall, Martin said.
“We believe it’s important to leave one’s comfort zone if you are going to broaden one’s horizons, and so the first step was to go to Lebanon,” he said. “If we had only met people whose values and opinions we agreed with, we would not have succeeded in changing perceptions.”
One Lebanese student Martin said he met during a roundtable discussion pressed him aggressively on Israel. Martin said he asked the student how many Jews he knew. The student replied that he had never before met a Jew.
“I told him, ‘Now you have one Jewish friend,’ ” Martin said. “We were then able to connect on a more friendly basis.”
Tall and soft-spoken, Martin became involved with Middle East dialogue issues through NYU’s Hillel. His Lebanon initiative, called the Lebanon Project, was sponsored in part by World Faith, an interfaith dialogue organization.
As Martin continues to pursue his project – working to organize future visits to Lebanon and bring the Lebanese students he worked with to the United States – Martin has started his first post-college job, trying to bridge gaps between the Muslim and Western worlds in Malaysia, where he works for the Cordoba Initiative.
In Israel recently for another Schusterman-sponsored project, the Global Summit for Young Jewish Innovators, Martin continued his role as an ambassador of sorts. His suitcases, he said, would be filled with gifts from Jerusalem’s Old City for his new Muslim Malaysian friends.