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Faiths link at Jerusalem YMCA

This was a bleak year for anyone who dreams of Middle East peace or Arab-Jewish coexistence.

So I'd like to write about an institution in Jerusalem that brings Christians, Jews and Muslims together, and about its director, who has bridged divides that seem insurmountable.

I refer to the Jerusalem International YMCA, in West Jerusalem, a landmark whose 152-foot tower looks down at the walls of the Old City. This may be the world's most unusual YMCA, where even the architecture symbolizes the linkage of three faiths. And its dynamic CEO, Forsan Hussein, has a unique ability to move between Jewish, Arab and Western worlds.

I have stayed several times at the Y's comfortable (and moderately priced) Three Arches Hotel. Yet I only learned its full history when I sat down with Hussein under a shady umbrella at the Y's lovely outdoor cafe, across from the famed King David Hotel.

Founded in a bookstore near the Old City in 1878, the YMCA was shut down by the Turks during World War I and later reopened by the British. It moved several times before construction of the current building began in the 1920s after a $1 million Christmas donation from James Jarvie of Montclair, N.J., who was inspired by plans to make the institution a center for people of all faiths.

Designed by Arthur Loomis Harmon, architect of the Empire State Building, the neo-Byzantine-style stone complex is covered with decorative elements that represent the three monotheistic faiths. The phenomenal carillon bells in the tower are played by a Jewish Israeli professor and a Mormon American.

As Hussein talked, parents were coaxing small children up the Y's steps to the YMCA Peace Preschool, where half the children are Muslim and Christian Arabs, and half are Jews. "We want to make the YMCA a center for reconciliation," Hussein told me. "Every Israeli and Palestinian can feel at home here."

"We have a completely mixed Arab-Jewish membership," he said, and the Y's board is also a mix of Muslims, Christians and Jews.

Hussein worries that many young Palestinian Israelis have become hardened in their views.

"They are educated and worldly, because of the Internet," he says, "but they have very few opportunities. The intensity of the region pulls you down, while discrimination and inequality make your dreams smaller."

So it would be easy to be bitter, he admits, about frequent indignities, such as the difficulties Arab villages have getting building permits while nearby Israeli towns expand.

But he refuses to go there. "Bitterness won't lead us anywhere," he says adamantly. "You have to think how to decrease the bitterness and ignorance. This is the only way to move forward.

"The psychology of fear is really crippling us. We build walls saying these will be the ultimate protector, but they contribute to hate. Where is the long-term vision? Where is the plan?"

His plan is to keep promoting tolerance, at the YMCA and beyond. Recently he went to Morocco to give a talk, as a Palestinian Arab, on the horrors of the Holocaust. He speaks frequently on the need for understanding "the other."

In the long term, he hopes to be able to build business relationships between Israelis and Arabs.

"That would be my ticket to a greater vision," he says, "of a new Middle East, interdependent andinterconnected."

If Forsan Hussein won't give up, how can we?

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