For this bar mitzvah boy, Jewish-Muslim friendship is no long shot

Ari Abramovitz with his mother, Meirav, at home on Tuesday.

A bar or bat mitzvah is a Jewish teen's first public reading from the Torah, a celebration of religious adulthood, and a chance to undertake a social-action project designed to somehow better the world.

For Ari Abramovitz, 13, of Merion, whose bar mitzvah is Saturday, it is a rite of passage that will go through a few hoops - and it's no easy slam dunk.

His project: improving Jewish-Muslim relations through an intramural basketball game involving middle schoolers from his synagogue, Beth Hillel-Beth El in Wynnewood, and from Al Aqsa Islamic Academy, the school of a North Philadelphia mosque. The 10 participants will play side by side on blended teams, because competing as Muslims against Jews would defeat the goal of bridging their differences.

No ordinary pickup game, it will be played at 3 p.m. Wednesday on the court at the Wells Fargo Center, a few hours ahead of the 7 p.m. start of the 76ers-Sacramento Kings game. After the students' game, they will sit together to watch the pros, and, "hopefully," said Abramovitz, "start to become friends."

Fittingly, the weekly Torah portion that he will read describes the rivalry and ultimate reconciliation of brothers Jacob and Esau.

"I'm hoping that can happen between Jews and Muslims," Abramovitz said Tuesday. "I'm trying to create a good relationship between my community and a Muslim community to start building a bridge of peace between our two religions."

The Jewish players also include his friends from his day school, Barrack Hebrew Academy. The Muslim players include an Al Aqsa student born in Albania and another born in the Palestinian territories. Drawing on their mutual love of sport, the idea is to highlight all that the two groups have in common.

Abramovitz's mother, Meirav, was born in Israel and was 11 when her family moved to Allentown. She attended the University of Pennsylvania, married a fellow native Israeli, and remained in the Philadelphia area.

She said her son's project idea took hold in the summer of 2014, during an uptick of rocket fire into Israel from Gaza and the Israeli army operation dubbed Protective Edge.

Because Ari attends a Jewish day school and his extended family lives in Israel, most of what he was hearing at that time was critical of the Palestinians, his mother said.

Although she and her family strongly support Israel, she said, it was disheartening to hear her son parroting the views of adults around him, saying that "this is all the fault of the Palestinians" and that "calls for compromise are directed only at the Israelis. . . . Everything he was exposed to was extremely one-sided."

Speaking with his mother about the turmoil in the Middle East, it dawned on him, she said, "that if all he was hearing was anti-Arab and anti-Palestinian, it could well be that Muslims are only hearing anti-Israel" rhetoric. He saw the parties as stuck "in a rut," and came to believe "that nothing different is going to be found if we don't try harder," she said.

An avid tennis player, Ari originally conceived a Jewish-Muslim round-robin tournament. But Abdur Rahman, the Al Aqsa principal, said tennis was not a sport most of his students played. So the idea morphed into the basketball game, which Rahman calls "a historic first" for the region.

Ari's project budget was about $7,500, including rent for the court at the Wells Fargo Center, the cost of discounted tickets for the Sixers game, and a contribution to Israel Tennis Centers - a foundation that promotes coexistence in Israel among Jews, Muslim Arabs, Christian Arabs, Bedouins, and Druze.

He raised much of it from contributions and an online download in which he plays guitar and performs a song he wrote titled "Shalom."

"I believe shalom is not a word, it is a hope, a wish for the world," he sings.

Because it will be played at midafternoon on a weekday, not many spectators will attend the middle-schoolers' game - just their parents and some clergy are expected. But Ari insisted that it take place in a public forum to raise its profile.

That seems assured: At halftime of the pro game, Ari is scheduled to receive a Game Changer Award from the Sixers organization for people who use "the power of coaching and mentoring to impact and develop the potential of young people" in the region.

He said he "doesn't want this to be a one-time thing" but "a lasting bridge."

In that regard, he might get a nifty assist from his sister, Ella, who at 10 years old already is thinking about her bat mitzvah. Said their mother: "She might be interested in taking this over."

mmatza@phillynews.com 215-854-2541 @MichaelMatza1