Diana Bletter
Peripheral vision on a beach village in northern Israel

Where a Druze Beekeeper, A Jewish Hotel Owner and a Bedouin Mother Talk Shop

At a class at Akko Center of Arts and Technology, ACAT, in Akko, Western Galilee, the other evening, I saw the inspiration of the Start-up Nation trickle down to a grassroots level. There were fifteen students, including a Druze beekeeper, a Bedouin mother and daughter who serve homemade meals in their home, and a Jewish woman who operates luxury guest cabins in a small town on the northern border with Lebanon. Studying Entrepreneurship in the Travel Industry, the students were trying to figure out how to reach more customers, use social media, and expand their start-up tourism businesses.

The three-month course is part of the youth and adult learning programs at ACAT. Directed by CEO Naim Obeid, born and raised in Akko, the non-profit art, education and job-training center is under the auspices of Manchester Bidwell Corporation of the United States.

The Corporation, which runs ten centers in the United States, opened its first center outside of the USA in Akko in November 2016.

During his first visit to Israel for the ground-breaking ceremony in 2014, Manchester Bidwell President and Founder, Bill Strickland, who received the MacArthur “Genius” Award, explained how he grew up poor and hungry in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

“Like a lot of other poor people,” he said, who lived “with darkness in their head.” In high school, he met an art teacher who mentored him, which was the reason Strickland attended college. After working with a trade school for arts education in Pittsburgh, Strickland has gone on to expand his vision.

The center in Akko, a city of 45,000 including Jews, Muslims, Christians, Druze and Ba’hai, is built on the Mediterranean Sea. The city, a UNESCO heritage site that has survived for approximately 5,000 years seems the perfect site for Strickland’s vision. ACAT’s building with its sleek lines and interior waterfall is wedged between a catering hall, a gas station and a private house with horses in the side yard, reflecting Akko’s contradictions — and its charms.

Since its opening, ACAT has educated more than four-hundred students. There are courses for adults in warehouse management, tourism, and industrial qu33333ality assurance. For teenagers, photography and 3-D printing courses give them the opportunity to learn new crafts and new skills and to also make new connections.

Fatma Mezal, one of five children in a Bedouin family in the village of Arab-al-Aramshe, on Israel’s northern border, said that her parents have always had an open house, to which they have invited people. While her father explained about Bedouin culture and history, her mother served Bedouin meals. They did this for free until a friend suggested they turn their activity into a business. In the past ten years, they have hosted hundreds of people and are looking to expand to a larger market.

As Fatma said in her elevator talk, where students had thirty seconds to pitch their business, “I don’t ride a camel and I don’t live in a tent, but I am an original Bedouin.” In addition to helping her parents in their business venture, she is also in her final year of nursing school.

The Western Galilee, which stretches from the Mediterranean to the Upper Galilee, has become a more and more popular tourist destination. At the landmark Or Torah Synagogue, known as the “Jariva” (Tunisian) Synagogue in the old city of Akko, recently, there was even a group of tourists from South Korea.

“I couldn’t speak Korean and they couldn’t speak Hebrew,” recalled guide Yaffa Baadach. “It was a little challenging.”

“No problem!” said another student Muli Cohen, who is considering opening up a bed-and-breakfast. A former real estate developer, in his spare time he performs mental telepathy in front of audiences. Pulling out his smart phone, he demonstrated a more conventional form of communication. He spoke into the phone, saying, “Welcome!” in Hebrew, and within seconds, the phone chirped “Welcome!” in spoken Korean.

The students were quick to understand that English, however, is the key to global business. During class time, some students developed English names for their businesses, while others explored social media venues for more outreach such as Snapchat, Tripadvisor, and Instagram.

Students also learned basic American and English customs. Uri Perry, who works in a guesthouse in the community of Maale-Zvia, near Carmiel, whose residents practice a spiritual life known as Emin, wanted to understand why American guests did not ask for help when they had no electricity in the room; he knew that Israelis would immediately complain.

“Sometimes they do complain!” countered Eliya Morany, who runs Akkotel, a boutique hotel in an Ottoman-Period building within the ancient walls of Akko’s Old City. Morany said that when two tourists parked their car to register at the hotel, returned a few minutes later to find a 500-shekel parking ticket on their windshield, they asked Morany to pay half the ticket. “I didn’t know what to do,” he related, and ended up making a King Solomon-like decision, deducting 250 shekels from their hotel bill.

Beekeeper Ghassan Saleh who operates Asalalnor, a bee farm and tourist center in the Druze Village of Peki’in, said that he has visitors from around Israel who come for lectures on beekeeping and to purchase beeswax candles, honey and other products. When asked if the Arabic expression, “yom asal, yom basal,”(some days are sweet like honey and other days are sour like onions) holds true for him, he smiled and said, “My days are always sweet like honey.”

The ACAT Center requires a registration fee of five hundred shekels to participate in the classes, but scholarships are available. There is a waiting list for the next class, scheduled to begin soon.

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About the Author
Diana Bletter is the author of numerous books, including the National Jewish Book Award Nominee of The Invisible Thread: A Portrait of Jewish American Women, A Remarkable Kindness (HarperCollins) and The Loving Yourself Book for Women. She is the First Place Winner of Moment Magazine's Short Fiction Contest in 2019. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, Tablet, The North American Review, The Forward, Jerusalem Post, Israel21C, and many other publications. She lives with her husband and family in the Western Galilee, where she is a member of the hevra kadisha, the village's burial society as well as Dove of Peace, a group of Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and Druze women.
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