Bill Strickland recently returned from Akko, Israel, having witnessed “a modern miracle.”
Strickland is the founder and CEO of the Manchester Bidwell Corporation, the local nonprofit that proves that at-risk populations can thrive when allowed to learn in an environment of respect and beauty. For the last four decades, MBC has reversed the negative trajectory of scores of Pittsburghers through such avenues as photography, horticulture, ceramics and the culinary arts, boosting self-esteem and providing people with skills they can use to find jobs.
Now, the MBC model has been replicated in Akko, set to provide art classes and career training to underserved youth and adults, as well as support coexistence among Jews and Arabs.
The Akko Center for Arts and Technology (ACAT) held its opening ceremonies on Nov. 17.
“I really saw a modern miracle,” said Strickland. “There were Jewish leaders, Arab leaders and Catholic leaders all standing together at this event in a peaceful, harmonious atmosphere that was actually breathtaking. It affected everyone in the room, including me.”
The MBC model has been successfully replicated in eight locations across the United States. Akko was chosen as its first overseas site because of the town’s diversity; about a third of its 56,000 residents are Arab, and the rest are Jewish. In some neighborhoods in Akko, which is located in the Northwest Galilee region, Jews and Arabs work together, although their children, for the most part, attend different schools.
The goal of ACAT — inspired by the MBC model — is to place a high percentage of its adult career training students in life changing careers and an equally high percentage of the public high school youth arts program graduates in postsecondary education.
About 450 people attended the opening ceremony, according to Mark Frank, the Pittsburgh attorney who shepherded this project from its infancy to its completion, and serves as the new center’s president and chair.
“Everyone was walking around with huge smiles on their faces,” Frank said.
Frank has been working on the concept of ACAT since 2006, and explored various cities in Israel in which to launch the project. Once his team settled on Akko in 2014, the process accelerated.
The 11,000 square foot center is stunning, modern in design, with visitors greeted once inside by a striking waterfall measuring 13 feet high. The upscale décor is part of the MBC model, creating a space in which those entering feel valued.
“Two or three people came up and said that we’ve set a new bar for Israeli NGOs,” Frank said. “People said that the center exceeded their expectations, and they had high expectations.”
The opening of the center was enthusiastically supported by the government of Akko. Among those in attendance were Mayor Shimon Lankri and Orit Asayag, the head of the Akko Municipality’s Education Department.
Asayag was in Pittsburgh earlier this week to tour MBC along with Lizu Levy, Akko’s bureau chief and manager of community relationships, and Carmit Cohen, head of Akko’s employment department.
“I think this is the most unique project that Akko has done,” said Asayag, noting that Akko has run other coexistence projects throughout the years. “ACAT is a diamond.”
The center was funded by Jessica Sarowitz, and earlier from Steve Sarowitz, as well as the Ted Arison Family Foundation, with support from the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh and other individuals and family foundations in Pittsburgh, according to Frank.
Although Akko public officials and residents had high hopes for the center during its development, it was at the opening ceremony that they “finally got it,” Frank said.
“They saw the space in its finished form, and they saw the crowd attending, and all the happy faces,” he said. “It was a different level of enthusiasm. Everyone was overwhelmed.”
Three singers from the Conservatory Center of Akko performed two songs at the ceremony: “Imagine,” by John Lennon, and Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” the latter of which was sung in Hebrew, Arabic and English.
The songs were a “message of hope for the future,” said Sue Linzer of Pittsburgh, a consultant on the project who attended the ceremony.
“People were in tears,” Frank added. “Hearing ‘Hallelujah’ by Leonard Cohen, who just died the week before, in three languages just said it all.”
High school photography and 3D printing classes have already begun, and so far, the ACAT dream is shaping up to be a reality.
“We had a mixed group of high school students from two different schools, one Arab school and one Jewish school, and they came to ACAT and they are learning together photography,” said Asayag. “They came for several times before the grand opening, and now they are coming once a week to the center and they are doing well. They get along all together, and they are not just studying photography and 3D printing, they are learning coexistence while studying, so it’s an added value for them.”
In addition to the after-school high school program, ACAT will soon be offering career training for adults in food and beverage management as well as automated machine operations.
To say that Strickland — who launched the original MBC more than 40 years ago in the Steel City — is thrilled with ACAT would be a vast understatement.
“To see this, 6,000 miles away from Pittsburgh, it gives you hope,” he said, adding that Akko could set the standard for coexistence.
“This could be the model for the Middle East,” he said.
“We believe everyone will come to Akko to learn about coexistence issues and how to create very unique projects,” she said, noting that the city manager already has received numerous emails and phone calls about the center from other organizations seeking to investigate opportunities to host projects at the facility “and to get knowledge of the model.”
ACAT is a “developing story,” explained Strickland. “But so far, so good. We are off and running big time.”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.