Bill Strickland has a pretty lofty goal, and one that might seem like a flight of fancy — for anyone else.
Strickland, the founder and executive chairman of the Manchester Bidwell Corporation, wants to change the world. And if the success of the Akko Center for Arts and Technology (ACAT) in Israel is any indication, he just might do it.
Strickland was at Rodef Shalom Congregation on Sept. 23 for the opening of “CONNECTING,” a photographic exhibit featuring the work of Arab and Jewish teens who are learning not only marketable job skills, but how to get along with one another.
The 31 photos in the exhibit, which runs through Oct. 31, showcases the technical prowess of the students as well as the relationships fostered between them.
ACAT is modeled on Manchester Bidwell, a Pittsburgh nonprofit that has proven that at-risk populations can thrive when allowed to learn in an environment of respect and beauty. For the last four decades, it has reversed the negative trajectory of scores of Pittsburghers through such avenues as photography, horticulture, ceramics and the culinary arts, boosting individual confidence and providing people with skills they can use to find jobs.
ACAT was founded by Mark Frank, a Pittsburgh attorney and longtime associate of Strickland’s. Since November 2016, ACAT, following in the footsteps of Manchester Bidwell, has provided photography and three-dimensional printing training to underserved youth, while at the same time supporting coexistence among Jews and Arabs. In less than three years, ACAT has trained more than 1,400 students while providing a space for young Arab and Jews to learn, work and socialize together.
Strickland has been touting ACAT’s success worldwide, and by doing so, has sparked interest in creating similar centers in various locales including in India, South Africa and throughout Israel, he told the 70 people gathered at the opening reception for “CONNECTING.”
“The center in Akko is bearing huge dividends,” Strickland said. “And I’ve decided the real conversation is to use this model in Akko in many places in Israel. So, just in case you thought we were finished, we are at the beginning of the conversation, not the end.
“I’ve got my eye on Haifa,” he continued. “We’ve got our eye on Tel Aviv. We’ve got the model. The thing works. We know we can do this all over Israel, preferably yesterday. Because we are running out of time.”
Because of the success of ACAT, Strickland has garnered the attention of the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu, he said. He also had the support of Shimon Peres, who died just two months before the opening of ACAT.
“Shimon Peres, the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu are now part of our kitchen cabinet,” he quipped. “This is not just about one center. I’ve decided the game is let’s change the world.”
ACAT is “one of the first facilities in Israel that really is bringing people together,” explained ACAT CEO Naim Obeid, in town for the exhibit. He noted that the center’s student body is 50% Arab and 50% Jewish.
“It’s a safe environment,” he said. “It’s amazing every time to see these kids find a way to connect. We have a lot to learn from them.
“We are very proud of what we are doing,” Obeid continued, adding that ACAT is also providing jobs to adults from underserved communities.
The images in the photos, showing Arabs and Jews getting along together through shared art “is really true,” Obeid stressed. “The kids are connecting because they have a universal language.”
In addition to photography and 3-D printing, ACAT recently began offering film editing, according to Obeid.
“I think the best thing we give them is the ability to express their feelings through the lens,” he said, which often is a more comfortable medium “to talk about sensitive issues.”
Frank expressed gratitude to Rodef Shalom.
“I don’t believe the Akko Center for Arts and Technology and all the good that it has done in the Western Galil would have been possible without this congregation’s help,” he said, noting that the honorarium it gave to Strickland as part of the Pursuer of Peace award he received in 2012 funded the project’s feasibility study.
Frank also read a letter written by Ahlam Doawd, a teacher from an Arab village who was initially doubtful that her students would come together with Jews at ACAT.
Her concerns were soon allayed.
“They began to wait for meetings, among other things, to meet with their friends from the other school,” she wrote. “They had their pictures taken together and also took pictures together, worked on common designs, exchanged telephone numbers and became friends on social networks.”
Moreover, even the students who had assumed they would drop out of the course “became interested and wanted to learn and know more,” she added. “They began to believe in themselves, their self-image rose, their motivation for learning increased.”
“This is where it begins, in my opinion,” Frank said. “This was transformational for them both in terms of their own self-esteem and coexistence.” pjc
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at