The Front Porch: Joe Abi-Khattar breaks bread

Column By John Warren

Joe Abi-Khattar shook his head when he saw a picture of himself in the International Order of the King’s Daughters and Sons Scholarship student program.

“I look like a terrorist,” he said.

His four housemates got a good laugh at that.

Let’s blame it on bad lighting. In fact, Abi-Khattar — like the other IOKDS Scholarship students who stayed at Bonnie Hall this summer — is a kind, smart, young man, and he’s the benefactor of an eye-opening summer experience in Chautauqua.

My family shared Bonnie Hall with these five young men from around the world during Weeks Three and Four. The five were part of the 2015 King’s Daughters and Sons Chautauqua Scholarship Program, along with seven women, who stayed across the campus at Florence Hall. The program offers young Christians the chance to experience Chautauqua at no cost for four weeks.

Two students, Abi-Khattar and Guy Karam, are from Lebanon. Another two, Gabor Balla (the piano player) and Peter Ori, are from Hungary. The last, Danny Ruiz, is from Phoenix. The boys “adopted” my 9-year-old son, Zachary, and played Uno and chess with him. Karam declared Zachary his best friend.

Two houses down from Bonnie Hall is the Zigdon Chabad Jewish House. That’s insignificant without a little history of Lebanon.

Following the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, Jewish emigration from Lebanon began. Now, the Lebanese Jewish population is virtually non-existent. Israel and Lebanon have almost perpetually remained in a state of war. In most of Lebanon, opinions of Israel — and by extension of the Jewish people — range from ambivalent in some parts of the country, to hostile. Lebanon bans its citizens from visiting Israel or doing business with Israelis.

Abi-Khattar is an electrical engineering student in Lebanon. He’s from a city called Batroun in Northern Lebanon, a bucolic, mostly Christian coastal city on the Mediterranean. It’s a relatively open-minded place, he told me.

Still, he had never met a Jewish person.

One of the IOKDS house mothers pointed out out the Friday Challah bread baking two doors down. He was intrigued, and he went.

First, a faux paux. A collection plate was passed, and Abi-Khattar didn’t have any money.

“I was kind of embarrassed,” he said.

Things improved. The hosts explained the history of Challah bread, and Abi-Khattar made a loaf. I saw it in the Bonnie Hall kitchen afterward. Is Challah bread supposed to be black on top? No matter.

“The atmosphere was a lot of fun,” he said.

He baked bread. He spoke with his Jewish hosts. He played with their children.

“I wish we could be as accepting to those people in Lebanon as they were to me,” Abi-Khattar said. Yet, he knows many Lebanese families are still healing old wounds from war.

Barriers are shattered in Chautauqua in a way the veal pens of talk radio and break room water coolers could never facilitate. Catholics eat Lutheran cookies on the brick walk after Mass on Sundays. A young Muslim woman talks about why she doesn’t wear a hijab in a building named the Hall of Christ. Same-sex couples wash dishes alongside octogenarians in communal kitchens. A little boy’s future Mideast outlook is sculpted by a “best friend” who patiently teaches him the nuances of rooks and bishops. And a Lebanese man bakes and breaks bread with Jews and confirms what he suspected, that the difference between them is, well, nothing.

“Chautauqua is a really encouraging atmosphere,” Abi-Khattar wrote to me, a couple weeks after returning home. “When you are there, you know you want to do stuff you would never do outside of that place.”

The International Order of the King’s Daughters & Sons, which has its world headquarters at the Benedict House on Vincent, is a Christian charitable organization that leaves an impactful, far-reaching footprint. Its Chautauqua Scholarship Program is open to 19- to 25-year-old college students. For more information on the IOKDS and its scholarship program, visit IOKDS.org.

John Warren is a writing coach and columnist for The Chautauquan Daily. Visit John on Twitter @johndavidwarren or by email at johndavidwarren@aol.com.