Steven (Shmuel) Aiello’s mother recalls her oldest son running around their Brooklyn neighborhood from a very young age, chatting up everyone in sight. The boy clearly had built-in people skills that have continued to serve him – and Israel – well.

He’s taken his quest for person-to-person diplomacy to Arab countries and he’s interned for the American Islamic Congress and the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. As vice-president of the Model UN Club at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, he paired together Israeli Arab and Jewish high-school students to debate the creation of a Palestinian state.

He proposed in Barcelona to a Jewish Dartmouth College student of Cherokee descent from Nashville, the Tennessee city where they married on March 18. They met at an Arabic language course in Haifa and later visited Egypt, where Aiello sat at a Ramadan breakfast with a Muslim shopkeeper. All of this with a kippa on his head and a ready smile on his face.

BROOKLYN TO ELIZABETH TO TEL AVIV

Born in 1988, Aiello grew up in a strongly Zionist home. His parents took him and his four siblings out of their haredi (ultra-Orthodox) schools to march in Manhattan’s Salute to Israel Parade every year.

In 2008, the family moved to Elizabeth, New Jersey. Shmuel wanted to spend the following year in Israel, so his synagogue rabbi arranged for him to meet with the Israel guidance counselor at the more Zionist-leaning Yeshiva of Flatbush. “I said, ‘I’m looking for a very serious yeshiva,’ and he gave me three or four ideas, including Birkat Moshe,” a hesder yeshiva in Ma’aleh Adumim. “He asked if I spoke Hebrew and I said, ‘Not really, but I can learn.’ I was in Birkat Moshe for 18 months and I came out speaking Hebrew. I had Israeli friends and I had traveled all over the country and had gotten a feel for it. That was when I fell in love with Israel and decided I was going to move here.”

Aiello returned to America to study at New York University, earning a degree in economics in record time. Despite a full course load, “I co-ran Israel activities and I organized cultural events, speeches and rallies. I joined every Israel-related group and fellowship I could. It was all great fun till January, when [Operation] Cast Lead happened and then the dynamic at the university changed completely,” he recalls.

“You really felt the difference in terms of public attitude toward Israel. But we had a really nice rally for peace in Washington Square Park and got a lot of newspaper coverage.”

Aiello made aliya at the end of June 2009, finishing his last credits at NYU’s new satellite program in Tel Aviv. In August he studied Arabic in Haifa, a course he’d heard about at a Young Zionist Leadership Retreat in Florida.

That’s where he met Eliana Ramage.

“She had just spent a high-school semester in Cairo, so she had a bit of background in Arabic,” Aiello says. “We sat together; she’d read and I’d help with grammar and translation. At the end of the program she had to go home through Cairo, so we went to the Sinai and Cairo. After she flew out, I bummed around Cairo having interesting conversations with people in half-Arabic, half-English and a little bit of Hebrew.”

On Shabbat, he was the sole worshiper at the Adly Street Synagogue in Cairo.

CHAMPION OF RELIGIOUS FREEDOM

His next stop was the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he studied law for a year and participated in one-on-one Jewish studies programs with new immigrants, Israelis and students from abroad. “At the end of the year, I started interning for the American Islamic Congress, writing a blog on religious freedom. I would research the English-language parts of Egyptian websites and sometimes links in Arabic that someone in my dorm helped me translate, and I wrote a weekly summary on news about religious freedom in Egypt.”

In August 2010, he spent a week interviewing activists in Cairo. “I felt there was a lot of movement to promote civil society and even secular society,” he says. “People on the street were generally receptive of Christians and Jews and were most critical of the minority Muslim sects and converts from Islam.”

Aiello then transferred to IDC and continued law studies online through the University of London. He lived in Jaffa with a roommate.

In June 2011, he arranged to meet Ramage in Barcelona on her way back from Fez, Morocco, and asked her to marry him.

While earning his master’s degree in government at the IDC and taking law school exams, Aiello found time to co-edit the academic journal of the Women in International Security – Israel, and to head the Middle East desk at Wikistrat, a geostrategic analysis firm founded in Israel in 2010. But the real jewel in his crown has been Model UN. “We went to the Netherlands last year as a national Israeli team – five Israeli Arabs, 10 IDC students and four from the University of Haifa – and we wound up winning six of the 26 awards out of 500 participants.

Israel’s Model UN is very new, so that was awesome. And I got the Best Delegate award at the end.”

REPRESENTING ISRAEL IN DUBAI

This year, the closest Model UN conference was in Dubai. After confirming that he could enter on his American passport, Aiello booked a ticket along with an American friend in Israel for the year. He intended to share essays written by Arab teens from Tira and Jewish students from Jerusalem, each describing one thing they like about Israel and one thing they want to change about their society.

But the Russian organizers told them they couldn’t mention the word “Israel” or even “Jew.” Disappointed but undeterred, Aiello later posted all the essays on Facebook and emailed them to the conference participants.

“I found that everyone I met there has been very open-minded and given interesting insights,” he says.

Soon afterward, he began preparing students at the Petah Tikva Young Ambassadors Program, and students from Tira, for a big debate in English. “We picked issues they’d be interested in, and decided on Palestinian statehood, but no one seemed capable of arguing the opposite viewpoint. So we decided to bring the two groups together.”

At the two-hour debate, attended by parents, siblings and the deputy mayor of Petah Tikva, 25 Jewish and 25 Arab teens paired up to represent UN member countries. “Most of them hadn’t met before, although some had exchanged emails,” Aiello says. “They had a fruitful debate; they argued really well and passionately in their countries’ roles. Everyone was smiling at the end. They created a Facebook group less than 12 hours after the event, and I hope there will be followup friendships and debates.”

He strongly believes that populism is the best avenue toward rapprochement. “If peace comes via government declarations and treaties I’ll be happy, but personally I have little faith in the long-lasting efficacy of government-led negotiations, and I feel the best and only long-term solution is grassroots – economic or educational – bringing people from the different societies together.”

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