By Pascale Mondesir
Mark Appel does not like the spotlight. It’s a Wednesday morning and the silver-haired, Jewish, lifelong New Yorker is flying around his Flatbush venue, The Bridge Multicultural and Advocacy Center, and fielding calls from the speakers preparing for day two of the Visionaries Leadership Conference, a networking event to promote intercultural visions of prosperity. The conference is a collaboration between The Bridge and the Caribbean Israel Leadership Coalition, an organization that fosters collaboration between Caribbean countries and Israel through means of communication and innovation. It’s difficult to get him to talk about anything else but this today, or ever.
“I don’t like to focus on myself,” he answers quickly when pushed to answer more personal questions. “All the attention should be about The Bridge.”
Appel started The Bridge in January 2014. He owned a building that had empty space and decided to put it to good use.
“We felt there was a need,” explains Appel. “It’s easier to socialize with a person when you meet them in an elevator, than having an actual meeting.”
The Bridge hosts dinners, blood drives, conferences, supports impactful legislation, teaches basic computer literacy courses, holds conferences and take trips together and more, all with the goal of introducing activists, advocates, politicians and everyday New Yorkers to people they may not normally engage with and work towards solutions for social justice issues plaguing the city.
Haitian groups often collaborate with other ethnic organizations in various meet and greets to get the different communities acquainted with each other, which is a key vision that Appel has for The Bridge. Several Haitian organizations have come through the venue and used it as a space to gather with like-minded communities and hold special events. In 2016 Peter Helder Bernard, the Consul General of Haiti, held a Haiti Relief Mission at The Bridge, where they collected supplies to send to the country. The Haitian-American Community Coalition often collaborates with other Caribbean organizations to offer resources such as music classes and leadership empowerment events.
Around the two-story beige venue hangs pictures of local and national public figures that have graced The Bridge in the past. They also rent out the space to other groups with like-minded goals. There’s no talk of politics here, just unity in action. It’s not necessarily a novel idea, but it’s not often you hear of these specific communities coming together, especially now, at a time when the nation has fractured ideas about race and immigration. Which is why Appel founded the organization. He strongly believes in the power of communication. When he speaks, it’s fast and persuasive, like a salesman, except the product he’s peddling is unity as a key to positive change.
“Where else do you have a Moraccan woman, a black district leader with a right-wing Zionist with a Haitian leader all together?” asks Appel, referring to a recent event.
Many ethnicities have rolled through The Bridge, but the Haitian community has captured the admiration of Appel. One of the The Bridge’s board members, Margarette Tropnas, is a Haitian woman and was one of the first people he brought on to manifest his vision for the center. She is also the founder of a museum soon to be built by The Bridge. Appel says he was the first person to urge Haitian Councilwoman Farah Louis to run for office, and did all he could to support her campaign.
“I met Mark Appel about six years ago,” Louis wrote in an email. “ Mark was launching the Multicultural Bridge Project and I was assigned to advance my predecessor at the event and Mr. Appel introduced himself to me and we immediately connected, discussing our mutual passion for community and culture.”
Their relationship strengthened and Appel began to see how impactful Louis could be in her community and urged her to take on a stronger role.
“Besides my family and very close friends, Mark was one of the first people to see something in me that I did not see in myself,” said Louis. “Whenever Mark saw me in the community, he would encourage me to identify my life’s purpose. I was petrified not because running for office is a challenging and arduous process, but mainly knowing my qualifications wouldn’t make room for me and that I would be shunned but my heritage and the birthplace of my parents would refrain any opportunity from having a seat at the table.”
Her heritage proved to be, not a barrier, but a strength. She smoothly won her city council seat earlier this year.
An unknown history
Appel’s love for Haiti is not so random. There have been strong ties between the caribbean country and Israel for decades. In 1947 Haiti was the final deciding vote in favour to create the state of Israel with the United Nation’s partition of Palestine, a fact Appel warmly tells others. On March 18, 1949, Haiti became the 48th nation to recognize the State of Israel. After the tragic 2010 earthquake in Haiti, Israel was one of the first countries to send aid immediately and set up a viable medical center to save lives.
“I have so much respect for the Haitian community,” Appel says. “They are the hardest working people I know, resilient.”
Most of the work done at The Bridge is funded by Appel alone. Before this, he ran a school for special needs children in the same building as The Bridge for twenty years before shuttering its doors seven years ago due to insufficient funding.
“Mark is a giver,” says Tropnas. “He is very generous and always offers his support as best he can. He really has found a way to unite cultures.”
Last July, Appel paid for nine Haitian women, including Tropnas and Louis, to go to Israel for ten days to explore the ancient city and become acquainted with a new culture.
“That was a historical change for me and the whole group,” says Appel. “We were able to share experiences. I was able to be at the birthplace of Christ with my Christian brothers and sisters. They were able to be with me and saw me in prayer at the Wailing Wall. We were all there together to support our Muslim friends as they worshipped at a mosque. To be able to share with each other and to see that, I’ll never forget it.”
Tropnas had the same sentiment.
“The trip was the experience of a lifetime,” says Tropnas. “I grew up in a Christian household and it was always a dream to go to that place. We had experiences that we normally we would not have.”
It is rare to come across a white, American man that is eager to gather people from different backgrounds together in hopes of finding common ground. But this goal has not only been the backbone of his professional life, it’s a priority that his parents instilled in him as a child. His mother and father are no strangers to the cruelty of racial hatred. Both of them were interned in camps during the Holocaust. His father was ordered into a Hungarian war camp while his mother spent two years at Auschwitz, the notoriously torturous and deadly concentration camp.
According to Appel, his mother saw her parents perish right in front of her. She slept in a cupboard and ate one bowl of soup. When she was freed, she saw the kindness of the American soldiers. One of them was a black man, the first one she had ever seen.
“She told me when the Americans came to free them, ‘I looked at their faces, they were white, yellow, blue, all colors, from all nationalities,’” recalls Appel. “And they represented freedom and respect for all.”
His parents met afterwards and left for New York in a boat in 1946 and stayed here until they passed, Appel says. His mother died at 83.
“Thanksgiving was the greatest day in our house,” says Appel. “They never took it for granted for one second to give thanks to others.”
At his office, he brings up the trip to Israel again, a vacation that singularly exemplified his vision for a more unified country, regardless of nationality and ethnicity. He rewatches a video on his phone of them at a prayer service to end the week’s Sabbath. In it, Christian believers, Haitian women, and Israeli-born Jewish people wrapped their arms around each other while smiling, singing and swaying to a hymn. In another video he introduces the camera to his Palestinian friend that he reunited with on the trip and thanked him for his friendship.
There is a kindness and simplicity in the way in which Appel sees people. Over the course of world history, people have come up with various reasons to discriminate against those who don’t look like them, but that mentality does not make sense to Appel.
“It’s so much more fun to love than to hate,” he declares. “Why would a person go through their whole life complaining and hating things? Maybe I’m being selfish, but it’s self-destructive to go around hating, you know? For what?”