Jewish Alum Who Funded Palestinian Friend’s Tuition Is Still Helping Everyone Get Along

Katona with his friend Omar Dreidi. Katona raised nearly $100,000 for Dreidi’s education after he learned that the Palestinian student could not afford tuition fees.

Joey Katona is an affable guy. He’s warm and friendly, the kind of guy who draws people in.

Yet despite that, or perhaps because of it, the 2010 University of Virginia graduate said he has always been drawn to conflict – not because he is spoiling for a fight, but because he loves to resolve and learn from it. 

“I am attracted to difference, to otherness,” said Katona, who earned his degree in politics and leadership and now works as a conflict mitigation consultant assisting the Transportation Security Agency. “I like putting myself in situations, personally and professionally, where I can broaden my perspective.”

As a high school student, that impulse led Katona, who grew up in a Jewish household in Los Angeles, to Seeds of Peace, a summer camp and leadership program focused on youth from conflict regions. There, Katona met Omar Dreidi, a Palestinian teen who grew up in the contested territory of the West Bank. The two spent two summers together, and quickly became best friends.

Like many teens, they talked at length about their hopes for college. Though Dreidi had been accepted to Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana, he could not afford to go. Katona, only 17 himself, decided to do something about it.

“I was naïve and idealistic, and thought how unfair it was that I would have the opportunity to go to college and he wouldn’t, simply by luck of the draw,” Katona said.

During his four years at UVA, Katona raised nearly $100,000 to pay Dreidi’s way through school, primarily through direct fundraising campaigns and local press coverage.

Though he admits it was difficult at times, his dedication paid off. The funds Katona raised, combined with some scholarship money and income from Dreidi’s work-study program, supported the Palestinian student through four years of undergraduate education. Dreidi went on to earn two graduate degrees and now works at a sports agency in Los Angeles, pursuing his longtime dream of working in sports management.

Their close friendship – they still talk frequently and reunite when they can – has also significantly influenced Katona’s life and career.

He has continued to seek out those who are different from him, as evidenced in everything from the organizations he joined on Grounds to his marriage – his wife, Rebecca, was raised practicing Christianity in the Midwest. The couple met in 2011 through mutual friends.

Professionally, Katona has continued to gravitate toward conflict management. He earned a masters degree in conflict analysis and resolution from George Mason University in 2015. Now, as a consultant with Eagle Hill Consulting in Washington, D.C., he serves an agency that manages conflict every day: the Transportation Security Administration.

Katona travels all over the country to meet with various parts of the agency, which manages not just airport security, but the security of all public and ground transportation. His mission is to prepare transportation officials and stakeholders to quickly respond to and resolve potential conflicts, including terrorist attacks, active shooters, cybersecurity threats and more.

“We assess how well an organization is prepared for a terrorist event or other emergency response,” Katona said.

The exercises he plans, facilitates and evaluates often include hypothetical scenarios and live-action drills simulating an attack on city streets or transportation assets and reviewing different responses.

Outside of work – and in a slightly less charged environment – Katona also co-founded of SPACIOUS, a community-building nonprofit that he started with his close friend, author Cary Umhau.

Umhau and Katona bonded over a common desire to get Washingtonians out of their individual “bubbles” and build connections between different groups. Their relationship – Umhau, a Southern Christian grandmother, is fairly different from Katona – provides one example of the organization’s goal.  

“We wanted to get people in D.C. to use their free time in ways that they might not otherwise, and to meet people that they otherwise would not meet,” Katona said. “We felt that our friendship was a microcosm of what was possible.”

SPACIOUS has hosted numerous community events in Washington and in a few other cities, ranging from film screenings and scavenger hunts and discussions on music or art to pop-up dinners and comedy. Though Katona’s demanding work and family schedule – he and his wife have a 14-month-old son – has lessened his involvement over the last few years, he was able to help organize one recent event in Charlottesville in collaboration with Theological Horizons, a “flash table” right in the middle of UVA’s Corner held Oct. 6.

“Members of the UVA community baked homemade pies and we simply invited passersby to sit down, relax, be treated with dignity and just have a piece of pie and an interesting conversation,” Katona said.

In just an hour and a half, Katona talked with a woman whose son had recently been killed and a gay man who had recently come out to his conservative family, among others.

“I think events like these are tools for having conversations that might be really difficult,” he said. “People bring up things that might otherwise be taboo.”

In a way, the conversations at that table encapsulated all that Katona is doing in his life and career: seeking out and listening to people from all walks of life; understanding their concerns and reminding us how much we can learn from conflict and difference.  

Media Contact

Caroline Newman

Senior Writer and Assistant Editor of Illimitable Office of University Communications