By Joel Magalnick, Editor, The Jewish Sound
The vast difference between the deep green valley outside of Mt. Vernon and the dusty Jerusalem hills these two-dozen 12-year-olds call home was the first clue they had entered something potentially life-changing. For these kids, divided evenly among Jews, Muslims and Christians, their first summer with Kids4Peace brought them together with kids from the U.S. to learn about each other’s religious beliefs, build skills in empathy and conflict resolution, and — because it’s camp — have a good time.
Omar, one of the Muslim kids from Jerusalem, said he joined the program because he wants to make change.
“I was tired of facing conflict and racism every day,” he said.
What Omar has found is a community of peers.
“We’re slowly learning about each other’s faiths and religions, and learning about each other and learning about our differences and similarities,” he said.
Joining the 24 kids from Jerusalem are 10 more from the Seattle area, plus one from Houston, and nine teen counselors that hail from both parts of the world.
Kids4Peace launched in 2002 as a grassroots program on the East Coast, and has grown to eight locations across the U.S. The intent is to bring kids of the three faiths together, starting at age 12, and keep them involved year-round in the program and with each other until they graduate from high school. While the first years are devoted to building their peacemaking skills, by age 15 these kids are learning how to ask and discuss the hard questions about the ongoing conflict. At the same time the kids meet, so do their parents.
“It has become a very powerful experience to be able to meet people from communities that they otherwise would have very little exposure to,” said Jordan Goldwarg, who runs the Seattle Kids4Peace program.
This year, its first in Seattle, is an attempt to turn the camp into a more professionally run program. That includes a partnership with Camp Brotherhood at the Treacy Levine Center outside of Mt. Vernon, which according to Fr. Josh Thomas, Kids4Peace’s executive director, “was built for us,” he said. “We feel that our mission and their mission are so well aligned that we’re excited to have a home here.”
The camp, a 200-acre facility devoted to interfaith relations and peace building, was founded by two close friends, the late Rabbi Raphael Levine of Temple De Hirsch and Father William Treacy, a Catholic priest.
Thomas, an Episcopal priest who runs the program from North Carolina, said Seattle has rallied around Kids4Peace in its first year.
“We have a lot of community support, a lot of people who are making this possible: Deeply involved parents, religious leaders and friends across the community,” he said, “so I’m excited to see what comes to life here.”
Both Goldwarg and Thomas noted that this year was a difficult one given the war in Gaza.
“After about three weeks of a lot of tension where people really withdrew into their homes and their own communities, we started little by little gathering again,” Thomas said. “Folks from across the lines of conflict started realizing they do have a partner on the other side.”
Goldwarg noted that none of the families dropped out of the program due to the war.
“Every single parent said, ‘We want our kids to go, we want them to have this experience,’” he said.
Thea, a Christian camper from Jerusalem, knew about Kids4Peace because her brother has gone through it. “I’m happy to be here,” she said. “I’ve learned that the most important thing is to listen, because if you don’t listen you just miss this stuff.”
The entire camp takes part in services from each religion, and Annika, a Christian camper from Seattle, said she found the Shabbat services very educational.
“I learned also a lot about the Muslim tradition,” she added.
Though the counselors are on-site to work with the kids, they’re getting an education as well. Ala, a Muslim counselor from Jerusalem, said the youngsters have found creative ways to connect to one another.
“The kids, from the beginning, they saw each faith as a group,” he said, “but now you can see that they are all knit together, making new friends.”
Sarah Rose Shuer, a counselor from Redmond, learned about Kids4Peace through the Livnot Chai Jewish community high school program.
“I’ve been really wanting to be part of something that would make a big change in the world, that’s making a difference,” she said. “I feel like a lot of Americans don’t understand what’s going on, especially kids my age, so I’m going to be informing them and educating them about what’s going on and try to promote peace within my own school.”
According to Goldwarg, the annual cost for each camper is about $3,000. Families are responsible for $1,200 of that cost, with additional scholarships available to those who need it. The majority of the balance comes from private donations, with some additional foundation funding.
The campers and counselors acknowledge that they are on a difficult path, and that for some even taking part is a big risk. While most have support from families, it’s not always the case with their friends.
“A lot of people say there’s no way, it’s an impossible mission,” said Ala. “But if you believe it, and you can live it, yes it can be. Just believe in it and dreams come true. Why not?”