By Lily Katz , Special to JTNews
Come August, Jewish, Christian and Muslim youth from Jerusalem and Seattle will spend 10 days learning about each other’s faith traditions and cultural backgrounds while engaging in peace building.
The camp, to be held in Mount Vernon, is organized by the new Seattle chapter of Kids4Peace, a national nonprofit organization that brings kids from Jerusalem to seven cities around the United States. Seattle is the newest addition.
Here’s how it works: Leading up to the 10-day summer camp, kids ages 12-18 and their parents in the United States and in Jerusalem attend monthly meetings in their respective cities to get to know one other and discuss conflict and identity. When summer comes, the young people from Jerusalem visit one of the seven U.S. cities to meet with their American cohorts.
Ideally, kids begin the program at age 12 and participate for six years, or until they’re 18. Since 2002, when the program first began, the retention rate has been very high. The Boston chapter, for example, which is in its fourth year, has only lost one of its 36 participants.
“The kids are mature enough to spend 10 days away from home, but at the same time, they’re young enough that they’re still really open-minded,” said Jordan Goldwarg, the Northwest regional director of Kids4Peace. “They’re open to meeting people who are very different than themselves and having positive interactions with them.”
A typical day at camp looks like this: Half of the time is spent in a dialogue session, in which kids do creative projects and discuss peace-building and how conflicts emerge. The campers talk about things like how individual identity is different from group identity, and constructive ways in which to solve conflict. The second half of the day includes typical camp activities like swimming, hiking, sports and arts and crafts. The Mount Vernon campers will take day trips to Seattle and attend services at a church, a synagogue and a mosque.
“Here in Seattle, I think that there’s a lot of interest in doing something like this,” Goldwarg said. “There are fairly substantial Jewish, Muslim and Christian populations in the city, and it’s a fairly progressive and globally minded city where there’s a lot of interest in other parts of the world. The level of enthusiasm and interest in this has been astounding.”
The first camp will take place at Camp Brotherhood in Mount Vernon Aug. 7-18. The Seattle chapter has already begun looking for participants by reaching out to religious communities and schools, and by doing media outreach.
“It’s pretty phenomenal,” Goldwarg said “For the kids coming from Israel and Palestine, the friendships that are formed are actually very genuine, meaningful and lasting. It creates a community of people who are doing this together, so it gives them the strength to keep doing it despite the pressures they’re facing.”
It’s not unusual for participants to receive criticism for attending the program, and to be accused of being spies or traitors, added Goldwarg. But despite this, Palestinian children who have never had a Jewish family in their homes will often invite over their new Israeli friends, and vice versa. Jewish kids will invite their Muslim friends to their Bar or Bat Mitzvah, and Muslim youth will invite Jewish friends to break the fast during Ramadan.
In addition, participants will often stand up for one another in school when their peers are badmouthing the other side, Goldwarg said. Even after one year of the program, these youth will have developed a newfound sense of openness and curiosity.
“We provide a safe space where people can talk and where people can listen and where people can be listened to,” Goldwarg said. “For families who are skeptical, it’s reassuring to know that it’s a place of openness, a place of honesty.”
Hamdi, a participant from Jerusalem, testified to this. She said the program is like a second home.
“Kids4Peace for me is a place where I express everything in my heart, especially the violence that is happening between Israel and Palestine,” she said.
Becca, a Kids4Peace alum from Atlanta, also speaks highly of the organization.
“The young nervous girl that I was at 11 has become a person who is much more aware and outspoken about the injustices brought about by uninformed and misinformed prejudice,” she said.
The program was started in Jerusalem by Henry Carse, an American Episcopal priest, who lived and worked in Jerusalem during the second intifada. His idea was to bring kids out of the conflict zone and allow them the opportunity to have fun and get to know each other. The goal for American youth, said Goldwarg, is to equip them with a better understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and allow them to become leaders in helping solve that conflict. It also serves as a good model for examining conflicts here in the United States.
The camp costs $1,200 per year per family for the summer camps and the sessions that lead up to it, though the program itself costs about $3,000 per participant. Kids4Peace receives most of its funding through donations, and works hard to make sure kids with little resources aren’t turned away.
“There are so many people who have never met or had a meaningful interaction with someone from the other side,” Goldwarg said. “These kinds of person-to-person programs where individuals from across the line of conflict get to meet each other have such an incredibly humanizing impact.”
Lily Katz is a student in the University of Washington’s Department of Communication News Laboratory.