Voting and Democracy

by Rebecca Sullum, Jerusalem Co-Director

“You know, I actually voted in these elections. I am registered in a swing state, so I felt that I had to vote,” I yelled on top of the noise at the US Embassy Election Celebration in Tel Aviv. I was speaking to Mohammad, my colleague of 5 years, and his wife.

I hadn’t told most people that I cast my vote this year for the first time in U.S. elections at the age of 35. I always held the belief that I should only be voting where I was living, and although I hold dual citizenship in Israel and the USA, I have only lived in Israel since the age of 14 and therefore had only ever voted in Israel.

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With Trump versus Hillary, this election seemed different, more polarizing, more important to vote. So I did. I have now taken part in the democratic process in Israel and the US, something that I should be proud of, something that should be a basic right to all people.

A moment after confiding in Mohammad, I started to feel that sick feeling at the bottom of my stomach, that feeling when you realize that you have asked the wrong question or said the wrong thing, and I suddenly remembered that Mohammad and his wife have never voted.

As residents of Jerusalem, by Israeli law they can’t vote in the Israeli national elections. They also had never been able to vote in the Palestinian presidential elections. During the previous PA presidential election in 2005 there were voting booths in East Jerusalem for Jerusalem residents, but there were many obstacles in the way including inadequate numbers of workers and a general feeling of fear at the polls. Therefore Mohammad and his wife had never voted for their leadership.

So here I was in the middle of the US Embassy Celebration in Tel Aviv celebrating American democracy while my colleagues and friends can only celebrate others’ right to vote.
This seems a bit ironic, to celebrate others’ democracy and freedom while you can’t celebrate your own.

My evening started with a lot of enthusiasm and excitement but took an unexpected turn, and now at midnight I sit here writing this blog, feeling torn and wondering what I can do tomorrow for the freedom of all in Jerusalem.
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Growing up in Kids4Peace

1559567_929199380430648_1875217463551991434_n The past two summers, I found myself coming home from Kids4Peace camp with the same question: Why religion?
Religion creates all of the problems in the world, I find myself thinking again and again. Let it go, forget about it, it only causes pain and suffering. Yet I always find myself coming back to it. Why?

Maybe because it is simply how I grew up, or maybe because it makes me feel good, like being part of something greater than myself, part of a community. Regardless of the reason, its impact on my life is undeniable. Whether I am joining my parents for a Friday night prayer service at their small community synagogue, or lighting the candles that sign the beginning of the Sabbath in my new apartment, I always get a tingly feeling inside.

I volunteer for an organization called Kids4Peace. After being a camper in this program as a kid, now as an adult I have been volunteering for over 3 years.  Alongside my childhood in the Jewish-American-Israeli world of West Jerusalem, Kids4Peace is like my second home, and it has opened up doors to a different understanding of religion then I would have, had I not been a part of Kids4Peace.

Kids4Peace has changed my life in many ways by challenging my view of the world and widening my perspective on the way I feel about religion in particular. I came to an understanding that religion is our common ground, and not what divides us.

When I was younger, I felt that religion was a tool; a tool that I was given to create groups in the world in order to differentiate between me and them, right and wrong, good and bad. Essentially, I felt that religion was a tool for me to create “the other”.

 

Since having been a part of Kids4Peace– the perspective I hold now has changed. I still believe that religion is a tool, however, this tool can and should be used to draw people together instead of tearing them apart. We should dare to build friendships with people who are different from us in religion, skin color, and even cultural practices. That way we can grow to be more tolerant and accepting of those who are different than us, realizing that even though we may not have the same perspective on ideas of “normal” or “right”, being open-minded enough to both listen and share with others is the key for letting religion draw us together. We should dare to LOVE everyone, including “the other”, and then we should dare to keep that love even when facing our differences that sometimes challenge our own beliefs. With the goal of love in mind, we can use religion as a tool to help us grow together, and closer to each other, rather than apart.

 

In Kids4Peace we work on creating, building and maintaining friendships. It’s always friendship first, conflict second. Kids4Peace’s methodology, which over the years has become my own methodology as well, is that if I am friends with this person, if I care about this person, if I love this person, then I need to learn how to hold that love together even when things like difference in belief, religion, and culture make it challenging to see this person as similar to you. If I have done this – I have succeeded!

 

I see the world and humanity as whole, as a body with immense potential to build, create and love. We just need to be guided by the right people, and be willing to open ourselves up to new and different opportunities.

 

In Judaism we have a well known saying “ואהבת לרעך כמוך” (“Love thy neighbor as thyself”), (-Leviticus , Chapter 9, verse 8). Rabbi Akiva’s interpretation of this verse is that we should love our neighbor as we love ourselves. Thanks to a good friend, whom I met this past summer while working together at camp, I have come to a recent understanding that perhaps Rabbi Akiva had it all wrong. We should love our neighbor as themselves and not as ourselves because maybe being equal to one another does not necessarily mean being the same. Perhaps instead equal means having the same right to and capacity for life, love and happiness, no matter the differences in our beliefs and practices of what life, love and happiness means. My neighbor may not be like me, therefore I cannot love him as I love myself, but I can grow to accept and love him/her as him/herself.

 

At Kids4Peace we work very hard on making sure everyone feels equal. Every single kid gets equal attention from the staff no matter what is their religious or cultural background. This experience has allowed me to come to my own understanding that we must see each kid based on who they are as an individual, not based on the judgements or stereotypes of their religion or culture. This way we can learn to see past the boundaries of differences and learn to love one another as individuals having their own unique experience.

 

So why religion?

10560354_10204441571901114_6827573235899721355_oReligion is a tool I was given by my parents and by God. But Kids4Peace has  taught me how to use it , to help build a better world: a society with a better future, a society which doesn’t love their neighbors as who they themselves are, but as who their neighbors are, a society that loves the other because they are different, and not in spite of that.

I wish everyone a year of peace, love and understanding.

A shanah tovah u’metukah.

A good and sweet year.

Naomi reflects; “We listened to the youth to build a program that met their needs.”

by Naomi Rouach, former Co-Director of Education

Naomi joined Kids4Peace in 2006 as a Jewish Advisor and since then, together with Reeham Subhi, she founded Leap, Roots, Leadership, and Counselors in Training programs in Kids4Peace. Naomi studied Judaism and Christianity at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and has a teaching certificate from Kerem. Naomi completed the Seeds of Peace advanced facilitation course, which helped prepare her for her most recent position as co-director of education. Naomi recently stepped down from her role in Kids4Peace as she, her husband and daughter Natalie Sarah recently moved to the Big Apple– New York City. Kids4Peace will miss having Naomi on staff, but knows that she and her family are part of our community forever!

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“There are few places I can call home. Kids4Peace is has been one of the few for over seven years. I joined Kids4Peace while studying religion and education at Hebrew University in 2005. I was ambivalent to join the program because I had no experience and intercultural work and well, I was distrustful and afraid of Arabs.

When Yakir Englander first asked me to join as an advisor I told him “no”. I don’t like to be persuaded to do things, but months later when he still had not found a suitable volunteer Yakir was able to convince me to join. To my surprise, I immediately fell in love with Kids4Peace.

The children melted away all my preconceptions. Their energetic and hopeful spirits rubbed off on me. As fall neared and summer faded away it was unfathomable to me that the youths’ new friendships would fade away too. That year we began our continuation programs. Very informal at first, we met for pizza or a movie at my parent’s house and at youth’s homes. We went on our first seminar to Ein Gedi.

The following year I met Reeham and we immediately became good friends and colleagues. We planned the second Kids4Peace seminar that took place at Givat Haviva. Over the next few years, together we built the Leap, Roots, Leadership and Counselor in Training Program. Dedicated to the program, inspired by the youth, we listened to the youth and tried our best to build a program that met their needs.

I went on and studied facilitation so we could make more out of the youth dialogue sessions. I still remember the fear I felt the first time we truly enabled the youth to talk about the “situation”. The youth had voiced that it was important to them to share their experiences and opinions with one another. As educators, Reeham and I felt that it was imperative to offer the youth an opportunity to hear the voice of the other and allowed all the youth to be heard. Still, we feared the repercussions. What would parents think? Up until then we had only spoken about religion, and dealt with the conflict on a very basic level. What would outsiders think? Would they label us as a political organization just for allowing voices to be heard. Would the youth be able to hear one another? Would it break up the group? Would we be able to handle whatever came up?

Acknowledging our fears and concerns and with the support of the Kids4peace team, we decided to take a leap forward and I believe it is one of the best decisions Kids4Peace ever made. I am proud to have been part of this growth.

Today, in Kids4Peace, we have youth dedicated to peace, not out of naiveté but out of an understanding that there is room in Jerusalem, in Israel and Palestine for different voices to be heard and that we can live together, with our differences. While I officially leave my position at Kids4Peace this week, it is only a technicality. Kids4Peace is in my heart, is my home and I take my home with me wherever I go.”

 DSCN1788ogj8389epMtKwqCEn4jRr40HRqlAoywRIS7XOoP6CIY 315391_10151050136361703_937209051_n   10377078_10154317035190434_6839337099533503270_nThank you Naomi! We miss you already an look forward to your return!

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