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.

Hassan| I Saw a Change

Eventually I’d like to return to Jerusalem to work in the politics of the region.

Originally from Jerusalem, and now a university student in Menton, France, Hassan Abu Dalo descends from a Muslim background. He says that coming into Kids4Peace, he had little knowledge of his own religion. He grew up in a Jewish neighborhood and attended a French school with a diverse student body. He had scratched the surface of different cultures, but K4P gave him a chance to go a step further and learn more.

What attracted him to the program was the opportunity to face both sides of the conflict in a community where opinions and experiences could be shared. I wanted to learn more about his experience, and what he’s up to now. I was grateful to have the opportunity to sit down and chat over Skype, and here’s some of what I learned.  Interview by K4P International Intern David Rowan.

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“My family accepted [my participation in K4P] very well, in fact my dad is part of the steering committee in Jerusalem, my brother is a participant, and some of our neighbors signed their kids up as well. It had a good impact on our local community and was very well received.

The first time I arrived to the US, I expected for whatever I had seen on TV to be reproduced in real time. At camp, I instead saw a different side of American youth: more open, intelligent, bright, interesting, and understanding.

During those two weeks, you build these small temporary communities where you forget what was in Jerusalem by building a new chapter where everyone is there for each other. It’s like a clean slate, and all of a sudden people want to learn about, listen to, and play with each other.

The K4P leadership program is a point when the conversation gets serious, and it’s easy to listen since you’re already acquainted [with each other].

One of the first years of camp, it occurred to me that I had never seen so much food being wasted, and I voiced my concern to an advisor. During dinner, he called me to speak in front of everyone. I went up and sort of started to panic, being only 12, and thinking, “What do I say?” In the end I managed to say something, and in the days that followed, I saw a change, and I saw that what I did was good, and I felt good about it. It changed peoples’ attitudes, and I never would have done that if not for the advisor who pushed me to speak out. It’s something I’ve even used that story on my CV!

There was one friend who I became very close with, we participated in both K4P as campers, and then later in Leadership Camp. He’s Israeli, I’m Palestinian, and we managed to keep our friendship going, though lately it’s been tough since he’s started his mandatory military service. The thought of seeing him one day at a checkpoint with a gun pointed is troubling, we’re no longer on an equal level.

In France you meet people from all around the Middle East, and they are generally willing to engage in talking about the conflict. The conflict is even taught at my school, we had an Israeli ambassador come and speak about it. It’s easier to relate to a personal perspective of someone coming straight from the conflict, instead of just basing their opinions on what they hear on television.

I study social sciences at my school, which was conceived to educate future leaders of France and worldwide. Eventually I’d like to return to Jerusalem to work in the politics of the region.

First Leadership Camp

 

Maddie | Close Friends

 That’s what I love about K4P: I get an inside look into what others believe is the way to start solving problems and becoming peacemakers.

As a high school junior living in Waterbury, Vermont, Maddie Baughman was one of our youngest counselors in 2013. She participated in Leadership Camp in 2012, and waIMG_1516s a camper before that.

Maddie comes from a Christian family, but doesn’t describe herself as highly religious. When she’s not studying, she spends time helping out with her parents’ composting business, working at a local bakery, playing basketball, participating in theater, and daydreaming of joining Kids4Peace again!

“Kids4Peace is anything but abstract. We have the rare opportunity of getting to know and love amazing people from halfway across the world—and that’s real,” she notes. She loves learning about the array of cultures and religions represented at camp. She doesn’t take for granted her ability to take part in K4P. She feels lucky to have so much support, and knows that can’t be said for all participants. That’s one reason she hasn’t hesitated prioritizing K4P in planning her last few summers.

Keeping in touch with campers and counselors alike has helped her to stay connected to the cause. She says she and her K4P friends “discuss everything from our favorite types of cars to political and social occurrences, such as Israeli involvement in the Syrian civil war.”

I caught up with Maddie to get a more in-depth understanding of how her experience with K4P changed her outlook. Here’s what she shared:

“I’ve definitely learned a lot about what the day to day experiences are for those I’ve met through Kids4Peace. As a result, my family and friends hear a lot about what’s going on too. When it comes to talking about the conflict, I don’t think people know where to start. That’s what I love about K4P: I get an inside look into what others believe is the way to start solving problems and becoming peacemakers.

I picked up a lot of skills as a counselor, namely leadership and listening. One night, there was some religious disrespect going on, and intentional or not, there were hurt feelings. With the help of the other staff members and counselors, we were able to get the campers to understand each other and resolve the issue.

As counselors, we got to explore how we can be leaders. It was a powerful transition from camper to counselor, suddenly becoming an adult in this world of conflict. The intermediate time (Leadership Camp) was the place where we learned the most, had the best conversations about the conflict, and could talk about what was really going on. People were serious, and it got intense at times, but we also had a lot of fun. Between us, we built respect and trust, the fundamentals of long lasting friendships.

The Americans that participated in this year’s camp in Houston brought their learning and hope back home. They were very enthusiastic when they came, and even moreso when they left. They brought that to their friends, communities, and households. It’s important for people everywhere to understand the different perspectives of people living in conflict in the Middle East, as well as other places around the world—including the US. The US is a great place to host the camps so that we as Americans can understand what’s going on over there.

I’m still in touch with my friends from K4P, I feel as close to them as I do with my friends at home. We bonded over exploring different cultures, languages, religions and their respective ceremonies, noting the similarities and differences. I really enjoyed that.

K4P helped stir my interests when it comes to thinking about college. I’m curious about global studies and international relations. I’ve come to realize that regardless of where you live around the world, it’s possible that we’re all still able to connect on a personal level.

 K4P has definitely caused me to examine what I want to do with my life and how I want to be a positive influence on the world. In day to day conduct it’s important to understand people as people rather than what makes them different. It’s been a wonderful way to learn about myself and who I want to be.”

At Kids4Peace we’re all on the same level, we interact with each other as other people, rather than people from different countries.

– Interview by David Rowan, K4P International Intern

Maddie - Houston 2

Maddie - Houston

Hagop | K4P Changed My Perspective

Back when I was a kid I had thoughts about revenge, and I have experienced an amazing 180 degree change—I’m really happy. I have hope and faith that there will be peace, maybe not my generation or my kids’, but we have to work for it and teach our kids the right way.

Hagop is an Armenian Christian living in Jerusalem.  He was a K4P camper in 2004 and has been involved ever since, as a counselor and now a Christian advisor.  

hagop-headshotThe last time I went as a camper was in Atlanta, 8 or 9 years ago, but I remember it like it was yesterday. It was an amazing experience that really exceeded my expectations. I learned so much, and it helped my personality develop. We have all this conflict between Jews, Christians, and Muslims here in Jerusalem, and the experience taught me to accept everyone.

It’s not that the conflict is between only Muslims and Jews, it’s more between Arabs and Israelis. I never felt left out of the conversation. The media often triggers tension by focusing on religious differences, but that’s not always how it is. Living here, you see it. There is also conflict between Christians and Muslims, but less often because we feel as though we are one united nation.

When you speak about peace anywhere in the West Bank, people will say, “We’ve been talking about peace for 60 years and we haven’t seen anything different.” People are tired of talking about peace, they want action, they want all that’s been said to be done.

You can’t teach an old dog new tricks. You’ll almost never get an older person to believe there will be peace. When you work with young kids whose minds are open and who want to learn, they learn from their surroundings and their personalities are built through what they see on TV, what their families think and what their parents say.

So when you teach those kids that peace and harmony is possible between conflicting parties, they grow up and teach their children who then teach their children and so on. Just one child taught about peace can get excited, interested, and serious about the matter can make a real change.

My family descended through the Armenian genocide. What happened to us then was not easy, and what we are going through now as Palestinians is also not easy. As a Christian we have to forgive, but not forget. It’s stressful having that history, all the torture and evil things my ancestors experienced. It’s not easy, but for now we have to learn to get along and hope for the best.

Kids learn everything from their surroundings, their parents, and especially the media. I never thought I’d have Jewish friends. All the talk is about how they’re treating Arabs badly, killing them in cold blood. As a 12 year old kid, you just get the wrong idea. At first participating in K4P was a little hard, but then I started to notice those kids are exactly like me aside from language and religion. I was then able to accept Jews and realized there is no bad nation, just bad individuals.

At a meeting before we left to Atlanta, there was a guy called Amichai, and we started to become close friends. I was trying to talk in Hebrew so the Jewish families could understand better, even though there was an interpreter—I wanted to be challenged. Amichai came over to me as I was speaking some in Hebrew and some in English and he starts helping me remember certain words. That was the moment I thought, “Wow, this guy is nice. I like him, and he’s not as bad as I thought he was.”

A few years ago I was asked to become a leader in K4P. I was very excited when I learned that Michal was going to be the girls’ leader. We had been at the same camp in 2004, and stayed in touch. So to see how the kids were learning and interacting, it brought us back to how we were. We never realized any of it would matter in the future, but having that history with each other really helped us both.

I go to Bethlehem University in the West Bank. Conflict comes up every single day, especially coming and going, dealing with the checkpoints. There are many conflict related topics to study at school as well. It’s sad to say but I wouldn’t see an organization like K4P as very popular at my school. Even my close friends think that what I’m doing with the organization is a waste of time. They tell me, “You know it, I know it, there will never be peace.” But deep down inside I like to hope and pray for peace worldwide.

Business wasn’t my first choice as a major, I always wanted to be a pilot or engineer. Flying planes as a Palestinian person, especially after 9/11, is nearly impossible. My father owns a business, and any job in the world requires business, medical or anything else. So I thought that was a wide goal for me, and after I get my BA I can decide if I want to go in a particular direction. My dream is to make what my father built—a travel agency—bigger and stronger by widening the horizon with new partnerships, and see what happens from there.

Communication is so important. I try to keep in touch with K4P alumni to see how they are doing, where they are in life, how they are progressing. Even just a 5 minute check-in goes a long way. These relationships are built stronger by communication.

Having K4P in my life really changed me, I never thought I’d be the man that I am today. Back when I was a kid I had thoughts about revenge, and I have experienced an amazing 180 degree change—I’m really happy. I have hope and faith that there will be peace, maybe not my generation or my kids’, but we have to work for it and teach our kids the right way.

I’m interested in recruiting for K4P, helping to grow our diversity. We’re not teaching religion, it’s the door we come through to teach kids peace. I consider us farmers, planting peace seeds in the kids’ hearts and we can grow with them, teach them how to stand up straight so in the end they will be fruitful with their children and grandchildren.