July’s Leadership Camp at Acer Farm in Brattleboro was nothing short of amazing. The Muslim, Jewish and Christian teens, counselors, volunteers and guest educators harmonized to produce important breakthroughs in their relationships and understandings. The twelve days together in Vermont were a powerful time, and the positive feedback has been overwhelming.
The Leadership Camp’s goals were threefold. 1) To develop greater responsibility, initiative, self-expression, communal awareness and good-will in each individual. 2) To deepen personal, national and religious connections between American, Israeli and Palestinian youth. 3) To strengthen the campers personally, intellectually and spiritually to be effective leaders and peacemakers for a future beyond the status quo.
Personal Development: The political and religious challenges in Israel and Palestine are complex, and substantive transformation requires maturity. The Camp program focused on developing that maturity. Our daily leadership seminar taught positive communication and conflict management skills. Regular group counseling and learning sessions with guest educators like Ambassador Philip Wilcox, Imam Bilal and military officers Erez and Nour fostered both self-expression and communal awareness. Chores of cooking and cleaning reinforced personal responsibility and accountability to the group. The purpose was to nurture the teenager’s character and confidence in order to realize that history’s conclusions are not forgone and they are not obliged to perpetuate their grandparents’ war.
Deeper Relationships: Personal relationships are everything in the Middle East. They are how one navigates impenetrable bureaucracies and limited opportunities. The Camp’s small size, high adult-camper ratio, daily routines, recreational and religious programs focused on encouraging those essential relationships. Over the course of twelve days the campers argued and played, confronted each other and themselves, laughed and prayed. They shared meals and worship, learned to canoe and horseback ride, and listened to the truth and made new friends. With the result that even when the group reached bitter impasse, they refused the temptation to give up on each other’s humanity or on our God’s promise of peace. The peace of Jerusalem will be built on that trust.
Effective Leadership: Overcoming the knotty obstacles to peace for two peoples and three religions in one land will require creative leaders. The Camp’s program challenged these Muslim, Christian and Jewish teens to learn their limits as leaders and to expand them. Integrated rooming arrangements and interactions with religious leaders helped them confront bigotry and moral indifference. (Imagine speaking to an imam for the first time.) Learning new sports and frank conversation in the group counseling sessions helped them confront fear. (Imagine walking in a dark forest for the first time.) Wrestling with the presentations of diplomats, philosophers, politicians and military officers helped them see a truth and a possibility for their land beyond what they have known. (Imagine acknowledging the justice of your enemy’s cause for the first time.) The key to peace is leadership.
How do we measure the camp’s success? It is a good question, and at this early stage of our work, our answer can only be if one of teenagers responds deeply to the program and commits his or her self to peacemaking either as a clergy person, politician, aid-worker or camp counselor then that is the mark of success. We are delighted to report that not one but three of our teens returned home to Jerusalem intending to become committed peacemakers!
God’s grace abounded throughout the entire effort. Among the other life-giving surprises we experienced were the forging of dynamic partnerships with Kids4PeaceUSA, Combatants for Peace, the Foundation for Middle East Peace, and the Building Abrahamic Partnerships Program at Hartford Seminary; witnessing the wisdom and ability of the counseling staff; designing and painting a highway billboard that will hang around the country, courtesy of Barrett Outdoor Communications; and the filming and production of a short video about the camp, courtesy of Brooklawn Productions.
The two great strengths of the Leadership Camp at Acer Farm are the small, carefully selected group and the religious emphasis. The former allows for an intense, transformative experience. The latter emphasis opens up a powerful but largely neglected resource for Mid-East peacemaking. We plan to leverage both these strengths for the benefit of the campers and staff next year’s July camp.
Thank you for your prayers, encouragement and generous support. We believe that the history of Jerusalem is the history of the world. Peace is possible in Jerusalem, but peace is for the strong. Therefore it requires patience and determination, and this is always difficult. We hope that you will choose to remain part of this pioneer work.
By The Rev. Nicholas Porter
Camp Coordinator & Host