I walk into my bunk and I am amazed by what I hear. All of my campers, Israeli, Palestinian, Egyptian, and American are running around the bunk, hugging and high-fiving, wishing each other “Shabbat Shalom”.
It is Friday night at Seeds of Peace International Camp, after an “open” Shabbat service, a service where any camper is invited to celebrate Shabbat with Jewish campers (and counselors) to learn about Judaism. I helped lead the service, and began by teaching “Bim Bam,” with its unforgettable chorus of “Shabbat Shalom.” That night in my bunk, I saw how this simple music choice, with its catchy refrain, could be such a uniting, joyous force for my bunk of kids from around the world. It did not matter that some of my campers never had a Jewish friend, or had even met a Jewish person just two weeks earlier. Once they learned the meaning of Shabbat Shalom, they proudly went around exclaiming the phrase to the entire bunk, with huge smiles on their face.
This moment was possible due to Seeds of Peace, the international summer camp I worked at this past summer. Seeds of Peace was founded in 1993 by the late John Wallach, the Foreign Editor of Hearst newspapers. He started Seeds of Peace to provide an opportunity for the children of war to plant the seeds for a more secure future in their countries. In its first summer, only 45 American, Israeli, and Palestinian boys came to camp, but 19 summers later, Seeds of Peace has seen over 4,000 campers, or “seeds,” pass through its camp in Otisfield, Maine.
Cory is in the front row on the very left.
The seeds participate in a very normal sleepaway camp schedule, including sports, arts, and even a ropes course. The main aspect of the Seeds of Peace camp that would be unfamiliar to the American camp-goer is a daily dialogue session. Dialogue is a 90 minute session where each camper meets with their dialogue group, a diverse grouping of seeds from their conflict region as well as two professional facilitators. In dialogue, the seeds are encouraged to speak to each other openly about their conflict, share personal stories, and challenge their engrained stereotypes about people on “the other side.” Through this intense dialogue process, trust and respect grow within the dialogue groups.
This is how the seeds can develop the skills and understanding needed to advance reconciliation and coexistence back home and become leaders in their communities.
One more thing about dialogue: What happens in dialogue, stays in dialogue. Even though I learned immense amounts about the Middle East while at camp, most of the time my campers did not want to discuss dialogue with me. They just needed me to be an amazing counselor, like a counselor at any “regular” sleepaway camp. There were, however, times that more personal sides of the conflict would come out in our cabin. I cannot forget the night that my Egyptian camper talked for two hours straight about growing up in Mubarak’s Egypt, with little opportunity, poor social services, and loads of corruption, and then the joy he felt when all Egyptians united during last spring’s revolution.
It is difficult for me to succinctly write down how I feel about my Seeds of Peace summer. All I know is that it was the best thing I have ever done. Every day I learned about the lives of individual kids who are living through conflict. In addition, every day I was able to positively affect these kids, whether it was cheering up a camper who was feeling upset or teaching the camp the meaning of Shabbat Shalom. All of this happened far away from conflict, on the beautiful shores of Maine’s Pleasant Lake.
Speaking of Maine, the Maine state motto is, “Maine: the way life should be.” At Seeds of Peace, we live by the motto, “Seeds of Peace: the way life could be.” Seeds of Peace allows a group of Muslims and Jews to come together to wish each other Shabbat Shalom. This may have happened far away from the Middle East, far from the tension that pervades these kids’ everyday lives, but it did happen. Treaties are made by governments, peace is made by the people. And I know that my seeds are going to be the ones in their home countries as the leading peacemakers, ensuring that their kids will grow up in a world without Seeds of Peace camp, because peace will already have been achieved.
To learn more about Seeds of Peace, please visit www.seedsofpeace.org.