BRATTLEBORO -- A person driving to the Brattleboro Kids4Peace camp might be taken aback when their GPS announces, "You have reached the end of your navigable route. Please get out and walk."
Evidently not all GPSs recognize the dirt road in West Brattleboro on which Acer farm is located. Although not very helpful in getting a person to their destination, in some ways, the GPS is right. The route that Kids4Peace has taken, in partnership with Jerusalem PeaceBuilders, isn't navigable. There is no map to show these brave kids and brave adults the way to go.
Adults and kids alike receive harsh blowback from their communities, and, in a few cases, excommunication from their families, because of their participation in Kids4Peace. But the project has grown and continues to grow steadily under the loving, passionate guidance of people who, having been inspired by the organization, have contributed their time, their ideas, and their selves to the work of building peace.
Ben, a Jew from Jerusalem, explained that, despite the flaws in each narrative, understanding the way that both Israelis and the Palestinians view their history is key to unlocking the humanity behind the violence.
"Both narratives are right, and both are wrong. We are all mistaken," said Ben, 15, one of the campers at Kids4Peace.
Ben is one of twelve 15- and 16-year-olds attending the Leadership Camp at Acer Farm. He and his mates are Israeli, Palestinian, and American Jews, Muslims, and Christians.
The camp is housed in a cozy wooden cabin owned by Rev. Nicholas Porter and his wife, Dorothy, founders and directors of Jerusalem PeaceBuilders. A luscious green hill stretches up from the backyard of the house, and beyond the trees, there is a swimming pond. During the two weeks of camp, this idyllic setting turns chaotic. The campers run around, play games, and share both conspiratorial high-fives and household chores.
The hope is that this warm, country setting; close living quarters; and shared housekeeping responsibilities will foster a feeling of family between the kids. Watching them tickle each other as they fight over who gets to sit in the comfy armchair, it's easy to conclude the plan has worked.
Although it is clear that the kids here have built strong friendships, the journey has been long, and it is far from over. Most of the kids have known each other for years. The Kids4Peace program is a four-year long sequence. At 12 years old, the kids attend one of the many First Year camps located around the United States.
When Kids4Peace started, in 2002, the First Year camp was the only part of the Kids4Peace program. Naomi Rouach, one of the counselors at Acer Farms, explains that the first year is about learning that people on both sides of the conflict are human. Helping out with the First Year Camps as a Jewish Advisor, she loved watching "the kids be kids with each other." The First Year camps brought kids out of Jerusalem and gave them a safe environment where they could get to know each other, both as kids and as intellectuals. But, after the camp ended, the kids went back to Jerusalem -- a city of wall and fences; of churches, mosques, and synagogues; and a city of great segregation.
Rouach and Reeham Subhi, another counselor, began to ask "now what?" Does the peace-building process end after one camp? What happens after the kids leave the camp, leave the United States, and go back to their highly segregated neighborhoods? Rouach pointed out that, in Jerusalem, the kids are "scared to go into each other's neighborhoods."
Not wanting to waste the opportunity, Rouach and Subhi became co-founders and co-directors of the Continuation Program, a two-year program designed to bring the kids together, not only when they go to camp in the States, but also when they are back home in Jerusalem. The Continuation Program consists of regular meetings with the kids. At the program, they get to know each other on a deeper level -- they visit each other's neighborhoods and sacred spaces, they volunteer together, and talk about ideas like racism and identity. Also, the Continuation Program brings in speakers to show the kids different models of peacemakers -- from musicians to politicians.
When the young adults at Acer Farms were asked why they returned to the Kids4Peace program year after year, Raneem, a Muslim from Jerusalem, said the she came back because of the "people she met." Dala, a Muslim from the same neighborhood as Raneem, said that "she was sure there was more to learn and discover."
The First Year camp does a good job of whetting the kids' appetite for peace. It is the subsequent programming that shows them some tools. In the words of Emily, a Christian camper from Georgia, the first year was about "realizing what needed changes and what was wrong with the world," the next steps in the program were about "how to execute change."
Over the course of the Kids4Peace sequence, three families -- Christians, Jews, Muslims, or Palestinians, Israelis, Americans -- become one family. Watching the teens interact and listen to each other, it is clear that they have developed tremendous respect for one another as individuals. However, like most, this family has problems. The teens each struggle with the conflict in their own way.
Emily, as an American, struggles with her role in the camp, and, on a larger scale, struggles with what role she thinks the U.S. should be playing in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Nadia, a Palestinian Christian, is very open to religious diversity, but struggles to become more accepting of political differences. As a basketball-playing and car-loving Arab woman, Nadia also struggles with her place in Palestinian society and has expressed the desire to leave the Middle East if and as soon as she can. Nadia said that she would love Palestinian culture were she a man, but doubts her agency as a woman.
Another camper, Dala, knows that she wants to dedicate her life to helping, but does not know how she can achieve that goal.
An outsider looking at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can easily succumb to feelings of hopelessness. This temptation must be even greater for children growing up with the harsh realities of the conflict. It is difficult to retain a belief in hope in a world of checkpoints and terrorism.
Porter said that sometimes the campers are "a little too aware of their challenges." It is Porter's job to organize the curriculum for the fourth year Leadership Camp. Porter, who has extensive experience working in, studying about, and travelling the Middle East, has the difficult job of giving the kids a solid understanding of the nuances of the conflict, while fostering their belief that change is possible.
The curriculum at Acer Farms often uses religion as a jumping-off point for analysis. Porter said what makes his camp unique is that he isn't "scared of religion," because religion is an "essential part of identity." In the Middle East, "religion informs who you are," Porter said.
The kids at the camp are encouraged to engage with their religion at their comfort level. They also get a chance to experience the other campers' religions up close, and no one is expected to perform the religious rituals of any other group.
At camp, the kids discuss the differences and similarities in their traditions. On Monday, July 1, Rabbi Michael Cohen, Director of Development at the Friends of the Arava Institute and lecturer at Bennington College, led a discussion about the story of Abraham. Abraham is an important figure in all three traditions, and a good place to begin when noticing the differences in each religion's traditions. Cohen also highlighted Abraham's land dispute with his nephew, Lot, which began a discussion on land conflicts that was non-confrontational, but still constructive.
Porter emphasizes that each "faith can help other people be better," he brings in speakers from each faith to bring "a Christian word for Muslims and Jews" and so on. The Abrahamic traditions have many commonalities, but over the centuries certain aspects have grown dusty in one faith, while they are emphasized in another faith. There is much to learn from one another.
The goal is to create "a chain of peace," said Porter. At these camps, the kids learn about each other's faith, politics, and humanity. The hope is that they will share what they have learned with their friends and in their communities. Some may even become peacemakers. But they will all be good neighbors and good friends.
Kids4Peace continues to add camps, growing in scale and assimilating new talents and new ideas. Next year, Kids4Peace is slated to start a camp in Israel, which would help lower income Israelis and Palestinians gain access to the organization's amazing work. Next year, as well, some of the kids from the Brattleboro camp will learn how to become Kids4Peace counselors themselves, and the chain of peace will continue.
Lillian Podlog will be a junior at Williams College, in Williamstown, Mass., in the 2013/2014 school year. She is visiting Brattleboro this summer as an intern at the New England Center for Circus Arts.