At a summer camp in Mount Vernon, Washington the campers do plenty of classic camp activities.
“Yesterday there was tie-dye, sports, swimming,” says Riva, a camper from Bellevue.
But Kids4Peace ultimately has a deeper purpose. The camp brings Jewish, Muslim and Christian 12 year olds from Washington state together with 12 year old Palestinians and Israelis, from Jerusalem, for 12 days.
“Where I live everyone is Jewish,” says Meital, a Jewish girl who lives between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. “There’s different varieties of Judaism where I live but there’s no Muslims or Christians. But I have met Arabs before.”
Meital’s lack of exposure to other cultures and religions is exactly why the camp was established.
“The organization was started in Jerusalem, in 2002, during a time of pretty intense violence in the Middle East, in Israel/Palestine in particular,” says Kids4Peace Northwest regional director, Jordan Goldwarg. “And the goal has always been to bring kids together to talk about their religion, their culture, their heritage and to learn from each other. Also, just to have time and opportunity to be kids together and to grow up in a safe environment.”
Twice a day, between weaving friendship bracelets and roasting s’mores, the kids are led through some pretty deep discussions.
“Learning how to be a better listener. Learning how to build trust with other people. Learning how to see different perspectives and different sides of a story,” Goldwarg said. “We also spend time everyday engaged in interfaith learning. So the kids really start to understand: What does it mean to be Jewish? What does it mean to be Muslim? What does it mean to be Christian? The values of each of these faiths lead us towards peace.”
Aviva, a Christian camper from Bellingham, says kids can make a difference in the world.
“It’s us who can make the change,” Aviva says. “The adults have already made up their minds and most of them are not going to change in their lifetime, or at least not enough. So I think before we grow up we need to start actually doing something, not just hearing about it. But actually going out and spreading the peace.”
Aviva says she’s always tried to be open minded, but camp has definitely taught her some things.
“On TV and stuff people are always talking about how bad Muslims are because they’re killing people. But that’s only, I think somebody said here, less than one percent worldwide. The [media is] kind of ruining [the Muslim’s] reputation, I guess. They’re making people think they’re all bad, but they’re really not.”
For the kids who live in Israel, their lives depend on peace. Meital says she is glad to be around likeminded thinkers at camp.
“Not a lot of my friends have the same point of view and most of the time I go out crying because they scream at me,” Meital said. “Most people say [speaks Hebrew] which is ‘death to all Arabs.’ It’s very hard for me because now I have Arab friends and Muslim friends and a lot of friends that are different from me that I can’t share with people because they don’t have the same points of view.”
Achmad, a Muslim from Jerusalem, says he plans to take the message of peace back home.
“I’ll tell them to not fight. No, we don’t want to fight. We need to be peace. We need to peace,” he said.
If this sounds a bit heavy for camp, it is. But all the kids I spoke to enjoy these conversations.
“Sometimes fun is not everything,” says Rimaa, who is Palestinian. “Sometimes you have to be serious.”
Kids4Peace is a six year commitment. It involves annual summer camp in different locations around the country, and in Israel, and monthly meet-ups so the kids stay in touch, keep up their friendships and these meaningful conversations.