It’s not “and they all lived happily ever after,” but it is a story about peace. As youth from the Jerusualem Peacebuilders (JPB) Leadership Institute in West Brattleboro, Vermont, return to points in Israel and the United States, their epic stories are still being written. The most compelling chap- ters are yet to come, no doubt. They’ll tell of places in conflict. Places they call home.
The teens are not new to this work. A couple are Kids4Peace alumni. Some have participated in Model United Nations, and several have experienced the JPB Service Learning Program in New Haven, Connecticut. They are familiar enough to know that peacebuilding—despite its grand aspirations—can be difficult, lonely work. So, they are eager to meet again, to engage their differences, and to discover ways to lead themselves, their families, and their communities into a future that works for everyone.
The teens are familiar enough to know that peacebuilding—despite its grand aspirations—can be difficult, lonely work.
I visited a few weeks before camp began and couldn’t help but notice a copy of One Thousand and One Nights collect- ing dust on a tiny shelf in the staff building. Several small stacks sat like cairns on random surfaces around the room. “We’re moving some books from the cabin to the staff lounge,” said the Rev. Canon Nicholas Porter, “Young people are more interested in workshops, each other, and sports. They’ll journal. They’ll play. They’ll argue. They’ll flirt. But to expect them to read is a tall order.” Wi-fi, for the most part, is for staff use only. Unless they are Face Timing their families at designated times, JPB youth remain unplugged. In an age where books are like museum pieces—to be admired more than read—there is only one other option: Human interaction.
Once camp was underway, I paid another visit to JPB’s Acer Farm location. It was chillier than
normal for a mid-July afternoon, but the youth were taking it in stride, warming the cabin and the outdoor spaces with casual, lunchtime conversation. Hala, 18, an Israeli Muslim, wished Donia, a Palestinian Muslim, a happy eighteenth birthday, and then the two joined Yam, a Jewish Israeli, in the garage/classroom for an afternoon session with their peers. Some of us live within 20 minutes of each other,” exclaimed Amit, a young man from Israel, “but we never have this chance to visit.” He’s one of three people named at Amit at this year’s camp. There is also a Yasmin and a Yasmeen. This gets a laugh from the group every time it’s mentioned. It’s one of several tender moments that reminds them of their shared humanity.
The lesson for today is acting. Method acting, to be specific. The instructor explains how drama helps individuals to be more authentically human. And the irony is lost on no one. In today’s challenge, the teens will be asked to take off their masks—the roles that family, friends, and community expect them to play and simply be.In today’s challenge, the teens will be asked to take off their masks and simply be. First they wander the room like zombies then dance with reckless abandon, finding the courage to be their authentic selves. Next, they take turns doing improv, practicing the empathy to be someone else. The hour is as powerful as it is fun. “Practice hard,” the Rev. Porter tells them. “You’ll have to do a skit at St. Michael’s this Sunday!”
Public engagement is, in fact, an critical aspect of the JPB curriculum. More than just show-and-tell for future applicants and sponsors, public events build the teens’ confidence and prepare them to engage teams, organizations, and movements back home.
In addition to their visit with St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, JPB co-hosted a movie screening with the Wind- ham World Affairs Council on the Israeli-Palestinian con- flict. The teens led group discussions with the attendees, at least 50 of which were Iraqi youths who had never be- fore met an Israeli Jew, Palestinian Muslim, or Christian.
In the end, it all adds up to hope—hope that these young peacebuilders will write new stories of pluralism and interfaith citizenship in the Middle East. Stores of dignity inspired by their all-too-brief summer in Vermont.