For the fifth consecutive summer, just a few weeks from now, young girls and boys – Jews and Muslims and Christians – will travel thousands of miles across the world from the Holy Land to meet one another for the first time. Such meetings in their part of the world don’t happen easily. For the most part, their neighborhoods are separate, their schools are different, and their daily routines take them on their own distinct paths.
Here in Texas they will have a chance to pause in the hilly woods of Camp Allen and share their life experiences and the conflicts that divide them back home. They will be encouraged to envision different ways of living with one another.
And before they return to their homes, they will enter church, synagogue and mosque and share their new perspectives on how human beings might actually take care of one another, and how instead of victims, they can be part of the solution.
These annual gatherings have evolved over time through the support of Palmer Memorial Church and other religious communities and their commitment to opening young minds so that reconciliation may be possible in the Mideast.
The program is managed by Jerusalem Peacebuilders, a nonprofit organization formed in 2011 as a positive response to the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, which began the international summer camp experience in Texas in 2012. Jerusalem Peacebuilders continues to expand its mission in Israel and the West Bank through the development of curriculum that prepares students for the summer camp experience in the United States. The courses, which explore topics of identity, communication, leadership, peacebuilding, conflict transformation and social justice, will be taught in 11 schools throughout Israel and the West Bank including Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Ramallah, Nazareth and Haifa.
“Bringing the curriculum to the Holy Land is the biggest opportunity we have right now,” said Stuart Kensinger, Jerusalem Peacebuilders’ Founding Director. “It’s an opportunity to effect systemic change in the Israeli school system.”
In addition to the development and implementation of coursework for both Jewish and Arab schools in Israel, Jerusalem Peacebuilders manages all the complex tasks, including international visas, air tickets and lodging, involved in bringing young people from the Holy Land to the United States in the midst of contentious times.
Currently, it runs summer youth institutes in Connecticut and Vermont, as well as in Texas. Almost half the youths attending are Arab, with the rest divided evenly between Israelis and Americans. The group is almost evenly divided between boys and girls, and roughly 25 percent are Jewish, 25 percent are Christian, and close to 50 percent are Muslim. The organization also hosts adult programs in Jerusalem and New England.
This year the summer camp in Texas will be held from August 3 through August 13. The first six days will be spent at Camp Allen and will explore how Judaism, Christianity and Islam inform the way God instructs humanity to care for the planet and one another. The participants will be asked to develop statements that will help them to share their learning back at home with their parents, grandparents, teachers and friends. They get to share those statements for the first time when they visit Jewish, Muslim and Christian communities in Houston.
It will be during that portion of the time that the group visits Palmer Church which, under the leadership of the Rev. Neil Allan Willard, is exploring reconciliation through a number of programs, including the Community of the Cross of Nails and pilgrimages to the Holy Land. (The next pilgrimage is scheduled for Easter 2018.)
“We at Palmer Church believe reconciliation is a vital ingredient for world peace,” said Willard. “Jerusalem Peacebuilders helps young people build a dialogue necessary for the development of common ground. Through prayer, study and spiritual friendship, they create a safe space where understanding can take hold and begin to grow.”
"Without Jerusalem Peacebuilders a lot of these kids would never mix,” said Kensinger. “But it’s not just enough to bring people together. You’ve got to bring people together in a way that they become motivated and skilled to effect change in their societies.”
Finally, the organization works to support the youngsters back at home where their messages won’t always be well received. “We make these young people vulnerable,” said Kensinger. “They are swimming upstream when they return to their homes. So we need to support them and their families and their schools by creating a structure that both exposes and supports them.”