This past summer, with the help of a Partners for Progressive Israel travel grant, I worked as a General Counselor intern with Project Harmony Israel, an English-language summer camp for Arab and Jewish youth. The camp was developed in partnership with “Hand in Hand”, the only integrated bilingual public school system in Israel.
Project Harmony offered me the opportunity to work with Jewish, Muslim, and Christian children. This experience opened my eyes to the tremendous difference between how Israeli children of different faiths relate to one another, in contrast with how many adults, and certainly politicians, of different faiths relate to each other. Initially, I had no idea regarding which of “my” children (my group consisted of ten to twelve children, 10-11 years old) practiced which religious tradition. We were not told their faiths prior to the program and the children did not self-segregate in any visible way. The children played and interacted with each other as any other “mixed” group of children would.
It was not until I established more concrete relationships with the children that we began to talk about their religious backgrounds. One Armenian Christian girl who spoke English particularly well told me, “Yeah, me and Ya’ara [a Jewish girl] are best friends. We live next door and play together everyday. What’s the big deal?” She also pointed out, “You see her and her? She’s Jewish. She’s Muslim. They’re friends. Who cares?” Her indifference concerning each child’s religion, which seemed to be shared by all children in the Project Harmony camp, really struck me. Whether it was in teambuilding, sports, theater, or free time, the children played with one another as just that - children. Not everyone necessarily got along with everyone else – after all, there is no such thing as a utopian society – but any feuds that developed throughout the summer did not stem from religious reasons.
It is important to take into consideration that Project Harmony is composed of a select group of children coming from relatively liberal backgrounds. Moreover, the majority of campers attend the Hand in Hand school during the year. This bilingual public school system incorporates peace and coexistence programming into their general curriculum.
Nevertheless, my experience at Project Harmony gave me hope for a generation that does not care about religious, cultural or ethnic differences, will be open to the “other,” and will want peace in Israel. This experience reinforced my desire to pursue my long-term goal of returning to the region to work further with children in interfaith settings. Furthermore, it inspired me to seek opportunities to work with Jewish and Muslim children here in the United States.
My internship allowed me to develop a greater understanding of the Israeli education system, especially the Hand in Hand school system. I learned about the limited educational opportunities for Arab students, in comparison with Jewish ones. My command of the Hebrew language greatly improved as a result of spending my summer in Israel. Additionally, I learned a little bit of Arabic from some of my students. This is exciting for me because I hope to eventually use my knowledge of Hebrew and Arabic to be able to work with a broader population in Israel in my efforts towards creating peace.
I would not have been able to participate in Project Harmony had I not received a grant from Partners for Progressive Israel. I am very grateful for the opportunity this grant provided me. Staff members were not provided with room, board or airfare, and the generous grant enabled me to afford many of these expenses. Partners for Progressive Israel provided me with an incredible experience that will affect both my academic and professional careers.
Thank you and all the best,
Tufts University, graduating class of May 2014