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Interfaith Hands of Peace welcomes ‘kids who came to tell their stories’

While the Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues on the other side of the globe, Israeli, Palestinian and American teens recently came together to break down stereotypes and build bridges during a summer camp in Carlsbad. Organized by Hands of Peace, the three-week program took place July 9-28 at Pacific Ridge School.

“We have a lot of kids who came to tell their stories, to try to understand where the other side is coming from, and to also try to feel hopeful about what the future can bring,” said San Diego Site Director Scott Silk.

Founded in 2002, Hands of Peace is an interfaith organization that develops peacebuilding and leadership skills in Israeli, Palestinian and American teens through dialogue and personal relationships.

For the past decade, Silk has worked with the Chicago-based nonprofit, which holds annual summer retreats for students ages 15 through 18. Last summer, he helped launch a sister program in San Diego’s coastal

North County, where 24 students learned leadership skills and promoted peace in the Middle East.

“There needs to be a way for people from each side to see each other, because I firmly believe you have to look through the lens of the other side to truly find a way to reach peace,” said Seth, a 16-year-old from Olivenhain, who returned to the camp for the second year. “It’s really amazing for me to see Israelis and Palestinians come together and be friends. It’s really inspirational.”

Hands of Peace raised $140,000 to kick off its inaugural retreat last year. This year, the organization raised $185,000 so all 27 participants could receive full or partial scholarships, with many having experienced violence and loss as a result of the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Of the 27 students, 10 returned for the second-year program, with seven from the inaugural San Diego program.

Like other returnees, Seth, a San Dieguito Academy junior, focused on leadership development this year.

“It ended up being three of the best weeks of my life,” recalled Seth. His family is Jewish, and he has relatives in Israel. “This year I’m learning to become an inspiration leader, who maybe someday could have the tools to make change in the community or the world.”

Most of the Middle Eastern teens met “the other side” for the first time. They stay with local families and are exposed to American culture. The camp also benefits American teens, as many had never met anyone from the Middle East.

Through the program, all participants share their perspectives and work together to bring about positive change.

“I think that dialogue between people, especially Israeli and Palestinian kids, is really important,” said 17-year-old Sophie of Cardiff, who learned about the retreat through her temple. “A lot of them had never talked to someone from the other side. This makes the other side look more human, and that’s a really important first step to peace.”

The program includes intensive daily dialogue sessions led by professional facilitators as well as educational activities and visits to a church, synagogue and mosque.

Among this year’s activities, students painted portraits of each other, cooked ethnic food, shared cultural dances and participated in a filmmaking workshop. Participants also painted four murals that will be displayed throughout San Diego County for six months and then displayed in Israel for six months.

“This has had the most impact of any summer camp I’ve ever been,” said 15-year-old Michael, a sophomore at Pacific Ridge School.

“Hands of Peace is really about the human aspect — conflict resolution through humanity,” added the Rancho Santa Fe resident, who encouraged local students to apply to the program next year.

In addition to the summer program, Hands of Peace offers a year-round alumni club in the U.S., Israel and the West Bank that serves more than 400 graduates. These young leaders have launched grass-roots peace-building initiatives in their home communities.

After participating in the summer program, Sophie, a senior at San Dieguito Academy, has reconsidered life after college.

“The humanitarian aspect of serving the world might fit me better,” she said.

“It’s been a really incredible few days,” she said at the start of the program. “It’s life-changing.”

For more about Hands of Peace, visit www.handsofpeace.org.


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