I signed on to be a volunteer with Skilled Volunteers for Israel because I was interested in working with Palestinians and Israelis who are committed to promoting shared experiences, and who embrace the possibility of peace through mutual understanding and respect for each others’ culture and history. You may ask: does such a place exist or am I dreaming?
The answer is that there is such a real place. It is the Jerusalem International YMCA. This YMCA , located in the heart of West Jerusalem and in a beautiful building whose bell tower stands out as a monument throughout the city, is committed to the mission of providing an integrated and inclusive recreational and social space to all faiths and nationalities, especially Arabs and Christians in the Jerusalem area.
In the summertime, the YMCA runs a multicultural day camp welcoming children of all faiths ages 5 through 12. When Terry and Marla, two helpful and knowledgeable women who staff SVFI suggested that I could be a counselor at the YMCA for a month, it seemed like the ideal match for my interest.
So, from June 26 to July 21,2017, I volunteered as an assistant counselor at the YMCA’s day camp, and it was an extraordinary experience. Each day I joined the youth counselors and campers for various camp activities such as art, swimming, sports, zumba, and drama. One special activity integrated into this particular camp experience was a “cultural activity.” This was a time when the counselors would introduce to the campers cross-cultural concepts through an interactive activity. For example, 12 year old campers were asked to tell stories that revealed the origins of their names. This opened up the conversation around different naming traditions and customs. Additionally, the seventeen year old counselors, who were similarly of diverse backgrounds, had to cross the divide as they grappled with cultural differences in their leadership styles. One particular experience that stands out is our field trip to the Islamic Museum in Jerusalem where all the campers of all ages participated in age-specific activities that related to the history of the Islamic religion. This was learning combined with fun and all the campers had an enjoyable time.
One of the lessons of my experience is the importance of breaking down barriers. The YMCA philosophy, in my view, is one of the most concrete examples of the positive effect of Arabs and Jews working together for a common purpose. And, at the end of the day, what better purpose is there than to see children of all faiths having fun together in a warm, loving and nurturing atmosphere?! Here lie the next generation who are instilled with the value that the “other” is not to be feared, but rather, to be revered.
I am very grateful to Terry and Marla and SVFI for providing this transformative experience to me.
Please feel free to contact me through SVFI if you want to learn more or wish to discuss.