Seeds of Peace: The summer of our discontent

At age 15, I had barely interacted with a boy, let alone a Jew. 

For a teenager living in Lahore, Pakistan, in 2001, the Middle East was a faraway place of despair and blood, and I knew almost nothing about it. From my father’s BBC fixation, I’d picked up that it was a place where restaurants were sometimes blown up by suicide bombers. At the time, the idea of a war that came to the city streets strapped to the chests of men was terrifying and new. 

I was to learn a great deal about the nature of war when my parents allowed me to attend a summer camp called Seeds of Peace in the United States, just a few months before 9/11 transformed the world. Located in Maine, the camp was founded in 1993 by John Wallach — a journalist who had covered the Middle East for decades as foreign editor for Hearst Newspapers and the BBC. His radical idea was to cultivate future leaders from communities divided by conflict, with an initial focus on Israeli, Palestinian and Egyptian teenagers. From only 46 campers in its first year, the program has by now grown to 300 teenagers each summer, including an American delegation every year. Headquartered in New York, the program has offices in Kabul, Afghanistan; Amman, Jordan; Mumbai, India; Lahore and Jerusalem, with more than 6,000 alumni who partake in regular local and international follow-up engagements. 

In the summer of 2001, I was a member of the first India-Pakistan delegation to attend the camp; a dozen of us came from Lahore and a dozen from Mumbai — that strange city by the Arabian Sea manufacturing the famed ballads of Bollywood. Our two nations have been at de facto war since 1947, when the decolonized Indian subcontinent was divided into two countries: Muslim majority Pakistan and Hindu majority India. Kashmir — the land of valleys — is the bloody legacy of that partition, with both countries laying claim to the northern state, where 12 million people reside. 

Despite rigid brainwashing endorsed by our respective education ministries, we quickly grew to be friends with the Indians. We laughed together in Urdu and Hindi, argued about cricket and spent hours debating our history, within days realizing we had been taught different versions of the same events. On the first morning after our arrival, I hung my head upside down from the top bunk to say hello to the enemy below. Her name was Tulsi Mehta, and, 15 years later, ours continues to be a great friendship.

The first time we saw the Israelis and Palestinians at camp, however, they were intimidating. They held onto a breed of anger separate from ours, they knew too much, they talked too much — on both sides they were the unafraid spokespeople for their states. Though they were the same age as the rest of us, nothing about them made them seem like children. Their war made our war seem like a bit of a farce; a sham skirmish fought through propaganda and by soldiers in faraway mountains we had never seen. 

In the years immediately after my summer in America, it was difficult to foresee the extent of the violence that would come to Pakistan, a relatively stable state with an enormous security apparatus. Nobody could have imagined that in only 10 years, the country would be left mutilated by suicide attacks, reeling beneath the weight of the U.S.-led invasion of neighboring Afghanistan, which morphed into domestic terrorism and major military operations in the north. War came marching down our streets, into our playgrounds, schools and bazaars, strapped to the chests of terrible men. 

So many years on, what remains of that camp in my memory is a hazy recollection of laughter and bewilderment. There was swimming, rock-climbing, singing and dancing, but also “dialogue sessions,” during which opposing delegations participated in daily three-hour debates. After one, a Palestinian boy ran by our group in tears, then sat on the pier overlooking the lake until the sun nearly set. Two Israeli girls joined him, and I still recall the three small backs bent against the horizon. Sometimes it struck us that we were children hunted and haunted by each other’s people. Most of the time, we forgot.

At that age, we did not comprehend the profound impression the camp would make on our lives, freeing our minds in ways that would affect us as we became adults, parents, professionals and leaders in a world of ever more globalized conflict. I know politicians, writers, activists and soldiers who are Seeds graduates. Many of us have gone on to become journalists, among us Mujib Mashal, now a reporter for The New York Times, who was part of the first Afghan delegation to attend the camp in 2002; and Nergish Sunavala, a reporter for the Times of India, who was at camp with me. I recognize the skinny girl with the gentle voice and bushy hair in the impassioned stories she writes for her country.  

Most of the campers who attended Seeds of Peace were chosen by their governments, and we came armed with sacred agendas, in the end surrendering the only truths we knew to the cause of civic discourse. As true of the Palestinian refugees and the Israeli Jews, the Pakistanis and the Indians, Seeds of Peace broke us all. Though it has now been 15 years since I first ate at a table with Jews and Hindus, those lessons guide my hand when I write my stories even today. I have Jewish friends from camp with whom I am still in touch, and knowing them has made it easier for me to challenge the problematic generalizations rampant in Pakistan’s religious and political discourse. Nobody could have anticipated then how much more important this would become for us, that in just a few months, our conflicts would merge and re-create themselves in almost all regions of the earth. This changing world order made the inclusion of a U.S delegation all the more important, with young American campers able to engage without bias in political dialogue with Afghans, Israelis, Jordanians, Palestinians and Pakistanis, to name a few — people they might never otherwise encounter in their lives.

Attacks of terror occur daily around today’s world, like the trio of suicide bombs that went off in Istanbul, in Europe’s third-busiest airport last week, targeting the heart of Turkey’s internationalism. Or, two days later, the horrifying, senseless murder of 13-year-old Hallel Yaffa Ariel as she slept in her Kiryat Arba bedroom.

The hate, racism, corruption and violence of war is now so pervasive that no place is truly safe from it, except for, perhaps, the minds of children, where different ideas may still flourish like they did in ours. 

It was a great gesture of grace for our parents to knowingly expose us, their children, to Seeds of Peace — to a narrative that would challenge theirs. For Palestinian and Israeli families, I imagine this act of letting go must be downright traumatic. Still, it leaves me with great hope in the institution of parenting, and the belief that even in cynical and fearful adult hearts, there exists the awareness that there is a better way to win our wars. 

Amal Khan, a journalist from Pakistan where she serves as features editor at The Nation, is currently contributing to the Jewish Journal as part of her fellowship with the Daniel Pearl Foundation.

Briefs: Body of Santa Monica teacher found in Panama, campers leave the mountains to heal the bay

Joey Lutz, an English teacher at Santa Monica High School and a central leader in a Muslim-Jewish dialogue, was found dead Sunday in Panama.

Lutz, 25, had been hit by a massive wave July 17 and swept to sea while wading in shallow water along the coast of Bocas del Toro island. Hope that he had survived ended Sunday when a fisherman found his body.

“He was just very special, he really was. A very beautiful human being,” said his mother, Freda Lutz. “It is not quite hitting me.”

A beloved teacher, Lutz was the kind of communicator who listened as much as he spoke.

“I dig talking to people. Though I’m not crazy about small talk,” Lutz wrote on the social-networking site Friendster. “Enthusiasm turns me on more than anything else.”

About 70 friends, family members and students gathered Monday night at Dockweiler State Beach to hold a bonfire in Lutz’s honor. The bonfire was organized by NewGround, the Muslim-Jewish dialogue run by the Muslim Public Affairs Council and the Progressive Jewish Alliance. Lutz was a fellow in the second class of 11 Muslims and 11 Jews that began in March, and quickly demonstrated his ability to lead and his desire to learn.

“He was a linchpin,” said Malka Fenyvesi, the Jewish co-director.

“He was the type of guy who was so intensely thoughtful and gave so much insight when he spoke that you couldn’t help but connect and fall in love with him,” added Aziza Hasan, the Muslim co-director. “He was the type of person who wanted to make sure every person’s thoughts were fully expressed so he could understand them, and then he would add his own analysis that was so unbelievably thought out that he made everything complete; he made every conversation complete.”

At press time, funeral arrangements had not been confirmed by Hillside Memorial Park and Mortuary.

Donations can be made “In Memory of Joey Lutz” at Washington Mutual, 10970 Jefferson Blvd., Culver City. The account number is 0494-0000054121-5.

— Brad A. Greenberg, Senior Writer

Campers Leave the Mountains to Heal the Bay

In the sweltering heat of a warehouse deep in a manufacturing strip of Van Nuys, Jewish teenagers crowded around tables of disassembled wheelchairs, scrubbing clean piles of metal parts and rubber wheels and somehow figuring out how to put all the pieces back together again.

For 280 Jewish teens at sleepaway camp this summer, the inaugural Inter-Camp Mitzvah Day provided a tangible Humpty-Dumpty experience in the lessons of repairing a broken world. The teens from Camp Alonim, Camp JCA Shalom, Camp Ramah and Camp Hess Kramer took a break from the mountain air, sports and socializing that are the usual parts of camp, to study texts on tikkun olam and devote their hearts and hands toward improving their community.

The 14- and 15-year-olds participated in beach cleanup activities with Heal the Bay; feeding the hungry with SOVA food pantry; reading to young children at KOREH L.A.; learning about the impact of globalization at Tree Musketeers; restoring destroyed habitat at Friends of the L.A. River and Mountains Restoration Trust Tree Care; and refurbishing donated wheelchairs to send to the developing world with Wheels for Humanity. The day was organized by Becca Hailpern, Inter-camp Mitzvah Day Coordinator.

The L.A.-area camps have been coming together for a few years for inter-camp days of sports and Jewish rock concerts, and this year camp administrators felt that the way to really give back to these campers was to teach them how to give of themselves, according to Beth Kanofsky, assistant director of the Wilshire Boulevard Temple Camps.

Most striking about the day was the electric energy the campers brought to the activities. Counselors were amazed that the same campers who required 20 minutes of strategic negotiation to get them into the pool had no need for any explanations to participate in Mitzvah Day. Even before the introductions had begun, the kids were singing and cheering together.

In a response typical of the service-minded attitude of the campers, when Zack Unger, 14, of Camp Ramah headed off to Heal the Bay and was asked what he felt would be the best part of the experience, he instantly responded, “Cleaning the beach.”

Josh Katelo of Camp Alonim expressed his sense of empowerment to “make their life easier” through Wheels for Humanity and in a humbled voice noted, “I didn’t think they needed it this much.”

— Marion Ashley Said, Contributing Writer

Jewish Home for the Aging Graduates First Nursing Class

As the nation wrestles with a nursing shortage, the Annenberg School of Nursing, a full-time program at the Los Angeles Jewish Home for the Aging in Reseda, graduated its first class of 24 students on June 26.

The school, which is funded by the Annenberg Foundation, prepares students to pass a state-licensing exam with 500 hours of classroom instruction at the Jewish Home and 980 hours of clinical training at local hospitals. Graduates can go on to become licensed vocational nurses, and the program is seeking to expand to include training for registered nurses.

California is expected to be short 25,000 vocational nurses by 2010, according to the California Economic Development Department. The shortfall of registered nurses is expected to be more than 100,000.

If the Annenberg students take a nursing job with the Jewish Home after graduation and stay for two years, $10,000 of the $19,000 tuition is forgiven.

With the inaugural class complete, the Annenberg School now is facing its next task: recruiting students for the upcoming year. The school is now accepting applications for its second term, which begins in September.

“This is an amazing program for those looking to establish a bright future for themselves while helping others,” said Marie Fagan, Annenberg’s head of school.

For information about enrollment, call Cindy Thomas at (818) 757-4431.

— Molly Binenfeld, Contributing Writer

College Students Spend Summer Learning in Israel

This summer, 27 Jewish college students from 15 campuses around the country are spending a month in Israel as the first Global Service Learning Fellows. Their all-expense-paid trip is sponsored by the Orthodox Union’s Heshe and Harriet Seif Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus (JLIC). In addition to studying, the students will perform various community service activities, attend Shabbatons and tour Israel.

“One of the great strengths of the Fellowship is the dual model of learning and internships, which sets an important standard in how the students participating should live their lives,” said Rabbi Ilan Haber, the National Director of JLIC. The women will reside at Midreshet Harova, while the men will be based at Yeshivat Netiv Aryeh, both in Jerusalem. Los Angeles-based David Cohen (UCLA) and YULA graduate, Aden Ratner-Stauber (NYU), are members of the group.

— Jina Davidovich, Contributing Writer

Gan Israeli Campers Gather at Running Springs

On July 17, more than 500 Gan Israel campers from across California joined together at Camp Gan Israel of Running Springs. Ranging in age from 8 to 13, the campers celebrated the commencement of a new Torah, donated by AskMoses, and a performance by the 8th Day Band. Camp Gan Israel (CGI), multidenominational Jewish camps run by Chabad, are among the fastest growing and largest networks of day camps.

“There was an incredible display of unity,” said Fruma Wilschanski, assistant direction of CGI Running Springs. “To see all the girls singing and dancing together made it all worth it.”

— JD

Visit with special people makes for special summer

Going to Disneyland with your family or friends is always an experience. But going with a group of developmentally disabled adults turns out to be unforgettable.

This summer, I participated in Yad B’Yad, a program where a group of high school students and a group of developmentally disabled campers from around the United States travel together, along with a staff of counselors.

The joy that I saw on so many faces when we were boarding “it’s a small world” is something I will cherish forever. Joy can be found in simply buying clothing or seeing a movie, but seeing someone laugh at a showing of “MuppetVision 3-D” sparked a type of pure joy I had never encountered.

We hadn’t planned to end up in Disneyland.

Yad B’Yad, sponsored by the Orthodox Union’s Yachad program for the disabled, was set to begin on July 18. I was incredibly excited for this amazing opportunity.

The summer after 10th grade is a summer where most teens look to hang out with friends — in Israel, particularly — and just have a great time getting to know people. I had a different agenda in mind: I wanted to spend my summer in Israel, as well, but I wanted to know I would grow from the experience.

But the day before we were supposed to leave for Israel, I received a call from my father.

“Israel is canceled because of the war in Lebanon,” he told me.

What was going to happen to the summer of my life?

Well, the next day the program began anyway, with a new destination — the West Coast. A little disappointed (especially since I grew up in L.A.), I boarded the buses and began the journey that would become the greatest experience of my life. Apprehensive at first, I grew more and more comfortable with the high school and Yachad members and was able to establish personal relationships with each and every one of them.

While the program is set up for the high school students to give the disabled or handicapped participants the times of their lives, the reverse was also true and overwhelming. The joy and fun the Yachad members brought to all the participants was and will forever be unforgettable. Waking up to smiles every morning and going to sleep with the exact same happy faces at night is an indelible memory.

The first Shabbat everyone met and established connections with as many people as possible. This was a great success and set the tone for the rest of the summer. We started in San Francisco and went to Palo Alto and Los Angeles, including our stop at Disneyland.

Prayer services took place three times a day; in the morning, the boys put on their tefillin. One Yachad member I had the privilege to assist with his tefillin was Navid Harouni, one of the three Los Angeles participants on the summer program. Every morning, he and I would recite the Shema together.

On the last day of the trip, when we reached the last word of the first paragraph, my eyes were close to tearing. The type of joy and love Navid expressed by saying a few words that so many people say carelessly gave me the warmest feeling and one of most rewarding experiences of my life.

The last week of camp we traveled to Arizona. When we got to the Grand Canyon for a magnificent sunset, everyone was clicking away with cameras, observing God’s amazing creation. Once the sun had almost set, one counselor from Israel, Shachar ben David, asked everyone to pick a different spot on the platform and simply think about something meaningful in perfect silence.

I sat down looking at the spectacular sunset with lightning crashing down on the background and was astonished at the beauty God could create. Then, looking around at everyone else sitting in silence, I thought, “Wow, look at how God was able to create a program like this, as well.”

The night after the program ended, I received at least 50 e-mails from people on the program saying how hard the separation is and how different life will be without 65 amazing people joined together. A reunion occurred Aug. 24, only three days after the program concluded. The ties and relationships established through the program are the types that remain forever.

Participants in these programs go with a specific goal in mind — to give more than you get. Those are the types of people who try to perfect this world and assist in bringing unity to the Jewish nation as a whole.

Ian Lurie is an 11th grader at YULA.

Campers Display the Write Stuff

Almost every summer day, the Malibu Post Office receives a large amount of mail from the several hundred Jewish campers at Camp Hess Kramer and Camp JCA Shalom, a lot of them letters home written by girls.

When the 13-year-old girls at Hess Kramer’s Cabin Rachel were asked if girls enjoy writing letters more than boys, the entire cabin shouted, “Yes!”

Letters from Jewish summer camps have not changed much since 1963, when Allan Sherman recorded the classic song, “Hello Muddah! Hello Faddah!” Kids still write about what they had for lunch, what their cabin is like and their bunkmates. Though a national Web site allows one-way e-mails from parents to kids, Jewish summer camps still expect campers to write their folks the old-fashioned way — with pen, paper, stamps and envelopes.

“This is my seventh year going to camp; last year, I had to write like one every week, and the year before, I tried to write one every couple of days,” said Hess Kramer veteran, Aaron, at 14 a part of the hipster crew at Cabin Jerry (actually Cabin Jeremiah). “Each year, I’ve written like less and less. We’ve matured, and we can handle being away from our family better.”

The girls of Cabin Rachel know that quality paper is a must for a nice letter home.

“I have Winnie the Pooh stationery,” Megan, 13, said.

“Polka-dots,” a friend said.

“Hello Kitty,” another volunteered.

One girl had two sets of stationery, and another had six.

“Boys don’t even know what a letter is,” Leah, 13, said.

“I really like to write long letters, because I can’t talk to them over the phone,” Carly, 13, said. “I love to tell my parents like everything that … I’ve done in the day.”

Care packages from home included shirts and candy.

“Girls love stuff,” said Blake, 13, whose parents sent her Cosmo Girl, now part of the Cabin Rachel library of Teen People, Teen Vogue, Seventeen, etc.

“The more I write, the more stuff I get,” one girl said .

In a world of junk mail overflowing in real and electronic mailboxes, Sara, 16, a Hess Kramer counselor in training, said, “There’s something about getting a letter that’s addressed to you.”

“E-mail gets annoying,” Carly said, “but letters, like they don’t get old.”

With so much Jewish summer camp mail flowing into the Malibu Post Office, “sometimes letters go out and take a week to get places,” said Howard Kaplan, Hess Kramer executive director.

One solution for concerned parents is the Web site, through which parents can send their kids e-mails, but their kids can only reply by regular mail.

While the Wilshire Boulevard Temple-run Hess Kramer hugs the Ventura County line near Malibu’s northern beaches, Camp JCA Shalom is close but requires a nerve-testing drive through empty, mountainous stretches of Mulholland Highway.

Once past its large Hebrew script gate greeting, Camp JCA Shalom has an almost hippie-like casualness. Jewish kids from throughout the Western United States converge at the camp, many wearing or making Grateful Dead-inspired tie-dyed shirts.

Bill Kaplan, executive director of the Shalom Institute, which runs Camp JCA Shalom, said a rule of thumb with camp letter writing is that if kids are not writing to their parents every day, that may be a sign that they are busy and happy.

Here, too, middle school-age girls rule Camp JCA Shalom’s letter-writing culture. The nondenominational camp also finds some campers writing in Cyrillic script. Of the 11 girls in this summer’s Cabin G-5 Survivors, six were from Ukrainian or Russian Jewish families.

“I wrote about five letters in Russian,” said Diana, 12, who had just received a one-page letter written alternately by her mother and father.

Among the 10- and 11-year-old boys in Cabin B-4 Shizzles, postcards were preferred over letters, partly to avoid wasting time during summer camp’s short but memorable window of fun.

“We’re brothers for three weeks,” Austin 10, said. “Everyone in our cabin is like our family, our second family.”

“We’re never homesick!” shouted another B-4 Shizzles camper.

In Cabin G-5 Survivors, Mylan, 12, wrote 10 letters in three weeks. “I’ve written some to my parents so they don’t worry about me,” she explained.

Alissa, also 12, said she writes her own letters, but said that for her younger brother who’s also at the camp, “my mom has to pre-write all the letters and put stamps on them — he writes the letters but [not] the envelopes.”

That afternoon’s mail call included a letter from Alissa’s parents — about one-and-a-half ink-jet-printed pages. Spilling out of the envelope as she opened it were small silver and blue Star of David stickers, which she shared with her camp friends.

Hess Kramer Gets Wacky

Petroleum jelly-covered watermelon relays, gunk-filled balloon popping and prom dress-clad swimming pool races — not your typical day at Camp Hess Kramer in Malibu.

The Wilshire Boulevard Temple camp was turned upside down on Tuesday, Aug. 6, when it became the location for the last episode of Nickelodeon’s 10-week summer series, “Wild and Crazy Kids” (WACK) — “WACK at Camp.” “WACK,” which originally appeared on Nickelodeon between 1990 and 1992, has returned and is even wilder and crazier than before.

The show has a different theme each week, including “WACK on the Farm,” and “WACK at the Beach,” and features two 15- to 20-member teams of kids between the ages of 8 and 12 going head-to-head in a series of wacky, hybrid sports.

The inspiration came from the experiences of Woody Fraser, the show’s creator and executive producer, who is an only child. “When I was a kid I had to keep myself from getting bored,” Fraser said.

Some of Fraser’s other creations have included “Good Morning America,” “Nightline” and TNN’s “Ultimate Revenge.”

Fraser discovered the Hess Kramer location because a classmate of his 11-year-old son was a camper there. He approached Howard Kaplan, director of Camp Hess Kramer, who consented to the shoot and recruited 10 of his campers, including his son, Ari, to participate. “It would have been all of our campers, but there was a schedule change and we were between sessions,” Kaplan said.

Approximately half of the kids who participated in “WACK at Camp” were Hess Kramer campers.

“My dad told me that ‘Wild and Crazy Kids’ was going to come here and that I would get really messy and I love getting messy, so I thought it would be fun,” said Ari Kaplan, 12.

“This is a wonderful use of the camp,” said Rabbi Steven Z. Leder of Wilshire Boulevard Temple. “It showcases the camp beautifully and exposes it to a lot of kids who aren’t Jewish.”

“Wild and Crazy Kids” airs Mondays at 6 p.m. on Nickelodeon. The “WACK at Camp” episode will air on Sept. 30. — Rachel Brand Contributing Writer