Frisbee — the ultimate peace negotiator

Who would have thought that a Frisbee could be used to build bridges between bitter enemies?

Ultimate Peace, an organization founded in 2008 by American Ultimate Frisbee players, tries to do just that. By running a weeklong overnight summer camp in Israel and other activities throughout the year that are open to Jewish-Israeli, Arab-Israeli and Palestinian youth, it aims to improve relations between the groups, one flying disc at a time.

“Summer camp has been our kind of big immersion program over the course of the last couple years,” said David Barkan, CEO and co-founder of Ultimate Peace. “We’ve done it three years in a row now, and it’s been a huge success.”

Now, organizers of Ultimate Peace are trying to strengthen the year-round programs so that the youth will remain engaged with bridge-building initiatives. That means raising funds for ongoing practices and cross-cultural tournaments as well as league games between communities. 

“During the year we have tended to lose the kids because it’s been hard to run programs and actually fund programs. … There’s nothing easy about running a coexistence program in the Middle East right now,” Barkan said. 

In an attempt to remedy that, the organization launched a campaign on the crowdfunding site in November to raise $150,000. Money raised will finance the administration of year-round programs as well as equipment, transportation for coaches and youths, site and field rentals, and insurance and permits.

Some funds also go toward hiring staff to lead these programs. Until now, the year-round programs have relied on volunteer coaches who often must drive several hours to the villages where games take place.  

Ultimate Peace would also like to hire staff to lead the organizations’ coaches-in-training program, which engages Middle Eastern youths who have participated in Camp Ultimate Peace in a year-round training that focuses on leadership on and off the field. 

As of Dec. 31, Ultimate Peace’s campaign at had raised more than $31,000, with 12 days left for members of the public to donate. Even if the campaign does not reach its goal, Ultimate Peace will get to keep all but 6 percent of the funds raised. 

It turns out that the noncontact sport — officially called Ultimate because Frisbee is a trademarked line of discs — is an appropriate, if unlikely, vehicle for bringing together Jews and Arabs in the Middle East. A central tenet of Ultimate is “spirit of the game,” which requires that players compete without an official referee. As a result, Ultimate demands that players self-officiate. 

Organizers of Ultimate Peace hope that the participants will take what they learn on the field — to resolve on-field disagreements peacefully and without outside help — and continue practicing those skills off the field.

[ RELATED: The ultimate bridge ]

The summer camp, which was held in Akko, a town in northern Israel, the past two years, was conceived after players from the Matzah Balls — an all-Jewish recreational Ultimate team that includes Barkan as a member and competes in Santa Cruz — visited Israel in 2005 to lead an Ultimate clinic. There, they taught throwing techniques and ran scrimmages and friendly tournaments with Israeli children and adults, who were familiar with the game but wanted to learn more from the U.S. players.

But something was missing from these clinics: Arabs and Palestinians.

So the players began planning a camp with that goal in mind. With the help of Israel’s Culture and Sport Ministry, Ultimate Peace became a reality. The organization held its inaugural summer camp in 2009. To date, Camp Ultimate Peace has reached 14 Arab, Jewish and Palestinian communities. Three hundred Middle Eastern youths — boys and girls between the ages of 12 and 14 — currently are involved.

“I can’t tell you how pleased I am and proud of the progress we made,” said Barkan, a consultant for foundations and nonprofits who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

At the first event in 2009, Israeli and Palestinian kids who had never met before were randomly put on mixed teams for a tournament. Nobody was sure what their reactions would be, but later, when the kids selected their own teams for scrimmages, many opted to play with kids they’d been teamed with earlier; Palestinians and Israelis chose to play together.

On the first day of camp each year, the kids might be nervous and choose to remain close to kids from their own villages. But coaches fix that quickly, asking the campers to create nametags that spell out their names in Hebrew, Arabic and English. For a camper who only speaks Hebrew but not Arabic, he has no choice but to ask an Arabic-speaking camper for help writing his name, and vice versa, said Jeff Landesman, a Matzah Balls team member and Ultimate Peace coach from Altadena.

Campers, who sleep in integrated dorm rooms, spend hours each day working on technique, such as throwing mechanics, but they also enjoy various cultural events such as a talent show, art projects and dancing. The camp brings in staff who speak all three languages — English, Hebrew and Arabic – to help run activities. 

The biggest challenges that Ultimate Peace organizers face are less about ensuring campers get along and more about Israel’s precarious relationship with its neighbors. 

In November, Ultimate Peace campers-in-training — including 30 Arab Israelis, Jewish Israelis and Palestinians — were scheduled to come together for a monthly meeting, in Kfar Saba, in central Israel. But at the same time, Israel and Palestinians in the Gaza Strip were engaged in a mini-war. Consequently, the meeting was canceled. 

Internal struggles between campers are infrequent, but they have happened. One or two times, campers were sent home for bad behavior, according to Landesman, who works as a special-education teacher at Madison Elementary School in Pomona. 

For the most part, however, the camp has successfully formed bonds between participants that offer hope for the future of Israeli-Palestinian relations. Contrary to what one might think, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not a frequent topic of discussion among campers or staff, Landesman said.

“Sports in general are always a good way to help people from different cultures get along,” he said. “In fact, in Ultimate, there is conflict resolution … so it’s just so natural to help people learn how.”

Ultimate Frisbee and the next generation of Jewish men

If you happened to be sunbathing on Central Park’s Great Lawn last week, you may have caught one of the most highlight reel-worthy sporting events to take place in Manhattan since Connors and McEnroe were in the U.S. Open Final.

You would have seen men from across America competing in an Ultimate Frisbee spectacle that featured jaw-dropping catches, somersaulting dives and stunning leaps. Guys were taunting one another one moment and executing end-zone runs the next. And after the game ended and the usual high-fiving commenced, you may have wondered about the unusual display of sportsmanship as the opposing teams sat together in the grass to talk about competition, aggression and teamwork, and what they all have to do with being a man.

Who were those men in Central Park?

As part of the inaugural national launch of Moving Traditions’ program for teen boys, Shevet Achim: The Brotherhood, 25 men gathered for a training seminar in New York. In the mix were professional Jewish educators (rabbis and rabbinical students, teachers, directors of teen programs and summer camps) and men that work in the wider world (two lawyers, a pediatrician, a sommelier, a yoga instructor, a film editor and a sportswriter) who are willing to serve as mentors for local Jewish teens.

The point of the gathering was to ask the question: Given the high post-bar mitzvah dropoff rates for guys, how can the Jewish community do a better job of reaching out to teen boys?

Many of the future mentors gathered in New York for the training gave firsthand accounts of the depth of their community’s problems reaching guys: Parents who tell their sons “just do your bar mitzvah and I promise you’ll never have to go to synagogue ever again”; teen guys whose only form of connection is participating on the youth group’s ski trip or amusement park trip (and quickly zoning out if there is any introduction of Jewish content); and synagogue-based social action events that go into panic mode when they realize that they have 20 girls enlisted and not one guy. The mentors reported that many teen boys find Jewish life “nice,” boring, politically correct, predictable, conventional and, in a word, irrelevant.

But these failures and apparent gender imbalances are somewhat superficial when compared to a deeper problem in the Jewish world that a few people are finally waking up to—the simple fact that educators and volunteers have not been trained to address the core issues that challenge, confuse and at times endanger teen boys.

This is not to say that all boys face these challenges in a particular way or that girls do not have similar challenges, but that the vast majority of teen boys are wrestling internally with what it means to be a man in a culture that sends them mixed messages. Should a man be loyal or defiant? Sensitive or tough?

Should he show off his intelligence or keep it hidden? Should he flaunt his money or keep people guessing? Should he strive to have many friends or a few good ones? Should he work his abdominal muscles into a six-pack to show off at the beach or protect his modesty? Should he text his sexual exploits to his buddies or keep quiet and risk being seen as a prude?

From graphic video games to aggressive pornography, raunchy politicians to swaggering athletes, guys are seeing plenty of men whose motto is to have whatever they want when they want it—and to take it by force, if necessary.

If Jewish communities aren’t seriously engaged with the question of what it is to be a man in light of these messages, and positing alternative paths that can guide young men in balancing the desire for power and attention with a desire for connection and purpose, then they are not going to be relevant to most teen males.

Dr. Richard Stern, the clinical psychologist who helped design and execute the training, spoke in clear terms about male socialization.

“Teen boys are often inadvertently pushed into being emotionally stifled and ‘supposedly’ independent—but they are far from being independent,” he said. “The unconditional love that they once felt from parents or from peers has often been displaced by pressures to succeed academically or to be cool. Even guys who have many friends feel like they have no one to talk to.”

So how might the Jewish community provide space where guys can really speak to one another?

Our goal is to train mentors to use play, critical thinking and storytelling to engage teen boys in the question of what it means to be a mensch. We see this effort as an inherently Jewish activity, focusing on the ongoing character development and values education that we have traditionally done on a weekly basis through the cyclical study of Pirkei Avot.

During the training, we delved into Maimonides’ ideas about extreme personalities and how these energies are balanced through self-awareness and discipline. We shared Chasidic teachings on maturity, and we traced the last 3,500 years of Jewish men, unearthing multiple models of strength, kindness and courage.

After the Frisbee game, a few of the mentors noted how they had pushed themselves physically on the field. One said it was the first time he had been in a public group with men who were wearing yarmulkes. Another said it was the first time he had played group sports with guys since he was a boy. Someone else remarked on how we had all paused when a player had fallen. And as if on cue, one man in the closing circle simply repeated the final score, savoring the victory, lovingly rubbing it into the faces of the losing squad.

After Rosh HaShanah, these men will begin to meet with teens in their communities and develop ongoing forums where teen boys can meet, hang out, play games and talk about what it means to be a man. The programs will take place in six metropolitan areas, with plans to expand to additional cities in the coming year.

Will it catch on? Well, let’s say that the Frisbee is still floating. But at least we have recognized that there are hundreds of thousands of guys sitting on the sidelines of Jewish life and we have a few coaches who are ready and eager to pull them off the bench.

(Rabbi Daniel S. Brenner is the director of initiatives for boys and men at Moving Traditions.)