Peace is a lofty and elusive concept. As a young Jew, I learned that the word Shalom means ‘hello,’ ‘goodbye,’ and ‘peace.’ In the latter case, Shalom is that instant, perfect and temporary, when all is right in the world. Nearly 20 years ago I met Melodye Feldman. She had a dream of promoting peace in the Middle East by bringing together young women from the region – both Jews and Arabs living in Israel – as well as Palestinian girls from the Occupied Territories, and diverse young American women – for a camp that encourages dialogue to learn to empathize with those whom you’ve been taught to hate.
Melodye’s vision lives on, as the camp just concluded it’s summer session with another successful encounter between these diverse participants. To date, over 2,000 young people have participated in Building Bridges programs, and many have continued to be involved in cross-community work in their personal and professional lives, effecting immeasurable impacts in their homes and their communities.
And again this summer, we had the immense pleasure of hosting in our home, some of the young women participants from the program. Yulia is a 17 year old Israeli from Be'er Sheva in the Negev desert, the daughter of professionals, she’s a secular Jew, and member of the Israel Scouts. Her sister had been to Building Bridges a few years ago, and Yulia came with the resolve of most Israeli’s regarding her homeland - that "our land" cannot be given away to anyone - yet with an open mind and heart. She loved playing with our cat, and was on a quest to taste nachos and Starbucks.
Our other houseguest was an American from nearby Greeley, Colorado, Olivia, a very bright, intellectually curious, and well-spoken young woman. She was one of several girls from her town in the program this year; the others were Somali immigrants, and Muslim. With no language barriers, it was a treat to explore many deep and difficult topics with Olivia as she became another de-facto host for our Israeli visitor.
Over the first weekend, prior to the peace camp, Yulia got her taste of Mexican food, and her first Starbucks, along with trips to the local Butterfly Zoo and the Boulder and Cherry Creek Malls. We made sure that this desert dweller had enough warm layers, and we packed both young women off for a two week intensive held at a Buddhist retreat center in the Colorado Rockies.
When we picked them up for a final weekend with us after camp, both Yulia and Olivia were clearly and truly transformed. The Building Bridges process, honed over so many years of bringing people together and helping them come to deeply understand one another, had helped to break the cycle of violence, and inspire them to seek collaborative solutions to the challenges they face. The camp had equipped these and the other young participants with the communication and leadership skills necessary to address the root cause of hate, discrimination, and violent conflict.
The camp had created a safe space for sworn enemies to meet face to face with those they have been taught to fear. Together, they developed personal connections based on empathy and respect, and the confidence to transform divisive attitudes in their communities.
What a gift for me and Maggie, and Jordy to witness the changes in their attitudes and awareness as these girls downloaded the tremendous emotional experiences of the two weeks they’d been away. As our conversations continued, we learned that Yulia had befriened several Palestinian women, and was trying to figure out how they might get together back home, in spite of the barriers and checkpoints that separate them in the small country they both inhabit.
For Olivia, her eyes were opened to both the “conflict” as it is called, but also the issues of Native Peoples in the US and other indigenous groups who’ve been displaced and depleted by imperialism. And a discussion of LGBTQ issues at the camp opened the eyes of both girls to another commonly oppressed group.
Our time with both girls, and at the program’s closing celebration in Denver, was a grand gift. Not just having teenage women in the house, but also to observe, inform and learn from their process.
Melodye Feldman’s original vision, that peace will not come to the Middle East, or any of the many other places it so desperately is needed, until people – especially women – are engaged in a process of listening and hearing and understanding and resolving differences. That's what Building Bridges did just last week here in Colorado, and that’s what they’ve been doing since 1993.
All of this year’s participants will go back to their home groups – ongoing activities and support with expert leaders in their home communities –and they’ll come back to Denver next summer as Leaders in Training, to continue the dialogue and the learning that represents one of the best hopes for peace.
My family and I have been touched, taught, and transformed ourselves from our involvement in Building Bridges, and we plan to continue hosting and learning, and supporting and participating in this personal peace process all through the year, and again next summer.
You can learn more at buildingbridgesshift.org
...and that’s the full-circle fatherhood report for this week.
BONUS TRACK: (Peace To) The Neighborhood by Pops Staples