BRATTLEBORO—A group of young Israeli, Palestinian, and American teenagers invite the community to join them on the Brattleboro Common for an afternoon of arts and celebration on Sunday, Aug. 2, from noon until 4 p.m.
Fifteen young adults from three countries who are learning leadership skills at the Jerusalem Peacebuilders (JPB) Acer Farm Camp in West Brattleboro want to share with their Vermont neighbors the music, poetry, and skits they worked on during their two-week peace camp experience.
The community is encouraged to join them in painting an original 40 foot long peace banner that will be displayed in various locations around New England throughout the rest of 2015.
The leadership campers will also be joined by 50 Iraqi teens from the SIT camp program, as well as Mary Fetchet, founder of the Voices of September 11th and interns from that organization.
“This exciting project will present an authentic vision of what peace looks like for these young leaders, when given the opportunity, tools, and space to express themselves in creative and constructive ways,” writes Rev. Nicholas Porter, an Episcopal priest who, with his wife Dorothy, founded JPB three years ago.
Jerusalem Peacebuilders is an interfaith nonprofit organization with the mission of “creating a better future for humanity across religions, cultures, and nationalities.” By uniting Israeli, Palestinian, and American youth and providing them with the opportunities and skills they need to become future leaders, JPB strives for peace in the global community.
Rather than duplicate efforts in their organization, the Porters approached Kids4Peace (K4P), a nonpolitical youth movement dedicated to peace and interfaith understanding.
Since K4P had a shared vision, JPB partnered with them to provide a specialized youth leadership camp for teens. They held the first Leadership Camp in Brattleboro in July 2011.
Each year, the Leadership Camp brings, for two weeks to Acer Farm in Brattleboro, 15 to 18 teens who hope to become leaders. These campers participate in intensive leadership and peace-building activities as they engage in discussion sessions about their views towards peace in Israel and Palestine.
Daily leadership seminars teach positive communication and conflict-management skills. Daily group dialogue sessions and workshops (with guest educators) work to enhance critical thinking both as individuals and as a group.
Porter says that upon arrival at Acer Farm, the youths are prepared to embark on a journey for peace.
“Through our exceptional program, the youth gain invaluable insights into peace and conflict in the Holy Land,” he writes at JPB’s website (www.jerusalempeacebuilders.org). “They learn from each other that peace requires strength. At the conclusion of the camp, a strong foundation for peace is built through deepened relationships, mutual respect, and the understanding of others.”
Following the success of the first camp at Acer Farm in 2011, JPB organizers were inspired by the idea to create a multi-year peace education program for Israeli, Palestinian, and American teens.
In the fall of 2012, JPB integrated a Houston-based beginner peace education camp with teens entering the program at age 13. This was soon followed with a second year intermediate camp, and the Brattleboro Leadership Camp for participants began in the third year of the program. Through the JPB Junior Counselor program, JPB graduates become counselors at JPB-K4P camps for younger teens.
The idea for JPB took root in 2011, on the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
For Nicholas and Dorothy Porter, both of whom had served at St. George’s Cathedral in Jerusalem, what happened that day brought new urgency to the timeless call for peacemaking in Jerusalem.
“I came to my adult belief in Jerusalem,” says Nicholas Porter. “I had a moment of clarity and an awareness of the conflicts and divisions in Israel and Palestine. I suddenly understood the significance of my own background. My mother came from an Arab Christian heritage, and my father German Jewish. A flame ignited, and it was at that moment I started to have a dream of a camp dedicated to peace, which I took 15 years to make happen.”
When Porter and his wife bought a farm in West Brattleboro in the mid 1990s, both realized it would be a great place for their camp. “But we stewed on the idea for a long time,” he confesses.
Once they were ready to go ahead with their dream, they were faced with a problem.
“What did I know about how to make a camp?” Porter asks. “The funny thing is that I have never been to a camp myself as a child. I lived in the country. When you live there, you don’t go to camp. Camp is your life.”
The Porters did not want to reinvent the wheel.
“We went to a colleague, Henry Carse, founder of Kids4Peace, to ask about how we should proceed with our project.” Nicholas said. “He saw what we were planning as a perfect extension of what K4P was trying to achieve. K4P at the time only dealt with kids who were 12, and ours would be around 16. Carse found it a happy challenge to expand this program to include a gap in ages leading up their time at our camp.”
By the time the kids come to Acer, they have worked for six years in a development program created by Kids4Peace.
“The Brattleboro camp is the capstone of a long process of leadership activities, through many hours of after-school study,” says Porter. “From the pool of these kids, we have joy of selecting the best and the brightest.
“We choose about a third each from Israel, Palestine, and the U.S., as well as a third Christian, Jewish, and Muslim. But they don’t necessarily come from the countries you think. The Jewish teenagers could come from Palestine or the Muslims from America. Our demographics may not be perfect, because life is not perfect.”
The group of campers is small but strong.
“The magic of the small group is that it becomes super intensive, where we go from three nationalities and religions to become one family,” says Porter. “We all live together in one giant log cabin where for two weeks we live, work, and play.”
Nicholas and Dorothy Porter say they realized that in designing a program for the camp they must not “over-mother” participants, because they would get bored, nor should they over-challenge them, because they could shut down.
“But we did want to create an experience for the participants that would challenge themselves and each other through dialogue and skill learning,” says Porter. “We want our campers to conquer barriers between each other and within themselves as they work for a positive change in society.”
Porter is eager for people from the Vermont community to join the campers on the Brattleboro Common and support these young leaders.
“This is not a political or religious event,” he says. “It will be a great chance to meet and share with these incredible kids who may be the leaders of tomorrow. The campers will put on skits that deal with discrimination, racism, and inequality.
“There will be poems and songs. Yares Brothers, Israeli peacemakers and songwriters, worked with the campers to create an original song, which they will perform. We will be joined by Iraqi children from the SIT youth camp who will be a remarkable addition to the event, because none of our participants have ever met any Iraqis before.”
Porter believes that Sunday’s event on the Common is an integral part of the Leadership Camp experience.
“The teens learn a lot when they come to Leadership Camp, but there is pressure in their hometowns to keep what they learn private,” explains Porter. “They are pressured not to go public with their ideas. So the kids are frustrated, and the stuff stays bottled up.
“However, an event like our celebration on the Brattleboro Common gives them a chance to practice sharing publicly what they have learned. Although they may face resistance back home, this event shows them how to be prepared to share what they have learned when they go back to where they came from.”