After Hebrew class one day at the University of Chicago, Meg Sullivan and Lexie Tabachnick approached their professor individually, both wanting to find out how they could get involved with Israel.
Seeing they shared the same interest, the two decided to work together to form a summer camp in Israel called Project Harmony, an appropriate name for an integrated camp serving both Jewish and Arab youth in a place where tensions are high between the groups.
And this camp lives up to its name.
Last summer, a parent said to us on the last day, ‘I really feel like this is a place where my daughter can just be herself for once and not think about Arab-Jewish stuff, and not think about the conflict and not think about how crazy it is to live in Jerusalem,’” said Sullivan, 25. “And it was amazing to hear because that really is our goal.”
Still, looking back to when Project Harmony was founded in 2009, Sullivan said she wonders what they were thinking when they decided to take on such a task. But Sullivan and Tabachnick both had experience working with children at summer camps in the United States, and creating a summer camp in Israel gave them the perfect opportunity to use the skills and knowledge they already had Tabachnick, 23, a former resident of Pittsburgh, said that she had been to Israel before she began Project Harmony but was eager to get a chance to do something more substantial there.
“I went to Israel in high school, but it was a very single-minded narrow experience, so I wanted to return in a way that allowed me more freedom,” Tabachnick said. “We were looking for a way to volunteer, and offer whatever we could offer in exchange for learning more about what’s happening on the ground.”
While Project Harmony is not the only shared Jewish-Arab summer camp in Israel, the camp distinguishes itself by merging the two most accessible camp options for Israelis: American-style summer camps that include activities; and direct conflict resolution-style camps, where campers discuss faith and mutual respect – although the camp is depoliticized. This, combined into one allows the children to build relationships regardless of religion or ethnicity.
Project Harmony also allows campers to learn English and participate in activities such as fine arts, athletics, music, team building, American Sign Language and community gardening. The children are able to bond, as they participate in these activities.
“Our main goal is to give kids a chance to be kids and help them grow personally and individually,” Tabachnick said. “I think that’s something that is the role of informal education everywhere.”
Project Harmony is associated with Hand in Hand: Center for Jewish-Arab Education in Israel, a public school with about 1,000 students that Sullivan and Tabachnick partnered with in order to have the opportunity to start the camp.
Many of the campers come from Hand in Hand, and already know each other, but this can sometimes prove to be a hindrance to development when bad blood between the children previously exists.
Tabachnick told of how one summer a set of Jewish cousins and a set of Arab cousins were in the camp, and one of the Jewish cousins and one of the Arab cousins knew each other from school and didn’t get along. The other Jewish cousin was raised in a mainly Jewish area and the other Arab cousin was raised in a mostly Arab area. When the four were together, fighting ensued.
But when one of the Jewish cousins left for a few weeks, the other decided to befriend the Arabs rather than fight alone. The three quickly became inseparable friends. When the other Jewish cousin returned, he found himself on the outside trying to cause trouble. He eventually learned to cooperate as well.
While Sullivan has seen campers change dramatically over the span of the camp, she usually looks for “small success.”
“There are some kids who have really big transformations over the summer, and whether we credit that to us or our programming or our staff or just a kid being 12, that’s hard to say,” Sullivan said. “But we definitely have had kids really come out of their shells.”
Much of the issues that arise between campers are not based on Jewish-Arab rivalries but rather on normal teenage and preteen dilemmas that are common globally, such as teenage angst or insecurities with body image.
The ratio of Jewish-to-Arab children changes every year and can be affected by outside factors. This year, for example, Ramadan encompasses the entirety of the camp so fewer Arab-Muslim children are expected to attend. It is a day camp, however, so accommodations can be made such as allowing parents to pick up children observing Ramadan a few hours early.
Tabachnick said she expects about 35 staff members this year who are largely made up of volunteers from the United States. Although it is a volunteer staff, hosting children and paying for daily activities is not cheap, and the camp relies on donations and fundraising. They are hoping to raise $15,000 this year, but as of last Friday they had raised just $4,862, according to the website crowdrise.com, where donations to the camp can be made.
Sullivan and Tabachnick leave for Israel in about two weeks. Staff training begins June 22, and the camp runs from July 6 to July 31. This year, 150 campers are projected to attend.
(Andrew Goldstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)