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Aug 17, 2017 | Kevin Thompson

Peace Program Brings Together Youth From All Sides in Middle East Conflict

Interfaith group helps promote peace through friendship

The upright piano inside Christ Church Cathedral’s youth space in Downtown Houston became a beacon of hope and peace as an interfaith group of students from Israel, Palestine and the U.S. sang John Legend’s “All Of Me.” The students, part of the Jerusalem Peacebuilders (JPB) program, spent ten days at Camp Allen and the Cathedral immersed in building friendships, understanding and what seemed to be a lot of fun. 

The 18 high school-aged students—from Islamic, Christian and Jewish faith traditions— who participated in the Interfaith Citizenship program were encouraged to have hard conversations relating to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict without preconceived notions.

“In my everyday life I don’t meet with Jews or Christians,” said Kamar, a Muslim student. “This is different, that I met with people of different religions.” That type of interaction is designed to set in motion talk of tolerance, peace and mutual acceptance between participants. 

An interfaith non-profit organization, Jerusalem Peacebuilders envisions a better future for humanity across religions, cultures and nationalities explained Stuart Kensinger, co-director of JPB. “These kids go through a highly selective process to get here,” he said. “We currently have relationships with 11 schools that help us find prospective students.”

Founded in 2011, JPB’s three youth leadership programs strive to create a family experience for participants to help foster meaningful personal transformation. The program’s focus is to facilitate meaningful interaction to help unite Israeli, Palestinian and American youth and adults. 

“For me it’s a new experience, it’s my first time being abroad without my family,” said Ike, a Christian student. “Also, it’s a new experience because there are people from many different backgrounds—it’s eating together as one big family without any interruptions. This program creates one big family. 

The program exposes students to new ways of thinking and interaction with peers in other religions, even if those conversations cover more than peace and faith. Sevana, and Armenian Christian, stressed the importance of learning “water conversation” from a local rabbi who spoke to the group. “In Israel we don’t have a lot of water. When I brush my teeth, instead of opening up the tap I’ll use one cup of water to conserve now, but I’ve never thought of faith and the environment together,” she said.

The group visited churches, mosques and temples in the Houston area and partnered with Interfaith Ministries, Texas A&M’s Biodiversity Research Center and even visited the George Bush Presidential Library in College Station, Texas.

While at Camp Allen, students also took part in an interfaith discussion led by the Rev. Neil Willard, rector of Palmer Memorial, Houston; Rabbi Steve Gross of the Houston Congregation for Reform Judaism and Imam Mohamed Khan of the Islamic Society of Greater Houston.

“It’s important because you get both sides of the story,” Ike said. “You hear from both sides and you’re— like wait—that’s not true or you question it and then that leads to a debate to find out what is going on.”

Participants talked about the uniqueness of the setting that allowed people of different faiths and cultures to interact without hesitancy or bias. “I came to learn more about myself, about what I know about the conflict, but also to make new friends,” said Ismaeel, an Arab Christian.

As the students huddled around the piano, the initiative for peace was easy to see. These kids weren’t just Muslim, Christian or Jewish. They were friends who understood each other, not because of a religious label, but for their humanity.