Sitting around an oval table underneath a white tent, one Muslim family and three Jewish families gathered for an iftar, the evening meal during Ramadan in which worshipers break their daily fast.
From the front yard of a large home in Beit Hanina, an affluent Arab neighborhood in East Jerusalem, the winding concrete security barrier separating Jerusalem from the West Bank was clearly visible. It was a symbolic reminder of the need for an event designed to bring together neighbors whose lives are often detached from one another.
The iftar gathering — coordinated by Kids4Peace, an interfaith organization based in Jerusalem that facilitates meetings for Jewish, Muslim and Christian children and their families — was one of five similar ones taking place this Ramadan.
“It is a good opportunity for us to know each other, because even though we live so close, it often feels we are very far,” said Fayez, an engineer for Intel, who hosted the dinner at his home.
Fayez’s daughter, Zeina, 13, began participating in Kids4Peace after learning of it in school. She went to its summer camp in the United States last year, one of 18 children representing each of the three Abrahamic religions.
Beyond the experience, Zeina returned with something she never expected: an invitation to a bat mitzvah.
Going to the ceremony in December was, at first, a shock to her system. “I was the only Muslim kid there,” she said. “I was a bit scared in the beginning, but then it was really fun meeting her Jewish friends.”
Founded in Jerusalem in 2002, Kids4Peace wants to attenuate the decades of conflict between Jews and Arabs by fostering long-term relationships at an early age.
There are roughly 500 enrolled kids actively participating in the program, with over 1,800 alumni living Israel, the West Bank and the United States. They hold year-round events and annual summer camps geared at building a cohesive community comprising members from diverse religious and national backgrounds.
Meredith Rothbart, director of development at Kids4Peace, considers Zeina a success story. “Those are exactly the kinds of experiences we want our kids to have,” she says. “It helps us know that we can create not only friendships, but also a dynamic of mutual respect and understanding.”
‘We don’t promise peace or offer political solutions. We just want to give Jewish, Muslim and Christian children the opportunity to really know each other and we think that will contribute to future peace’
While the program is designed for children, it requires their parents to meet as often as the kids. “You can’t educate youth in a bubble,” Rothbart says. “There are so many external influences affecting their understanding of the conflict.”
“We don’t promise peace or offer political solutions,” she adds. “We just want to give Jewish, Muslim and Christian children the opportunity to really know each other and we think that will contribute to future peace.”
But for the children in the earliest phases of the program, Kids4Peace avoids talking about the conflict, a strategy they believe breaks down stereotypes. The summer camps allow the children to know each other as humans rather than through the lens of political struggle, according to Rothbart.
The iftar meals, she says, are part of the organization’s overall mission. Originally, the organization was exploring the idea of a large public iftar to teach about Ramadan, but some of the Muslim community leaders objected to that approach.
“Hosting [families] in each others’ homes is a better opportunity for people to get to know each other better,” Rothbart says.
Children begin Kids4Peace in the 6th grade and go until the 12th grade. Through the six-year program the students focus on themes like religion and tradition, friendship and community, identity and responsibility, narratives of the other and themselves. From 10th to 12th grades, the students serve as counselors for the younger children.
The cyclical structure is designed to keep an idea in motion. Kids4Peace maintains that ending the conflict will require Jews and Arabs becoming accustomed to the idea of sharing life together.
The sense of communion was palpable at the iftar, especially when participants reflected on last summer’s 50-day Gaza War.
“The kids went to America while there was hell breaking loose here,” recalls Yonatan, whose daughter, Ayala, began Kids4Peace last summer, right at the beginning of Operation Protective Edge.
The challenge for a child being sent away during such an ordeal is multi-faceted, he said. “It’s good for them psychologically to get away then, but it’s also difficult to be separated from their parents during that kind of crisis.”
At one point during the summer, Yonatan spoke to one of the camp counselors, who told him the kids were “very careful around each other,” an indication of how divisions between Israelis and Palestinians were particularly acute at the time.
After his daughter completed the program, he felt “the core issue doesn’t have so much to do with narrative or identity, but more so with creating a baseline of humanity.”
“For me, I don’t see this as a way to solve the problem,” he says, “it is a way to mitigate the problems the conflict imposes on Israelis and Palestinians when they grow up.”
The children, too, noticed the growing enmity in Israel during last year’s war-torn summer.
Sharon, a Jewish 13-year old new to the program, doesn’t envision political change any time soon. “I have hopes that things will get better,” he says, “but it’s hard to have expectations.”
Sharon’s mother, Daniella, worries about the effect that childhood memories of violence may have on children’s minds, reinforcing the belief that the two sides can’t coexist peacefully.
“That is why it is very important for them to get to know each other at an early age,” she says.
Zeina recalled worrying that her Kids4Peace summer camp would be canceled. Her original flight was scheduled during the 24-hour period when all air travel was suspended at Ben-Gurion Airport at the height of the Gaza war.
“I was really scared,” she says. “I thought we weren’t going to America.”
She ended up going, which removed her from the tumult of war but also separated her from her family at a time when rockets were being fired into Israel every day.
At the iftar, she reflected on the summer as having a transformative effect on her life.
“It’s very special when you think about it,” she says with a grin.
In February 2014, Natalie Portman visited Kids4Peace while she was filming her directorial debut, an adaptation of Amos Oz’s novel “A Tale of Love and Darkness.”
After her visit she donated some $13,000, according to the organization, to help support camp counselors and the program for 10th graders.
The financial model for Kids4Peace relies mostly on private donations. It also receives generous support from the US Consulate General, and is now advocating for a series of grants to support its growth and development. Its goal is to add 18 students every year for the next four years, meaning an additional summer camp a year.
Meanwhile, its leaders are always brainstorming of more ways to expand the program.
“We are thinking of adding a new hospitality program, similar to the iftar gatherings, for Sukkot,” Rothbart says, referring to the Jewish holiday celebrated in the autumn. “Every time we think of expanding Kids4Peace we think of doing things that expand everyone’s hearts and imaginations.”