It may be the “ultimate” in summer coexistence programs, one in which Jewish Israeli, Arab Israeli and Palestinian teens can play a sport where there’s no referee, no one but themselves to mediate disputes on the field.
But while organizers of the Ultimate Frisbee camp believe the referee-less game is the perfect “peace-building tool” and a perfect metaphor for conflict resolution, it was a tough sell for kids on all sides of the divide.
Last year when Topaz, a 16-year-old Jewish Israeli girl, attended the inaugural Ultimate Frisbee camp, run by the nonprofit Camp Ultimate Peace (UP) in the northern Israeli town of Acco, she was scared because she had never had any serious interactions with Arabs.
“Topaz did not want to come to camp,” said Californian David Barkan, CEO of Ultimate Peace, “but her teachers persuaded her to because they thought it would be good for her.”
Her first day, Barkan said, she kept to herself. At the end of the first day, there was an announcement of a talent show. “Then Juwan [an Arab Israeli Ultimate Frisbee coach] saw Topaz practicing her guitar,” Barkan said, adding that Juwan had sung at weddings and had a beautiful voice.
According to Barkan, who requested that children’s last names be withheld from publication for security reasons, Juwan approached Topaz and talked to her. Then he sang the words to the Israeli song that Topaz was playing on her guitar.
“That was the first time that Topaz interacted with an Arab at such a level of depth,” said Barkan. “They decided to perform together in our camp talent show. Topaz never performed in public before because she was too shy. She overcame her stage fright. They were the hit of the talent show.”
Both Topaz and Juwan — along with more than 170 other teens — will be attending Camp UP next week for the weeklong program, which runs through July 18. Juwan will coach and Topaz will be a counselor-in-training.
Ultimate Peace launched the Frisbee camp in Israel in 2009, as a one-day clinic. Last year, the camp held its first weeklong residential summer camp in Acco, for kids ages 12-16.
Like Topaz, Yasmeen, an Arab Israeli girl who attended Ultimate Peace, was initially uncertain if the other groups of kids would be accepting. After all, the cultural differences and language barriers between them were great. To her relief, they were accepting.
“I really felt that we were looking for peace,” Yasmeen told The Jewish Week via Facebook. She was happy, she said, that she and her friends found peace, happiness, new friends and teamwork. “We found it together. It was an awesome connection between us,” she said.
When Guy, a Jewish Israeli teen, arrived at the camp, he viewed it simply as an opportunity to speak English and to be around certain kids who were not Jewish.
“I just felt like, I’m going to interact with regular people like everybody because after all we all were going to play ‘Ultimate’ together,” Guy said in a Facebook posting. “My opinion before camp was that Arabs in Gaza or in other places in Israel should not live here, and now I think a little less racist about them. We need to set an example [regarding] the opinion about Gaza and Israel.”
Before attending the camp, Guy said, “I wanted the whole world to think like us, and now I think that they should look at [the conflict] with an opinion that they should help Gaza to get the terror organizations out.”
Returning for a third consecutive year as an Ultimate Frisbee coach is Rebecca Tucker, 29, of New City in Rockland County. She is a 2004 Yale graduate, who captained her college Ultimate Frisbee’s club team in her senior year.
She described coaching the Arab kids as “no different than the Jewish Israeli kids.” The language barrier helped her coaching skills. “If you’re too wordy,” said Tucker, “even if you have a translator there, having explained a specific drill in three languages, half the group might have wandered off. This forced me as a coach to distill my explanations of a drill in the simplest terms. That helped me coach American peers in New York.” She captains a New York Women’s Ultimate Frisbee team. “Fewer words are better when you’re teaching and coaching.”
Coming to the camp for the first time is Michal Pearl, a native of the Upper West Side and a 2011 Brandeis graduate. Pearl said, “Camp Ultimate Peace combines beautifully two passions of my mine: Ultimate Frisbee and the desire to bring about better understanding and collaboration in the Middle East.”
The creations of Camp UP — a kind of sports-centric version of the pioneering Seeds of Peace coexistence program John Wallach founded in 1993 — did not happen over night. In October 2005, Barkan and his all-Jewish Ultimate Frisbee team, the Matza Balls, competed in Israel’s first international Ultimate Frisbee tournament.
“While we were there,” said Barkan, “we also offered an Ultimate Frisbee clinic to kids and to adults to promote the sport and to see what we could do to make it more popular. The upshot was that we left feeling great about what we’d done, but we also felt a sense of something not being complete. We couldn’t just go to Israel and ignore the conflict over there.”
Barkan, a business consultant in the San Francisco area who has worked with Jewish special needs children at Camp Ramah in New England, believed that by having Israeli Jews, Arab Israelis and Palestinians play Ultimate Frisbee together it could lead to building greater trust between them.
Barkan explained why he wanted to use Ultimate Frisbee as a trust builder.
“Ultimate Frisbee is such a unique sport in that no referees are used. Players, even at the highest level, have to develop the aptitude — the ability — to resolve differences on the field. They make their own calls and come to some compromise so the game can move on. We felt, what an amazing opportunity. We didn’t want this to be a missed chance to not use Ultimate Frisbee as a peace-building tool.”
Barkan, Dori Yaniv of Israel and Linda Sidorsky of Massachusetts, who runs coexistence-type programs for her synagogue in Greenfield, Mass., formed Ultimate Peace in 2008. One of their many challenges was to get the kids to participate in the camp experience and to get their parents’ permission. The process was helped along in 2009 after the Peres Center for Peace and later the Ministry of Sport and Culture supplied Barkan and company with campers.
“They liked what we were doing,” said Barkan.
In 2009, Camp UP was a one-day event, drawing more than 120 kids. The following year, that number grew to 145 campers, with the teens spending a week together in Acco. “Last year, the camp took off,” said Barkan.
Tucker also found the 2009 one-day clinic moving. She remembered: “This little 12-year-old kid, Itay, and I were throwing the Frisbee back and forth. He was three and a half feet tall, yet his throwing was as good as mine. I could tell that he wanted the Frisbee and that he would use it a lot, so I gave it to him. He was so happy. Then last year, I saw Itay again [at camp] and his face lit up when he saw me. He said, ‘You’re the one who gave the Frisbee.’ He remembered immediately.”
Tucker said that Itay was a Jewish Israeli, yet it would not have mattered if he were an Arab Israeli or Palestinian. She still would have given him the Frisbee. “The Frisbee transcends language, culture and ethnicity,” Tucker said.
When the kids arrived last summer for the first overnight camp, Barkan and the staff laid out the camp’s five values: friendship, mutual respect, non-violence, integrity and fun.
“There was one rule that we absolutely enforced,” said Barkan. “We told the kids, ‘you might not always have fun, sometimes you might not make friends with everyone, but there’s one rule that’s not negotiable: Non-violence!’ We live in a violent world, but when we’re at Camp UP, it’s nonexistent. We don’t use it, we don’t think about it; we find different ways to express ourselves. That’s not going to be accepted. Laying that out there from the beginning really helped create a safe environment.”
Barkan said that two of his happiest moments at Camp UP were when the three groups of kids interacted by throwing the Frisbee to each other without adults coaxing them to interact. Another moving moment was seeing the groups of kids teaching each other their dances.
Tucker said that one of her happiest moments was after the camp when she and a few other staff members visited some of the Palestinian children’s homes. Growing up with a Jewish mother who pushed food on her, even when she said she’d had enough, Tucker was still not prepared her for what was in store. In the Palestinian homes, the mothers refused to take no for an answer. She had to eat what they served, and that was not negotiable.
Said Tucker: “They were so hospitable, I wanted to cry.”
For more information: www.ultimatepeace.org.