Interfaith understanding propels innovative ‘Hands of Peace’ program
August - September 2008
|Hands of Peace teenagers gather daily for dialogue, team-building and cultural activities. Photo furnished.|
Each summer Glenview Community UCC in Illinois, under the pastoral leadership of the Rev. Howard Roberts, hosts Israeli and Palestinian teenagers in an attempt to break down barriers of hate.
"Hands of Peace" began in 2002 when a Jewish mom and a Christian mom from Glenview, seeing how well their children played together despite their differences, wanted to do something about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
That led Gretchen Grad, a UCC member in Glenview, and Deanna Jacobson, a member of Congregation B'nai Jehoshua Beth Elohim — together with Nuha Debusseh of the Islamic Cultural Center in Northbrook, Ill. — to begin working to bring Israelis and Palestinians together with Chicago teens for facilitated discussion and activities for two weeks in the summer. The conversations were led by professional facilitators from the United States and from the Middle East.
This summer, Hands of Peace once again brought students from the Middle East to meet and dialogue with each other and with American teens. New participants, host families, volunteers and staff joined old "hands" for two weeks in July in the northern Chicago suburbs.
"Hands of Peace changed me," says Itamar, a Jewish student from Israel. "I feel like it showed me that it isn't 'we' versus 'them.' They are humans on the other side, and we should want peace."
Palestinians (both Christians and Muslims), Jewish Israelis and Arab citizens of Israel stay in local homes. American teens join Middle Eastern teens at daily dialogue sessions, team-building exercises and cultural activities. During the rest of the year, Middle East teens and U.S. participants gather for follow-up meetings and projects.
Hands of Peace is supported by donations from individuals and from generous gifts from churches, synagogues and mosques. The UCC provides annual support through the One Great Hour of Sharing special mission offering.
Several UCC congregations have become involved as well — from as far away as First UCC of Wenham, Mass., to University Congregational UCC in Seattle, Wash..
Diane, an American Christian participant, says, "Hands of Peace opened my eyes to what is really occurring in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
"At times it was hard to hear about how both sides are struggling and suffering, but by the end of our two weeks together we made a lot of progress and lifelong friendships," she says. "I learned so much, not only about the conflict and these two groups, but also about myself."
Says Yaseen, a West Bank Palestinian, "The most important thing is that Hands of Peace allowed me to meet new people from a different nation, and to explain to them how we struggle in the situation that we live in. In addition to that, I made such wonderful friends there in Chicago. That is why it was the best experience I had in my life that I will never forget."