It was early in the morning and I was at the train station in Acco, about to undertake the nearly 24-hour journey back to Chicago. A moment occurred – a moment like any other, but at the same time it proved to be so much more. It was a moment of eye contact – of mutual understanding between a local stranger and myself and it seemed to me to culminate what had been a several month whirlwind. I had spent the spring studying in London and traveled throughout the Czech Republic with my aunt for a couple weeks before arriving in Tel-Aviv and making my way to a friend’s apartment at 3:00 in the morning. I spent a few days peacefully wandering about in Tel-Aviv and then, on a last minute stroke of good fortune, stayed with a friend in the West Bank for another few days. I had been excited for this time in Tel-Aviv – I had taken a liking to the city in previous years. After several months of the hustle-bustle of travel and sightseeing throughout Europe – all in positive, life-changing though exhausting ways – it was nice to have a few days to myself. I slept late, I wandered, I intentionally lost myself in the streets, markets, and general commotion of everyday life and language. It was liberating; I set out with the full intention of fulfilling the phrase “not all who wander are lost.” Or maybe I really was lost. Either way, it made me happy.
My favorite moment was one day, while wandering along the beach with shoes in hand and feet treading the waterline, when I happened upon a group of kids. They were between 12 and 14 or so and I believe they were two girls and three boys. The girls were wearing Hijab, and they were dancing the Debka in the sand. I had tried to learn this traditional dance every year at camp, but my lack of rhythm and two left feet had proven that to be a difficulty. But I always loved watching the sure-footed among us step in time to the beat, their whole bodies alive with the music, energy seeping into us observers with every step. Watching and learning this cultural dance has always been one of my favorite parts of camp.
As I walked by this group of teenagers, I started to smile. It started out small, but as I walked and watched it grew, spreading to a huge grin that took over my whole body. I couldn’t help but let my happiness seep out; watching them was a reminder of the happiest place I know. They saw me watching them, and encouraged by my expression, they waved me over. Unsure of the extent of our language barrier, I waved back, suddenly shy, as if to say, “No, you guys continue.” Seeming to understand, they shook their heads as if they weren’t going to take no for an answer and waved me over again, this time more insistently. I gave in, laughing at our unspoken communication and their good-natured invitation, and turned my steps in their direction. I joined the group, and they looked at me expectantly. I bit my lip, shrugged my shoulders, and put my palms up, trying to say, “I have absolutely no idea how to do this correctly.” They laughed, and again without the use of a single word, began to communicate, showing me where to put my hands, when to step, and how to move my feet. Our smiles, plenty big to begin with, grew and grew with each of their sure-footed steps and every one of my clumsy ones. After a few minutes, I gestured that I had to go, and they seemed sad to see me leaving. I don’t know if it was as meaningful for them as it had been for me, but anyone could see that their smiles were genuine and laughs true.
I don’t know how to explain the feeling it gave me. It was as if my heart became lighter, and I physically couldn’t stop smiling. I hadn’t felt downtrodden beforehand, but afterwards I felt uplifted.
This was just one interaction that happened on one summer’s day in Tel-Aviv, between a few people. But the fact is that it has the potential to mean so much more. It did for me; it was a moment in which I realized intense personal growth: a willingness to open myself to others, to not only passively but actively engage in the lives of those who surround me. Even more importantly, it was an actualization of growth that would not have happened for me without Ultimate Peace and the people I am lucky enough to call my peers – be they coaches 20 years older than me, CITs four years younger, or campers who are picking up a disc for the first time. It was the same with my trip to the West Bank. The truth? I was nervous, for it was a place I/d only ever heard about and never experienced personally. But that nervousness was the reason I was going to go: I believe in connections. I believe that as a universal humanity we all strive towards connection and sometimes fear can build a wall between people but in the end all we need is for our stories to be told and heard. The fact that visiting the West Bank made me a little uncomfortable because it was something new and different provided me with the very reason for which I had to go. It was about connection; it was about understanding and it was about the stories I couldn’t feel because my experiences were and are limited. Which is the most important point of all, and the goal of Ultimate Peace. And it is a goal that has been actualized through connections between campers, between campers and coaches, and between each individual and the others in their lives, be it a friend at home or a stranger on a train platform or beach.
My time in London and my travels throughout Europe were life-changing – but they were life-changing because of the connections I made. My favorite parts came from connection: the Ultimate team I found and played with, having known not one of them before showing up to a pickup game. The group I played soccer with after finding them on a random day in Hyde Park, made up of 40-60 year old Eastern European men who came to know me only as “the girl.” The friends and family I met in the Czech Republic, who so proudly showed me their chicken coops and pig pens and beehives, and who pushed more food on me than I could possibly eat. I loved meeting these people because I was able to get a glimpse into what made them smile. I can’t think of anything more valuable than that.
And that is what Ultimate Peace is all about: making connections. I’ve explained Ultimate Peace in countless variations to countless people and groups. I have a one-minute version, a two-minute, a five-minute, a 10-minute version; I have scrapbooks and videos and stories. I can talk about the average day, I can talk about specific moments, and I can talk about our inspirational campers and CITs for hours. But what it all comes down to is connection. What makes those moments special is the understanding that two campers, or a group, or a team create together. What it all comes down to is a mutual understanding of each other. Connection is something that each and every one of us craves. What we do at camp is create the space for these connections to be made. The staff facilitates and encourages campers to come to these understandings and create these connections, and in the process we feel them too. And I’m smiling, laughing, tearing up as I sit here typing because when it comes down to it, what else could I possibly do when I think of the moments of connection – the happiest moments of my life? These connections – they have changed my life so profoundly. And if they’ve made such a difference in my life, then what about when we multiply that by hundreds? We’ve created a powerful force.
It was early in the morning, and I was leaving Acco for the 24-hour journey back to Chicago. I had a bracelet on my right wrist – one that has been on my wrist every day for two and a half years now, as it is a reminder of the connections I have experienced and witnessed with Ultimate Peace. I pulled my suitcase through the gate and started to walk toward the platform. I heard someone calling out behind me, though I could not understand what was being said. I turned around, and there was a woman, who happened to be wearing Hijab, who worked at the station. I saw her eyes focus on mine, and she held up my bracelet in her hand. My heart seemed to stop, and a rush of gratitude flowed through me. I clasped my hands in front of my heart, in what seems to be the universal symbol for “thank you.” “Shukran,” I said, the relief echoing through my expression and tone. “Shukran!” I’m sure my pronunciation was less than ideal, but I’ll never forget the look on this woman’s face, her shock at hearing me thank her in Arabic.
It wasn’t terribly dramatic to the outside viewer, but it was a moment of connection. I can’t imagine she expected me, this girl who was clearly a tourist, to reach out in her native language. It was only one word, but it was enough to make her pause, and before I turned away to run for the train, I saw a smile begin. My life is made up of these moments. They occur every day, because I am aware of them and I work to create them.
My life is filled with moments of connection, and those are the moments in which I find myself smiling, truly smiling, from somewhere deep within. And Inotice them because of Ultimate Peace. I notice them because of the deep and profound connections that I make and see being made at camp every year. And truly, nothing could bring a more beautiful smile to my heart.