It was the last night of camp. I’d had a long week, as we all had; I was tired, stressed, and utterly exhausted. We gathered for the last closing circle. I wanted to be more excited about it, be more emotionally invested at that moment but to be completely honest, I felt weary. But I smiled and went about my job, because that’s what we do at camp: we push through. We push through our last drop of energy and find, somewhere, yet another reserve.
We all held hands, making our “Big Circle,” and I ended up next to one of my co-coaches. He put his hand in mine, and all I could think at first was, “ew…gross.” His hand was slippery, covered in sweat, (I’m sure my own was the same), and I wanted the closing circle to end, to find my way to bed. But then, as the singing began and my friend gripped my slippery hand tighter in his, I could feel his heart beating through the palms of our hands.
I won’t lie; as I said I was weary and I was ready for a break. As my alertness faltered, the feel of his heartbeat pulled me back to the moment. I looked up at the deep, indigo night and thought about all the bombs and rockets that had flown over that very same sky. I looked up at the moon and thought about the time that had passed since I’d arrived. I gazed up at the stars, remembering how small we were and how we might as well all stick together as long as we’re here.
I felt myself pulled back in: back into the heart of Ultimate Peace as I watched us all simply be, and I felt not just one but all of our heartbeats. Simply by holding hands, I could feel the beat that kept this young man next to me alive. And if I could feel it, he could too. So could others. And I looked around the Big Circle, the Ma’agal Gadol, the Dayirat Kabira, trying to memorize each face, so that I could remember this scene when I needed it most. I wanted to remember what it felt like to feel so many heartbeats around me, each one stronger than the next, unstoppable together. There was so much life, and as I looked up into the stars I resolved to always look for the heartbeats of others: to reach out and connect, to promise a hope for a better, more peaceful future. Our combined heartbeats, I know, are stronger than we can imagine.
I draw back on that memory, paint the scene in my mind. In my mind, I walk up to each and every member of our Ultimate Peace community, and to my friends and family and countless strangers back home, and I promise them that I will keep working. That we will keep going, together. That our hearts can beat collectively, as one. That I will use my desire for peace between cultures, harmony between governments, unity amongst ourselves, as fuel for action. Today, I am thankful for the memory of heartbeats colliding, together beating for understanding, for hope, and for peace. Today, I imagine gripping the hands that possess such an unconquerable beat. Today, I think of millions of hearts beating as one.
Camp Ultimate Peace has ended after months of fundraising, a week with campers, and multiple days spent in transit. I am currently on the flip side of the largest adventure I have ever been on. Sure, I’ve had only 16 years of adventures, but I can’t imagine Camp UP ever leaving the top of my list.
As I’m positive has been the case for every administrator, coach, Leader In Training, and staff member, the days following the end of camp have been emotional. While each day felt packed and long, the week flew by. Every minute of every day I was immersed in loud cheering at mealtime, complex secret handshakes, laughter, meaningful discussions, and the playing of Ultimate. Just within my team of twelve campers I witnessed strangers become roommates, teammates, and friends. As a Leader In Training I helped lead my team discussions, cheers, dancing, and drills. The real attachment I felt for my campers became apparent when the buses left to bring the Arab-Israeli, Jewish-Israeli, and Palestinian campers home.
I feel myself repeating what I have heard countless other coaches and LITs say, but it truly amazed me to see the hugs, tears, and exchanging of contact information that came on the final day. It seemed like every camper was on the lookout for their teammates, coaches, LITs, club leaders, or anyone they had come across throughout the week to sign their shirt/hat. It was a welcomed frenzy, because it is what camp is all about: creating an oasis of peace and friendship.
I initially wanted to share an individual moment or story that would embody what Camp UP felt like, and what it meant to me. Using this story I could pass on my unforgettable experience to those who weren’t there. Thirteen hours of flying back to the states with a six hour layover gave me more than enough time to think about which moment I wanted to share. I got nothing. I had no one moment that surpassed all others. I continuously ran the week through my head, and constantly I smiled to myself as I thought of proudly standing on my chair at dinner and yelling my team’s cheer. Or when my team, as one, performed a choreographed dance to the entire camp. Or when two girls from different communities hugged and said a tearful goodbye to each other. Again, I got no moment that stood alone as the best or the most representative of my week. And then I realized how that in itself is what made Camp UP 2016 so special.
There have been moments in my life where the only way I could describe the smile on my face was pure and genuine happiness. Until this month all of those moments stuck out individually because such genuine moments occur so occasionally. The same cannot be said for my week at Camp UP. It is hard to separate one genuine moment from another, because such moments bled together and occurred with such frequency. This is why Ultimate Peace is special. Without realizing it every member of camp leaves the other aspects of their own lives at the entrance. What they do bring in is their smile and their dance moves.
Out of everything, this is the most important aspect of my life that has changed because of camp. With the magic of the Ultimate Peace program as a catalyst, I returned home with a greater ability to genuinely connect with people regardless of previous misconceptions about them.
I returned home a better person.
Today I thanked a waiter at a restaurant for bringing me extra napkins by shaking my hands at him because my mouth was full and I needed to express my gratitude. When my dad bought me fresh orange juice from a stand in Jerusalem I looked him in the eye and said “I really appreciate you”.
Reentering the real world after camp ends is all kinds of weird. I no longer have a group of girls in neon yellow jerseys and swinging ponytails following me around campus. I’m not surrounded by world class Frisbee players (who also happen to be the nicest, most interesting people I’ve ever met). I’m actually well rested. My voice is starting to come back. It’s been 24 hours since I last sung “One Day” or “Wavin’ Flag” or danced to the “Cha Cha Slide.” And it feels so wrong!
I think it took until this day of returning to reality to realize the magic that is camp UP. I realized that despite severe lack of sleep and countless bathroom runs with campers and water bottle fillings, I was genuinely happy for just about every moment of an entire week. It was like a natural high induced by the perfect cocktail of love, energy, friendship, sun, music, and body odor. Only now, eating my lunch quietly in a small restaurant (instead of being in a congo line around the dining hall), am I feeling the symptoms of withdrawal.
I’m not afraid of real life. And I’m not afraid of losing the friendships that I created this week (the active WhatsApp group messages and Facebook walls are truly a blessing). My fear is forgetting the details that I might not have been patient enough to document or archive: Forgetting the cheers and colors. Forgetting the sound of the first hands hitting the table before the rest of the dining hall echoed the rhythm. Forgetting the amount of boiled eggs and cucumber I ate. Forgetting what the moon looked like during closing circle. Forgetting how I felt as I watched one of my Jewish campers help adjust the UP hat on her new best friend’s hijab. Forgetting the high-fives and “I love you’s”. Forgetting the moment that a shy camper opened up to our group or when a 13 year old girl couldn’t quite wrap her head around the impact of a moving discussion and let out her emotions with a mixture of laughing and crying (joined by her coaches and LITs a few seconds later). Forgetting lyrics to “I’m a ducky girl” or forgetting whether “Bshe Yom” or “Yom Echad” came first in our version of “One Day”. Forgetting the few Arabic words I was taught, or the satisfying combination of creamy peanut butter and chocolate spread on white bread. Most of all, I don’t want to ever forget the feeling that I did something meaningful, and that hundreds of people around me were doing something meaningful too, all in their own way, all for the same purpose. (Also can’t forget about the cats!)
Sometimes I forget that the people who make UP happen are in a minority—the group of people who are familiar with the region’s history and current situation, yet still have an unwavering hope and an overwhelming desire for peace. I am so grateful.
Well friends, I am officially homesick. Or, to be more precise, I have finally realised that I am homesick. It’s not something I am particularly used to feeling-one more thing pulling me outside of my comfort zone. I used to think that one would outgrow things like this. That homesickness was something my ten-year-old campers would feel, rather than the coaches. It’s hubris like that which makes the days long and saps my energy until I feel like little more than a walking cabbage with anxiety wearing a smile. Ever since I came to the realisation that I miss my bed, my diet, my sleep schedule, things have gotten a little bit easier.
If only my campers would come to the same conclusion, and they will. They are troopers, they really are. In my group there are two ten year olds who have never left home before and spent most of our first day clammed up, not smiling, and speaking very little English. It was hard to not be able to console them, tell them everything was going to be OK, and promise them that they would enjoy camp!
But something has changed, now, on day two. Some switch flipped. And although we can still hardly understand each other, we can still toss a Frisbee back and forth.
When we can toss a Frisbee back and forth we can smile and cheer for each other.
When we praise each other we can laugh together.
When we can laugh together we can high five each other.
When we can high five each other we can create team handshakes.
When we create team handshakes we can create team names.
When we build teams at Camp Ultimate Peace, we are actually building families.
I hope my campers learn that it’s OK to feel scared, lonely, or homesick because you can always keep trying, keep throwing, and keep connecting. Maybe our forehands aren’t crisp and can’t quite make it to chest height yet, but they are still forehands. We can’t speak the same language yet, but we still love throwing backhands to one another. Our backgrounds and histories might be different but we still love to give each other high fives. We belong.
I am sure that my campers still miss their homes, their families, their routines. I am sure that I still miss mine. But maybe, just maybe, they have learned the secret that when you are around these people, when you are in this place, you always belong because you are home. I certainly have.
Last night, Camp Ultimate Peace celebrated the graduation of 13 leaders in training from UP’s signature leadership development program. This class represents the largest class in the five-year history of the program, and the ceremony featured both personal and fun examples of the teenagers’ growth through the three years.
The event had three unique components: a video of their time together – constructed by the graduates themselves; tri-lingual recognition of each graduate with a presentation of the graduation certificate and Five Ultimate gear; finally a song, led by a previous leadership program graduate and a coach visiting Camp from the US.
Graduating at Camp 2016 represents the third and final development stage for these 13 young people: Campers up through Camp 2013. They then worked hard as LITs for three years: growing closer, learning our sport and values, then completing projects.
From now on these 13 young people are full-fledged coaches and administrators, including Camp this week, our deepest and strongest in UP history. Congratulations to the newest staff of Ultimate Peace!!!