We have talked about Ultimate Peace for a year. We have requested donations, reached out at tournaments, organized complex travel plans, and shared with many people the importance of this work. We flew long, unusual paths to get here and have spent many hours informing and preparing ourselves for some 165 Middle Eastern kids who arrive today.
Are we ready?
Shockingly, it was not as easy as I thought it would be – walking into a new group of young people in a country halfway across the world who chat away familiarly in what seem to me foreign languages. They hug, laugh, cheer, dance, and perform intimately created handshakes as I watch silently from afar, hoping that it’s the sun turning my face red rather than my apparent awkwardness. Occasionally, I exchange shallow conversation with those I met in years past on their Friendship Tour to America.
We’ve made it back to camp and are welcoming in Camp UP 2017! Staff arrived yesterday morning and we’ve been at it ever since – meeting our coaching teams and planning for practices, preparing activities for campers, organizing mountains of gear, climbing trees to put up UP banners, and getting to know one another as members of a creative, collaborative peace-building team. This is camp #8 for me, and one of my favorite parts has always been getting to know the diverse and inspiring set of peacemakers. We all have so much to learn from one another, and it begins the moment we set foot on campus. We’re all putting our own skills to work and gaining new ones in the process.
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.