Flinging Frisbees for peace

Flinging Frisbees for peace

Jewish and Arab kids to show ultimate skills in Teaneck

The competition is fierce but friendly among Israeli and Arab competitors in ultimate Frisbee.
The competition is fierce but friendly among Israeli and Arab competitors in ultimate Frisbee.

A group of Israelis and Palestinians will visit Teaneck on Sunday, as part of an American trip whose high point is a pilgrimage to Maplewood.

The high school students are traveling under the aegis of Ultimate Peace, an organization seeking to bring about Middle East peace, or at least friendly coexistence, through the sport of ultimate Frisbee.

It was at Maplewood’s Columbia High School that the sport of ultimate Frisbee was invented. That was back in 1968, when Joel Silver — who would grow up to be a producer of “The Matrix” and many other films — brought the idea to the student council. The game combines the general principles of soccer — but instead of kicking a ball, players throw a disk. (Please note that Mr. Silver did not invent Frisbee. He just made it competitive.)

Fifty years later, the World Flying Disk Federation is recognized by the International Olympics Committee and has dozens of national affiliates. The most recent rankings for ultimate Frisbee place Israel at spot number 30, between Portugal and the United Arab Emirates. (The United States is number one.)

Ultimate Frisbee is a child of the 1960s, and its acolytes still boast of its hippie-like ethos. Most notably, its players eschew umpires and referees, replacing them with negotiated conflict resolution.

It’s within that context that Ultimate Peace seeks to bring together Jews and Arabs, girls and boys, from Israel and the West Bank for Frisbee, fun, and friendship. Seventeen high school students from Ultimate Peace’s Leaders-in-Training program are on a 10-day trip to America that includes stops in Maplewood, Paramus, Brooklyn, and, on Sunday morning, Temple Emeth in Teaneck.

Temple Emeth’s president, Amy Abrams, is a fan of Ultimate Peace. “The work Ultimate Peace does is truly amazing,” she wrote in an email. “The communities in which they work would not interact with, or even visit, each other under normal circumstances. With a staff mix of Israelis, Arabs, and Americans, UP coaches about 300 kids weekly in 20 different communities and brings them together for local tournaments and leadership training sessions during the year. The program culminates each year with a one-week residential summer camp where the kids live together, play on mixed teams, make friends, talk, and have fun.”

Happy coexistence is evident during the matches.

Ms. Abrams has a personal connection to Ultimate Peace: Her son, Scott Graber, has been involved with it for nearly seven years, first as a coach at its summer camp, and then as a full-time staff member.

Mr. Graber’s Ultimate Frisbee career began at Tenafly High School, where he took charge of what had been a pickup club and led the team to state tournaments. He was on the school team at Carleton College in Minnesota, and it won its Division III championship.

He got the call to help Ultimate Peace in 2011. A Carleton College alum was head coach at the organization and reached out to the head of Carleton’s Arabic department — “a Jewish guy from Haifa,” Mr. Graber says — for skilled Frisbee players willing to coach at Ultimate Peace’s summer camp. The professor passed the request to Mr. Graber, who was studying Arabic, and the Tenafly native spent the summer in Israel helping out at the ultimate Frisbee camp.

He found that two years of college Arabic was not good preparation for understanding Arabic as it was spoken; the two are different. “Mostly it sounds like I was speaking Latin and they were speaking Italian,” he said. “It wasn’t super.”

His Arabic was good enough to coach the group of middle school girls he was assigned — particularly because English was their shared neutral language. The campers included Jewish Israelis, Arab Israelis, and Palestinians from the West Bank. “There was a big language divide,” he said.

He came back and coached again the next year.

After college, he wanted to keep working on language learning. He spent a year teaching in France. The week he finished, Ultimate Peace had an opening for a coach.

A helping hand up is a big part of Ultimate Frisbee as played by ultimate Peace participants.

“I was 22,” he said. “I wanted to learn more Arabic. I got to live in Israel and work on my Arabic and Hebrew. I came for a ten-month fellowship and that turned into four years,” he said.

Besides his work with Ultimate Peace, he is a player and coach for Jerusalem’s ultimate team, the J City Titans and he plays on the men’s’ national team.

Mr. Graber said Ultimate Peace succeeds in its goal of bringing together children who would ordinarily never cross paths, despite the language barriers.

“When you get them in a game and the game gets competitive, there’s not that much talking going on,” he said. “Whatever kid is on the field will grab the kid who seems the best. Their goal is to win the game.

“At the same time, Jewish kids going to the north to an Arab village for the first time get nervous,” he said. “The camp is a more neutral space, which is very helpful.”

Rachel Winner runs Ultimate Peace’s Leaders-In-Training, a three-year program for high school students. The trip to America is the highlight of the second year.

“We had a lot of kids who were passionate about the program and connected to the other kids,” she said. But while they were deeply committed to the program, they were not necessarily as interested in the athletics. “We expanded how they can lead beyond the sport itself,” she said.

“The organization is very apolitical. We teach these young leaders that they have the power to envision something completely different and then act upon it. Creating peace is work that comes from within first, and then spreads outward in building something different.”

The program for the young leaders includes critical thinking exercises, conflict resolution skills, and negotiation techniques — along with learning how to make calls on the field.

The summer camp is where Ultimate Peace began, as the offshoot of another organization that did sports for peace work. But after a couple of years, the coaches realized that between culture shock and language barriers, they needed to develop a community of local coaches.

That’s where the high school students who are touring New Jersey and New York this week came in.

“It started as an opportunity for deeper interaction among community members,” Ms. Winner said. “The high school kids come together once a month and really learn how to coach.”

Mr. Graber offers tips for those interested in exploring ultimate Frisbee.

“The best thing you can do is just throw a lot,” he said. “Find a pickup game. The community in ultimate is very friendly and welcoming. People were very welcoming of me as a kid. I was playing two days a week at Van Saun park in Paramus. There’s still a pickup game there Monday and Thursday nights.”

Who: Ultimate Peace participants

What: Presentation, Q&A, and — weather permitting — an outdoor Frisbee demonstration

Where: Temple Emeth, 1666 Windsor Roads, Teaneck

When: 11:30 a.m., Sunday, April 8

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