|Ben Sharp and his Seeds of Peace bunkmates.|
The course at the Bergen County Academies in Hackensack would have been impossible to imagine when we were going to school.
It’s not the topic: Empathy and Dialogue in the Middle East.
It’s the medium: Each session, students videoconference with a different teen in a different place – Israel, Jordan, Gaza, Egypt, etc.
The class provides a personal introduction to understanding a part of the world that is far away but often in the news.
Most astonishingly, it’s taught by a fellow student: 11th grader Ben Sharp, 17. An American Jew from Teaneck, he knows peers throughout the Middle East through taking part in a program called Seeds of Peace last summer.
(Ben will speak about his Seeds of Peace experience on Saturday at his synagogue, Teaneck’s Temple Emeth.)
Seeds of Peace is a nonprofit organization that runs a camp, also called Seeds of Peace, in southern Maine. The camp’s programming combines traditional summer-camp fare -sports, waterfront activities, arts and crafts – with an encounter group.
Last June, when Ben met his bunkmates, he found he was the only American Jew in a group with three Israelis, four Palestinians, one Jordanian, and one Egyptian.
There were three counselors, which was a good thing, given that when the Israelis entered the bunk and met the Palestinians who had arrived before them, “you saw this tense awkwardness you can almost cut with a knife,” Ben said.
“For most of the Palestinians and Israelis” – who, remember, all were high school students – “it was the first time they had ever come in contact with the other side.”
Yet by the end of the three-and-a-half-week session, “we were all brothers in everything except blood,” he said.
Ben believes that going on the program was the best thing he ever did.
“I met the most interesting, most kind, most passionate, most humorous people in the world,” he said. Beside the countries represented in his bunk, he made friends with students from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India.
“They’re people I still keep in touch with,” he said.
Learning to swim at summer camp requires hard work by the camper and expert guidance by swim instructors. Similarly, the friendships Ben developed at Seeds of Peace didn’t happen accidentally.
The multinational group swam in the lake together and played soccer together. But the central activity was when the group gathered in the “dialogue hut” for 90 minutes of scheduled dialogue each day.
“It was the most challenging thing I’ve ever done in my life,” Ben said. “It was challenging emotionally.”
“It was frustrating, because at first we were just yelling at each other. We were trying to get out what we wanted to say and what our opinions were. It took us a really long time to realize that if we wanted our own words to have an impact on others in the dialogue hut, we would have to offer our ears to what everyone else has to say also.
“I know it sort of sounds like a kindergarten concept, but when you put it into practical use it still applies to teenagers. It still applies to the adult world.
“Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s widely practiced.”
One of the key secrets of the dialogue process was to speak in the first person, “to share your own personal stories, how the conflict has affected you,” Ben said. “When you leave your house in Ramallah, what do you see? What do you feel?
“I saw how that had a more meaningful impact on me,” he said.
Every day for a week, the group gathered in the dialogue hut and yelled at each other.
“We were stuck,” Ben said. “They told us we were one of the most difficult dialogue groups to work with. I started to lose hope and not trust the process. You expect to move forward and not be yelling at each other the same things over and over, who was right and who was wrong in 1948. You want to reach a level of understanding but we couldn’t.
“That was so disheartening, to just be stuck and hear these really vicious tirades be thrown across each other between friends.”
Then, on the seventh day, “all of a sudden found we a way to respect each other and listen to each other. That was huge, that was everything. It was such a relief.”
The stories Ben heard from the people who were becoming friends – people with whom he was playing every day – were dramatic, painting the Israeli-Arab conflict as anything but abstract.
“I remember my friend Ahmed sharing a story of how he was walking home to his refugee camp outside of Bethlehem,” Ben said.
“He was with his younger brother and his younger brother’s best friend. They were right by the checkpoint to enter the refugee camp. There was a demonstration. He hears a shot. The next thing he knows his brother’s best friend’s brains are scattered all over his shoe.
“That hit me like a rock.
“I had to watch him say that. I had to watch the emotions on his face and the tears come out of his eyes. I could see how hard it was for him to share that story with us.
“My friend Idan was saying how his uncle was sent to neutralize a bomb that was on a bus in Tel Aviv. Something happened and he wasn’t able to deactivate it properly. Idan and his father were on the phone with the uncle as he was dying.
“That was also a difficult story to listen to that had a major impact on all of us,” he said.
In the end, the success of the dialogue and its intimacy forged friendships. “They probably know me better than some of my friends here who I’ve known all my life,” said Ben, who stays in touch with his friends through Facebook, Whatsapp, Skype, and a private social network run by Seeds of Peace.
With friends around the world, news headlines have become personal.
Shortly after he got back from camp last summer, 500 people were killed in one day in the streets of Cairo. Ben immediately texted all his friends there: Are you okay? Are your family and friends okay?
One such Cairo friend is Nouran Mohamed Sobhy, who will also be speaking at Temple Emeth. The two became friends at an evening concert put on by counselors. “One of the Egyptian kids introduced her and she started dancing to a song we both knew,” he said.
Nouran lives across the street from the presidential palace. “She’s been there for the revolution,” Ben said. “It definitely makes me worry a lot.”
The experience also taught Ben skills that he’s putting into practice as he leads the course at his high school. “I feel that I am able to understand the dynamics of a group, of a conversation, and how to influence it to make progress,” he said.
The class is a collaboration with one of the school’s Spanish teachers, an Argentinean woman who lived in Israel and served in the IDF. She long had wanted to teach an elective course on the Middle East and Ben and his overseas friends served as the catalyst.
The students in the class include a girl who was born in Israel and another from Turkey. Most of the remaining students “have no prior knowledge or experience with the conflict,” Ben said. “The entire experience is entirely new to them. It’s an adventure.”