Renee Barasch, Volunteer

Reflections on a summer spent working at Project Harmony day camp, by volunteer RENEE BARASCH

This was my second summer working at the Project Harmony English Camp hosted at the Hand in Hand campus in Jerusalem. During our staff training week in June, we were asked to respond in one sentence to the question, “Why are you here?”

I answered, "Because it changed me."

This is one of the truest and most sincere statements of my life. Last summer when I first volunteered at the camp was an incredible experience. Bonding with the students and staff opened me up to an acceptance of people as they are, regardless of their political or religious affiliations.

Children are some of the most inspiring beings on the planet. To watch them learn and grow is a gift that nothing can compare to. The fact that I have now been able to be a part of that growth two summers in a row is significantly humbling. The blossoming of Project Harmony kids that I have witnessed was a major factor in my return to the camp this summer.

In June, I requested to work specifically with the same campers I worked with last summer. (A group of pre-adolescent boys that, a year ago, I was shocked to have been touched by.) Last summer, there had been an obvious conflict between some of my Arab and Jewish students. The tensions between the kids were both individual and societal, and there was a point when my co-counselors and I spoke with the Jewish student about why he felt his behavior was appropriate.

The truth was, he didn't have a totally clear understanding of why he was acting the way he was. All he knew was that he hadn't been in an integrated environment before and was responding to the change with negativity. By the end of camp, he was playing soccer side-by-side with the Arab students, and I knew that his confusion about their differences was gone, or at least had subsided for the moment.

This summer, I didn't witness or feel any tension between the kids that was specifically related to the Arab/Jewish divide. Part of that may have been due to the fact that the boys were a year older, and had already been together, and that they mostly came from integrated environments. In any case, when the boys argued, it was clear that it was simply boys being boys, and not a battle of “who belongs to what group.”

I have tried my best, when faced with a conflict between students, to not jump to any racial/religious conclusion. Project Harmony is integrated, and part of supporting the kids' encounters with each other and their internal growth means leaving them space to be individuals. They live in a society that is constantly dealing with these tensions, and giving them a safe space away from it all to just be themselves is key to them connecting on basic similar levels.

However, that being said, there are situations (such as mine from last summer) that need to be more directly addressed. I have found it's extremely important to not be accusatory with the students, but to help them try and understand why they feel the way they do toward "the other," and how those feelings might be productive or destructive.

This constant reflection is exhausting, but it is an exhaustion that comes with full reward. When I am tired at the end of a day at camp, I know that it is the best possible type of tired: the tired from managing children all day and cleaning up messes and having to collaborate in teams. Supporting the campers and supporting the counselors should make one want sleep. It's emotionally and physically exhausting. But knowing you are this exhausted means you also know that you did your job, whole heartedly.

Project Harmony may be set in a heavy political environment, but it's really much simpler than all that. It's about people being people. Over the past two summers, I have learned about myself, and I have learned who children are. That is a beautiful thing. Connecting with kids and adults and teenagers over little things like filling water balloons, playing capture the flag, and taking out garbage and cleaning bathroom stalls is underrated. Because in the end, we all have games to share and rubbish to clean up.

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