A friend asked me recently what was the most important lesson I learned during the 10 years I served as a diplomat in very different countries and cultural settings. I didn’t hesitate in responding: “We can choose growth in discomfort.”

The American, Israeli and Palestinian youth who come to the Hands of Peace Summer Program are no strangers to discomfort. They come from communities rife with conflict, violence, racial discrimination, social inequities, and political polarization. They bring all of that with them to an intensive, and in many  ways  uncomfortable, 19 days in Chicago and San Diego.

During these 19 days, most of our participants are far from home. The Hands spend their mornings talking and listening — about identity, history, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and injustice. The afternoons are filled with new and sometimes frightening experiences, whether participating in a high ropes course or coming face to face with walls and systemic inequality. And they do it all with “the other.” The entire experience is uncomfortable.

If you ask our alumni about those 19 days you’ll hear about the struggle and power of dialogue. No one leaves thinking they’ve solved the conflict. But they have learned to see, hear and acknowledge each other as people. They know there is work to do, and for 19 days they glimpse a vision of what can be when people are courageous enough to choose growth by leaning into discomfort. Hear what some of our alumni have shared with me in recent conversations:

  • Alex, an American Hand said Hands of Peace gave him courage to be open about a personal struggle. “There could not be a better group to share this with,” he said, explaining that now he feels confident in being himself in any setting.
  • Avigail, from Israel, said the people she met were the most powerful part of her experience, adding “the people I met are an enormous part of my life and will always be with me.”
  • A Palestinian Hand explained that, before Hands of Peace, he thought other people’s problems were unimportant. “But when you hear them and their story, you find out it is real.”

The discomfort and growth don’t stop when our Hands return home. They’ve just started their journey as agents of change. Najil, a Palestinian Citizen of Israel alumnus raised a question that many of our alumni have been asking: “How can I apply the things I learned with Hands of Peace in my own community?”

To respond, we sought answers from our alumni, who now number over 650. During the 2020 Reimagining process, we asked them how we can evolve to be even more relevant and impactful in their lives. The answer was clear –”expand and deepen the skills and connections that were established in Chicago and San Diego so we can transform our communities. Help us build skills and connections that support us as we lean into the discomfort.” We are retooling our alumni programs to do just that. We will accompany them as they move through their formative years of study, service, and decisions about their life’s work. We will provide experiential educational opportunities to develop peacebuilding skills to apply both to personal transformation and community action. We will facilitate connection and mentoring within this growing network of young leaders who are committed to change.

With skills and connections our alumni will act. They will build on their experiences and the relationships they developed through Hands of Peace to lead change. Whether they are working in conflict resolution, medicine, diplomacy, technology, marketing, policy, education, or the environment, they will choose to contribute to positive peace. A peace that is more than an absence of conflict. A peace with justice for all, where attitudes, structures and institutions underpin and sustain peaceful societies.

I am honored to be a member of the Hands of Peace community. We are thousands strong — alumni, host-families, volunteers, donors, Board members and our team — committed to cultivating the next generation of compassionate leaders who will affect change in their own communities and in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Each of us has a different story about what brought us to Hands of Peace. Yet we are all linked by our determination to choose growth in the discomfort.