Hands of Peace has been an important part of my life for nearly 20 years. My first exposure was when, as a member of Glenview Community Church, I attended a presentation delivered by Hands of Peace founder Gretchen Grad, describing the recently completed first Summer Program. As I listened to Gretchen speak about this bold experiment, bringing Israeli, Palestinian, and American teens together in Glenview, a Chicago suburb, for a three-week dialogue program, I knew I wanted to get involved.
So I volunteered. I planned meals, managed volunteers, gave presentations in local schools, and traveled to Israel and Palestine to recruit staff and participants. I joined the Board and twice served as Board Chair. And I hosted 15 times – staff and participants I am still in touch with today.
What is the pull that has made Hands of Peace such a central part in my life and the lives of thousands of others across the U.S. and in the Middle East? For me, it’s a combination of the mission and the people.
Our mission is to empower American, Israeli and Palestinian youth to become agents of change. This does not mean we will solve the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. In the 20 years since Hands of Peace began, we have seen periods of progress towards peace with justice and periods where peace seems completely unattainable. We have conducted programs in times when conditions in the Middle East were especially volatile. I recall one year when our participants arrived just days after a war between Israel and Lebanon began. We had staff members with family in the IDF fighting in Lebanon. We had participants who could not reach their parents at home to check their safety as phone lines were jammed.
Yet these brave young people continued each day in their facilitated dialogue sessions, sharing their fears, their anger, their personal stories and their hopes. Voices were raised –there were lots of tears. But they were learning to listen to each other and to be more coherent in framing their narratives with the careful guidance of trained facilitators. We’ve come to expect these dynamics every year, whatever the current circumstances. Because even in between major upheavals, life is always a struggle for our young people and staff. I am glad they know that Hands of Peace is a community that cares about them all.
The dialogue grows into educational programs and action after our Summer Program with follow-up programming in Israel/Palestine and the U.S. Alumni continue to come together, in person or by Zoom, to keep the dialogue going, even as they attend college or join the military, build careers, and start families.
Hands of Peace and other organizations committed to peace with justice for Israel and Palestine are making a difference. Through personal connection, Americans, Israelis and Palestinians come to recognize their common humanity. Youth build skills that will serve them well as they develop into agents of change. This is a mission that is worth every day of the 20 years I’ve been privileged to serve and witness their brave commitment and personal transformation.
In my first official week as Executive Director, alumni and staff were closely following the elections in Israel and the U.S. Both will have a serious impact on all who care about peace and justice. Listening to staff members share their diverse thoughts and feelings about possible outcomes and how those will impact their lives and our organization is sobering. They care deeply for one another and the young people they influence, not just those from their own culture.
We also have wonderfully dedicated volunteers in Chicago and San Diego. It takes an army of selfless volunteers to serve as host families, event planners, fundraisers, board members, recruiters, donors, and ambassadors for our mission. Like the participants, volunteers don’t always agree about politics or policies. But they are united behind our mission and in our abiding commitment to our youth I can honestly say that I have never known a finer group of people.
I would love to speak to you personally about Hands of Peace and how you might become involved or increase your current involvement. Please reach out to me at email@example.com.