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By Kathy RoutliffeContact Reporter
Winnetka Talk
July 25, 2018

Above: Fourteen-year-old Uri, a Jewish Israeli teen, sings a jazz standard during the Hands of Peace program. (Brian O’Mahoney / Pioneer Press)

The teens at Winnetka’s Elder Lane Park on Tuesday looked like any group of picnicking kids their age; chowing down on hot dogs, goofing around with each other, laughing through a highly informal softball game and launching into impromptu song performances.

But the 44 kids in purple T-shirts, each with the Glenview-based Hands of Peace program logo on it, were extraordinary.

Most were Jewish teens from Israel and Palestinian teens, some of the latter Palestinian citizens of Israel and others residents of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. A few were American teens.

They had spent more than two weeks together, living with host families in Chicago and on the North Shore, learning to listen to each other and to know each other as human beings.

That’s an intense and often difficult process for young men and women who have known little except decades of conflict in Israel and their home territories, said program executive director Rick Rosenfeld.

Above: Fifteen-year-old Rabea, a Palestinian citizen of Israel, kicks a soccer ball during the picnic. (Brian O’Mahoney / Pioneer Press)

Hands of Peace was born in 2003, in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, when Glenview resident and co-founder Gretchen Grad wanted to find some way to work past the hate that generated that attack.

Although Hands of Peace has grown, and now hosts teens in California as well as Chicago each summer, the program’s goal remains the same, despite higher tensions in Israel, the Palestinian territories and around the world, Rosenfeld said.

That’s to send the teens home at the end of their roughly three week visit with tools of empathy and leadership that could eventually help bring peace to the region.

“We’re empowering young people to be leaders of change,” the Northbrook resident said. “Each comes out of the program vastly changed. Not only that, but it’s step one of a lifelong journey.”

Sometimes that journey continues with Hands of Peace.

Maor Yehiel, now 29, was a participant back in 2006. The next year, he returned to be a counselor, known as an XL, helping new program participants as he’d been helped. Now, after serving in the Israeli army and gaining more life experience, the Haifa resident is one of the program’s adult chaperones.

Yehiel said the gap between the friendships that Hands of Peace teens find in the program and the refusal of adults on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to listen to each other has to be bridged.

“We’re not trying hard enough, on either side,” he said. “You have to understand there are people on the other side. The phrase that is always in my head is, ‘Once you know, you cannot ignore.’ And Hands of Peace has paved my way.”

Seventeen-year-old Jewish Israeli teen Ravid is now an XL helping to guide program newcomers. He said he participated last year in Hands of Peace because he’d never talked to Arab teens before, and “because I wanted to understand why they hate me.”

By the end of his 2017 visit to Chicago, “I talked to Palestinians and they told me their stories. I felt something in my mind change.”

Returning to Israel wasn’t easy, he admitted: “It was tough to talk to people. Some people called me traitor.” The difficulty is worth it if it helps continue dialogue, he said.

Malak, a 16-year-old Palestinian citizen of Israel, said she faced similar charges even before joining the program this year. As a member of the Druze religion, she said, Israeli acquaintances pressure her to consider herself Israeli.

“On the Palestinian side, many tell me I’m a betrayer to be here,” she said. “But I’m here to say that Druze are Palestinians. I’m here to break stereotypes, and to listen.”

At 14, Uri is one of this year’s youngest participants. The Jewish teen said he had always been interested in the conflict and thought this was a way to learn more. What he found, he said, was the surprise of becoming close to people he might never have met outside the program.

“It’s amazing the spirit of family we have here. It’s not friends or enemies. We are all together,” he said. “Most times when we see Palestinians we only see their leaders. This is the way we can learn the perspective of the people. I want to tell that perspective to people when I return home.”