Gretchen Grad first imagined Hands of Peace as a response to the horrific events of September 11, 2001, and the great divisions exposed in its aftermath. Much has changed since that time. With the changing and challenging realities around us, our commitment to peace, freedom, equality, and justice for all is needed now more than ever.

With the cancellation of the Summer Program for the first time in 17 years due to the pandemic, there is a silver lining. We have the perfect opportunity to assess our long-term impacts, and reflect on the context we are now working in and what we want to create. This year is dedicated to Reimagining Hands of Peace.

Hands of Peace remains grounded in its promise to empower young leaders to raise their voices as leaders of change. How we do that and how we make Hands of Peace more relevant and effective are the crucial questions we are asking today.

  • What do our alumni need from Hands of Peace to become more effective leaders of change?  What impacts do they want to have?
  • How should our mission, vision, and values evolve to support these desired impacts?
  • What are the essential elements that our program must include to achieve these impacts and advance our mission?
  • What are the internal and external resources needed to support such a program?
  • What are the processes and timelines to secure those resources, and how will we measure our progress?

This five-step process of Reimagining Hands of Peace will unfold between now and the end of October. This month we launched Phase One as we dig deep for ideas about the impact we can have. Our Site Directors and Regional Managers have called together ten focus groups, two groups from each delegation. The groups include recent and older alumni, as well as participant parents. All are asked to bring their full voice to the table.

For more detail go here:

For the July 2020 update go here:

Hands of Peace has faced many challenges over 17 years. The sheer nature of the work of empowering youth leaders to be peacebuilders in Israel/Palestine and the U.S. requires us to be nimble and thoughtful in our strategies and to adjust direction as needed. This is a time where we recognize a need to question our established course, while remaining rooted in our mission and commitment to equality, freedom, justice and a positive peace. As a grassroots program, we are seeing the politics, policies, and cultural shifts taking place in Israel/Palestine and the U.S. These changes require us to take a hard look at how to create and implement effective programming to empower young leaders to make the most impact in their communities. With the cancellation of the summer program due to COVID-19, the board and staff of Hands of Peace is committed to taking the time to pause and look deeply inward through the remainder of 2020. Reimagining Hands of Peace is a collaborative process that is true to our nature, utilizing dialogue and critical thinking to build real transformation. That means we will involve our staff, alumni, and community in a strategic process of deep listening and of asking challenging questions to shape new initiatives for the highest good.
Yes, it has everything to do with the changed political realities of today. Looking inward truly means we are examining our relevance in today’s geopolitical landscape and how Hands of Peace programming is empowering youth. Reimagining Hands of Peace is a response to an ever-changing climate that is often disempowering for young people. Our choice is to either succumb to the changed realities in which our alumni and youth would be disempowered, or to take a critical look inward and find ways to empower youth within these changed situations. We’re committing to do the latter and to focus on relevance and impact. The process of Reimagining is to listen to our alumni and community and understand how our programming can better transform individuals and communities in today’s world.
The mission of Hands of Peace to empower young Israeli, Palestinian and American teens will not change. What is likely to change is how we execute programs in each community we serve. Hands of Peace serves American youth in Chicago and San Diego, Palestinian youth in the West Bank, Jewish Israeli youth and youth who are Palestinians and live in Israel. Each delegation has different issues, needs, and ways to impact the broader communities they serve. As part of Reimagining, we are listening to every delegation, studying the geopolitical climate and then structuring programming based on what we learn through our very methodical and strategic reimagining process.
Hands of Peace board member and alumnus, Adam Heffez, is the architect of the five-step process. This is a summary of what is taking place through the remainder of 2020.
1) Focus groups within all alumni delegations will help us determine the impact Hands of Peace is committed to have in 1, 5 and 10 years.
2) The board will review our current mission, vision and values statement and infuse those desired impacts from Step 1 into a revised statement.
3) With the updated mission, vision and values statement as our guide, solicit input from key stakeholder groups (XLs, older alumni, staff, and members of the Hands of Peace community) to help develop a list of the essential knowledge and skills that will enable our participants to become even more effective as leaders of change.
4) Utilizing the input we receive, determine the programming needed by our participants to acquire that knowledge and those skills. This will further involve community members engaging in marketing research processes such as surveys and focus groups.
5) Assemble a comprehensive plan and set milestones, processes and timelines to execute those initiatives.
The process is participant-driven, and we are working to include voices of participants who reflect the full spectrum of our alumni. There are individuals we served quite well, and individuals we could have served better. Our focus groups will include younger and older alumni who are still engaged with the organization. We are also including disengaged alumni to learn where we have failed to meet their needs. We are also looking at the range of political views espoused by our alumni and making sure we have the full gamut of voices providing input.
A key part of the Reimagining process is asking questions of community members who have been integral to empowering youth leaders through Hands of Peace. We will be conducting marketing research that will engage members of the community in Steps 3 and 4 (see above) to help build an impactful programming model that serves the needs of participants, alumni and communities surrounding them. This involves volunteers, host families, alumni and parents.
Our mission to empower young Israeli, Palestinian and American teens as leaders of change will not waiver. What could change is how the program is executed. For example, if we learn of the need to provide our participants with role models they can follow, we may find that one of our changes is to connect alumni with changemakers in their communities through seminars, lectures, and mentorship programming. That is just one example.
As we go through the Reimagining process, we will reshape the vision and values statement first and then develop a plan for programming. Once we have the plan in place, we will develop Site Director job descriptions and begin the hiring process. In the interim, Administrative Coordinator Sheridan Shenkin, Development Director Diana Kutlow, and Marketing and Communications Specialist Deb Lawrence are responding to the needs of our communities. Alumna Maeve Plunkett is joining the staff this summer to assist with the Reimagining process. Intern Gabi Bellows from Glenview will be doing extensive alumni outreach to update contacts and to learn more about what our alumni are doing to advance peace with justice.
Hands of Peace board and staff are completely engaged in each step of the Reimagining process. For the community, Hands of Peace is hosting Learning Conversations, online dialogues about issues relevant to current events. Recently, Hands of Peace hosted an online dialogue for alumni about racism through our Raising Youth Voices facilitation training. Additionally, we have a volunteer-run Book Circle, regular check-ins with alumni, and other programming.
The Hands of Peace Board is responsible for Reimagining Hands of Peace. They have asked Board member Adam Heffez to guide the process. A Summer Program participant in 2006 and 2007, Adam found his passion for the Middle East and international relations during the summer program and has made that his life’s work. He went to Georgetown School of Foreign Service, majoring In Arabic and diplomacy. After graduating, Adam worked in foreign policy, starting with the public sector and then moved to the Middle East to work for a U.N. funded organization in Israel and the West Bank. He studied abroad in Syria and Jordan and then went to work at a think tank in Washington, D.C. that advised the State Department and Department of Defense on Middle East foreign policy under the Obama administration. During that time, he wrote for Forbes, the Atlantic, and other publications on issues in the Middle East. Interested in approaching peacebuilding from an economic perspective, Adam got an MBA at Stanford business school. He is now working at Facebook in product strategy, launch, and internationalization. Hands of Peace is fortunate to have his skills and gifts to guide the organization through this process.