Eitan

Throughout my life, my years have been divided into essentially two parts. The fall, winter, and spring were school seasons, and the summer months were spent in various camps. There were day camps, sleep away camps, and several travel camps, through which I toured both the east and west coasts of the United States, as well as Israel. These programs, albeit diverse in style and nature, lacked a certain diversity in its participants; despite coming from around the country, all the campers were, like myself, modern orthodox religious Jews. That, in part, is what made this past summer’s program so unique.

Going in to the UN program, I was certain that the other group members would be different than me in any number of ways, as the goal of the program was, as advertised, to promote diversity and tolerance. For me, meeting and associating with new people from a similar religious, cultural, and economic background can be a daunting task, and even under those circumstances, it is difficult to develop strong, meaningful relationships with them. Moreover, as a student at a private, religious school, I rarely had any opportunity to interact with teens my age from other backgrounds at any level, and I was duly unnerved by the prospect of meeting such people. I feared that due to the homogeneity of my peers up till that point, I had inadvertently and involuntarily become a bigot, that the false stereotypes brought on by inexperience would be so imbedded in my beliefs that I would be destined to remain ignorant. Although I understood this program would undoubtedly be a learning experience, I was inevitably concerned as to how much I would actually enjoy the following two weeks.

The first day, I saw immediately that I was in an unquestionably kind, welcoming group of people, which considerably lessened my worries. But, upon introducing ourselves, and my getting to know the other people, including the second day orientation of a latecomer, a potential problem arose in my mind: four out of the five group members (besides myself) were Muslims. I found this troublesome for two reasons; firstly, I obviously am aware of the strained relationship between the Jewish and Muslim faiths, and had accepted the notion that our peoples were destined to be enemies, a misconception circulated through both my community and the media. Secondly, on a more practical level, I was concerned about how diverse, and therefore how effective, a group could be in which two thirds of the participants were of the same religion (and a third of the group were sisters).

While the latter remained a concern, I quickly dismissed any worries of the former; the mere fact that the referenced participants were born to Muslim parents did not in any way affect their qualities as people, nor impair their perception of me as a Jew. I found it reassuring that despite the current political and religious conflicts, we remained tolerant, respectful and open minded. The Israeli- Palestinian issue inevitably arose. I advocated the Israeli cause, and received reasoned rebuttal from a girl of Palestinian descent, who shed light on a perspective I had not considered. While the debates were heated, neither of us willing to forfeit the claim of our peoples, they were carried about amicably, and, at least from my point of view, never got too personal. Additionally, I was happily surprised to discover that the other Muslim participants had not entered with preconceived decisions about who was right, and came to conclusions based on the merits of our arguments, not their religious affiliations. While my opponent and I were understandably biased on the issue, I found hope in the objectiveness of others.

I do feel that I had positive relationships with all the group participants, and did learn a great deal about each of them and their respective cultures, both religious and social. Concerning Israel, although I cannot say I agree with the Palestinian cause, I have definitely learned about, and can sympathize with, their situation at a new level. I know it sounds clichéd, but through the diversity of the group, I also learned a lot about myself and my own culture. In the course of the program, I had to explain the intricacies and restrictions of eating Kosher and other Jewish regulations, and through this came to appreciate the depth of the religion and the commitment of my ancestors and past generations to tradition in order to keep Judaism alive for thousands of years. Developing new friendships with all the participants gave me a new confidence in my overall tolerance of other people. Though I was probably the most sheltered of all the participants, who had been exposed to a more diverse crowd in their life than me, I hope I served as a positive example in explaining my culture and customs. In all honesty, I hope that I represented my people as attractively and warmly as they did theirs.
The activities themselves were also a lot of fun, both the recreational and United Nations based ones. I found that the hours spent at our headquarters, brainstorming, arguing, or merely talking about pop culture were consistently productive and entertaining. Ironically, the program as a whole turned out to be more enjoyable as well as educational, a twist appreciated especially during summer vacation.

 

 

ALL human beings are born FREE and EQUAL in dignity and rights. 

-Universal Declaration of Human Rights