“Building Bridges for Peace” Around the Dinner Table

By Jacob Schor

 

  I've volunteered for an interesting job. This August I will cook for a summer camp comprised of sixty teenage women: a mixed group of Israeli, Palestinian and American girls. I'm fretting over menus, wondering if the road to peace can start at a dinner table.

  Since1994, I've watched as our dear friend, Melodye Feldman, has turned a dream, (which I admit I once considered something of a fantasy) into an inspiring reality. Each summer she brings a plane load of teenage girls from Israel and the Palestinian territories to the United States for "camp." She brings in American girls as well. The program is perfectly named "Seeking Common Ground."

  Then she helps them learn to talk and listen to each other. She pulls them out of their narrow worlds of fear, danger, and hatred and brings them to "common ground" in the United States . Jew, Muslim, Christian, and Israeli, these girls, talking, eating, laughing and crying together, discover they have more in common than they would have guessed. They have the capacity to understand each other and, even more remarkably, they often become friends.

 

Seeking Common Ground

  Melodye has fancy words for what she does; she didn't get her graduate degree in social work from DU for nothing. When you read the descriptions of the Seeking Common Ground program on their website, it's all about communication skills, opportunities, foundational relationships, leadership roles and other polysyllabic words and intellectual concepts. Let me try to explain what it means to me.

  The short term goal is simple. The girls each tell their story and those, from what has always been "the other side," learn to listen. They listen well enough to be able to tell the story back to the others.

  No one expects to solve the world's problems in two weeks. No one even asks for agreement. Yet in the lives of these young women, Building Bridges (the summer camp component of Seeking Common Ground) offers them what may be their first chance at moving toward a more peaceful future. The trip to America also offers them their first romp in a Super Target. Israeli and Palestinian girls are equally blown away.

  Almost a thousand girls have participated in this program in the last ten years. Similar programs, also run by Seeking Common Ground, are held for teens in Ireland , South Africa , Israel and the United States . Participants from the first programs have become leaders of these other programs.

 

Acting Locally

  When these young women speak of their struggles and their passion to change their worlds, they tug at my heart, and my throat ratchets a bit tighter. I always want to step forward and say, “How can I help?”

  This year is my chance

  Those of you who read my columns is this newspaper know that as a naturopathic doctor I pay careful attention to the food we eat, and as a hedonist I love good food.

  So I'm planning two weeks of menus today for Israeli, Palestinian and American girls. It's all going to be cooked at high altitude. Some of the Jewish girls keep Kosher. Some of the Muslim girls eat only Halal foods. There will be a smattering of vegetarians among these adventurous and thoughtful young women. As I sit reading cookbooks, I am already seeing the girls in a different light.

 

Mediterranean Diet

  The girls coming from the Middle East have more in common than they realize. In Israel and the Palestinian territories, people still eat "real" food. Fresh vegetables, fresh fruit, fresh bread, olives, olive oil, fish, grains and fresh cheeses are the mainstays of the diet.

  Health conscious Americans may aspire to eat a Mediterranean diet. These girls have eaten a Mediterranean diet all their lives. A typical Israeli breakfast includes a cucumber, several tomatoes, olive oil, olives, soft cheese, fresh fruit and perhaps a hard boiled egg. Compare this, if you dare, to an American teenager's diet. Finding foods to satisfy the American kids may be my bigger challenge. Allowing the Middle Eastern girls to discover what they have in common with each other may be my hidden agenda.

 

Colorado Paradox

  My challenge is simple. How do I feed sixty girls a diet that will keep them all happy? Though I may refer to Building Bridges as a summer camp, it's far from a party. They will have a lot on their minds, they will do a lot of hard emotional work and I don't want them to worry about food. Ideally, I want them to look forward to it.

  Despite the health benefits, I can't just cook Middle Eastern food. These kids didn't fly all the way to Colorado to eat Falafel. The menu is going to look very American: fried chicken, strawberry shortcake, burgers, fries, and apple pie. Somehow I have to prepare these foods in the healthier Mediterranean style and capture the taste and benefits of fresh foods.

  First thing is to forget about frozen entrees, we'll cook from scratch. Second is to double the salad and fruit portions. Third, is to supply a few basic comfort foods. For the American girls, we'll always put out peanut butter and jelly. For our guests, I think this will mean fresh humus, olive oil and pita

  I've still got ten weeks to figure out how to do this. I'll keep you posted.

   For more information about Seeking Common Ground, check out their website at www.s-c-g.org .