The children hopped around on stage and beckoned for their parents to join them in chipper camp songs. They looked like any group of preteens just back from camp, but they had just returned from more than a week of sharing confusion and fears over their religious identities. The experience was meant to help them navigate the historically fraught relationships among Muslims, Jews, and Christians.
They are 12- and 13-year-olds from the Boston and Jerusalem areas. In a celebration at the Temple Beth Zion in Brookline on Sunday filled with singing, dancing, and demolishing a substantial slab of cake, the two-dozen children, members of Kids4Peace Boston, wrapped up a 10-day summer camp, which encourages religious understanding and tolerance through getting to know peers from different cultures.
“To put yourself out there and talk about really personal beliefs; to tell your story, often not in their native languages, to your peers, is so brave,” said Sindy Wayne, incoming executive director of Kids4Peace Boston.
Along with two junior counselors who have worked with the program for years, a dozen children from Jerusalem and the West Bank spent a week at Camp Merrowvista in New Hampshire and visited prayer services in Boston with a dozen children from Massachusetts.
Farah Abu Tair and Nataia Amer, both 12-year-olds from Jerusalem, beamed in the basement of the synagogue, where a reception room had tables offering food as well as camp souvenirs, such as T-shirts and photos. Children swarmed around the synagogue, taking selfies and devouring snacks, half of them preparing for more than 14 hours of flying back to Jerusalem that night.
Alternating between speaking English and Arabic, the latter through a translator, Amer said she had prepared herself to encounter unfamiliar religious differences. She shrank bashfully when reminded that she had been chosen “most caring” by the other campers.
Amer “did not fear other opinions,” she said through the translator. “She wanted to learn.”
Through her four years with the program, junior counselor Elizabeth Nies-Greeley said the differences between her Lexington-based Christian family and the friends she had made through the program transcend regional conflicts.
“It doesn’t have to be about a war,” she said, wearing the camp shirt emblazoned with “Salaam/Shalom/Peace.” Extending compassion and understanding “can be about something little,” said Nies-Greeley, 17. Her mother, Nancy Nies, said her daughter found the program on her own, but their family admired her dedication to what they see as “embracing differences and the needs of different cultures. . . . [It] is extremely important to us.”
The families who send their children — some going away from home for the first time — to the program typically value the need for an inclusive conversation, said Matt Loper, executive director of the Boston group.
There is not “100 percent buy-in,” however, he said, and some children do not feel secure enough to discuss the program with family or neighbors when they return to Jerusalem.
The participants usually find out about the camp through family, friends, and faith communities, organizers said.
Abu Tair found out about it from friends, her sister, and papers distributed through her school. “I am in a safe place’’ to discuss religion, she said, “because everyone needs peace and wants peace.”
Kids4Peace uses summer camps and year-round activities, including leadership groups, to try to foster friendships and mutual appreciation regardless of religious affiliation.
Farah Abuarja, 23, a Muslim from Palestine and an Arabic speaker, is a graduate student at Northeastern University. When she heard about the program, it seemed to be a natural fit.
She watched the children grow past their initial nervousness and begin to connect.
“I would learn all about their lives,” she said, calling the experience “incredible.”
Offering the program to 12-year-olds is strategic, Loper said, as they are on the cusp of developing their own opinions while drawing on unique life experiences.
When another camper suggested that “Jewish people were bad people,” 12-year-old Talia Fein of Arlington found it hard to hear. “There’s never just one word to describe one kind of people,” she said.
Looking back on the experience, Fein would advise newcomers that “whatever starting opinion you might have, get it out of your head now, because whatever it is, it’s not true.”Jennifer Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org