Wednesday, January 02, 2008

The Jerusalem International YMCA-the Child Shall be Father to the Man

By Mac McKinney

We have just celebrated the Birthday of the Prince of Peace, so it would be appropriate to take a look at what an organization strongly dedicated to Christian values is doing in Jerusalem, the Holy City of Judaism during Christ's birth, as well as becoming a Holy City to Christians and Moslems later. Just as a small child came to teach humanity back then of a better way, some very small children can teach us a better way now.


On September 21, 2007, a global event took place that many of us were not aware of: the sixth annual United Nations International Day of Peace, voted upon and approved in the Fall of 2001 and first celebrated internationally in 2002. In its 2001 resolution, the United Nations declared “that the International Day of Peace shall henceforth be observed as a day of global cease-fire and non-violence, an invitation to all nations and peoples to honour a cessation of hostilities for the duration of the Day…”

Prior to this global and permanent Peace Day being designated, the UN did have a prior incarnation of a peace day dating to 1981, but this was a “floating holiday” of sorts that coincided with the opening of the UN General Assembly in late September, and which had no formal cease-fire declaration. An English actor named Jeremy Gilley, aware of the weakness of this earlier day of peace, launched himself on an amazing odyssey in 1999, one lasting well over a year, that took him around the world to meet with thousands of dignitaries and ordinary people, both in and out of war zones, in an effort to build support for a new Peace Day resolution, which was finally achieved in 2001. Since the September 21st event was inaugurated, millions of people have gotten involved in its celebration.

I was part of a local Virginia celebration of Peace Day this year, and we ended up registering with several international organizations that help to promote this day globally, 1) Jeremy Gilley’s Peace One Day; 2) the International Day of Peace (IDP), in particular its “Vigil” section, which creates webspace for groups to register and promote themselves, as well as communicate with each other; and in like vein, 3) an organization called WiserEarth, which not only registers groups for Peace Day activities, but for peace and justice activities in general. So, now linked to the body politic of the September 21st peace activities, we would eventually begin receiving emails of other organizations’ activities.

When I got home that evening and checked my email, I was already starting to get postings through the IDP Vigil network from around the world, everywhere from the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the Fiji Islands, to Malaysia and even from climbers who unfurled a huge peace banner on the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro.

The Jerusalem International YMCA

I also received an email from Jerusalem, this divided city that has served as a historical center of worship for three great faiths: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In this torn and troubled city, and region, a remarkable social experiment is taking place. The adult leaders on this planet seem to have run out of viable ideas on how to build lasting peace in the Holy Land (how ironic an image), preferring to remain entrenched in enmity, posturing and intrigues. Even the recent Annapolis Peace Conference seemed tainted with the scent of Machiavellianism. So we are now at the point where, it seems, the child must be father to the man.

I have been a member of one YMCA or another off and on through the years. When I was a kid I was a member of the Central YMCA in San Francisco, and, although I was from a card-carrying WASP family with all of their classic prejudices and airs, I found myself, at the Y, being thrown into the sea of humanity, because my fellow kids were of every which persuasion, our counselors and instructors were often Filipino and Hawaiian, and any sort of nationality, child or adult, might walk through the door. I remember, in particular, this old Russian weight-lifter, who although he was so stiff from old age that he could only shuffle around the weight room, could still bench press 500 pounds in between his intriguing tales of life in Russia.

So the YMCA, with its many branches throughout the world, can be a great gathering point for humanity, a great leveler of prejudices and stereotypes, indeed a great unifier when its members work out and team up or compete with each other. Perhaps we should inundate Palestine, Lebanon and Israel with YMCAs instead of the artifacts of war.

The Jerusalem International YMCA Peace Preschool, which consists of 135 Arab, Jewish and Christian children from the ages of 1 to 5 years old sent an email with a Peace Day poster with both photos of the kids and peace salutations and blessings in English, Hebrew and Arabic. This is the social experiment, or, social future, I am talking about, because this is not at all a laboratory test, but rather a realization of our shared humanity.

The social goal of the preschool, as Adena Levine, the director puts it, is to “facilitate coexistence between Arabs and Jews on a daily, ongoing basis, as a normal part of life for children and their families” and to “expose the children to the Other and to the Other’s culture, language and religion, enabling the development of tolerance and understanding, while preserving the distinct characteristics of each child and its cultural identity. This is not modeled after a melting pot, but rather after coexistence of diversities.”

Christian, Jewish and Moslem Preschoolers at the Jerusalem YMCA. (Note that this and all of the following photos were taken by Adena and her staff.)

The Preschool was founded in 1981 with the central goal of developing “children intellectually, emotionally, socially and physically, in the tradition of the YMCA ideals of balanced spirit, mind, and body.” This translates into learning together, playing together, exercising together, and sharing each other's cultural treasures. For example:

Two swim buddies

Group photo at the pool.

In the pool

To quote Adena further: “In each class- there are two teachers, one Jew, and one Arab, each speaking their own mother tongue. Stories are told alternately in Arabic and Hebrew, songs are sung in both languages, puppet shows are performed with ‘bilingual’ puppets etc. As a result, the children are exposed to both the Hebrew and Arabic language."

Celebrating Peace Day at the Y

More Peace Day Activities

On a field trip harvesting olives

“All religious festivals and holidays of the three faiths are celebrated together with the children from the mixed classes. The emphasis is placed on strengthening each child’s religious identity while at the same time understanding the significance of the other holidays. In December we had (and will have this year too!) a ‘Three Holiday Party’ for all kids and parents (Hanukkah, Christmas and Id El Adha)"

the school's Hanukkah/Id el Adha parties

At the Hanukkah/Id el Adha parties-now the adults are playing too

Adults and kids in the YMCA breaking through cultural boundaries.

Celebrating Christmas

Families are also involved with the Christmas Party

So this is the bottom line at the YMCA Preschool, to develop mutual understanding, acceptance and respect for each other, including each other’s culture, music and art. Once you are experiencing each other’s music, in particular, you are truly beginning to dissolve the boundaries between you as you share each other’s melodies, rhythms and vibrations.

You can see, looking at the photos, that things are flowing along smoothly, as well they should be in a naturally tolerant and loving environment, and even, as you can also see, the adults are getting into the act. Remember what Jesus says in Matthew 18:1-5: "Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven... ".

This Preschool is what the Path of Peace and Love looks like up close, quite a contrast to the Path of Fear, Violence and Coercion, which benighted national leaders have deluded themselves into thinking can solve the divisions and hatreds of humanity. What is the other adage one hears as one reaches adulthood? Ahh, yes: “It’s time to grow up now and sell out”, sell out your integrity that is. But oh, what a twisted web that weaves, when now we practice to deceive, to paraphrase another timeless adage.

Yet the Buddha taught us the simple truth, millennia ago, that hatred cannot vanquish hatred; only love can vanquish hatred. Jesus taught as much when he implored us to love our enemies and forgive and forgive "Not seven times, but seventy times seven times!

"When are we going to take these teachings to heart in a serious way? So until we adults wise up, the child must be the father to the man.

With love, The Kids, Staff, Adena and Pazit the dog from the Jerusalem YMCA

If you want to contact Adena, by the way, here is her contact info:

Adena Levine
Peace Preschool Director
Jerusalem International YMCA
26 King David Street
Jerusalem, Israel
Tel: +(972)2-5692681

Since we all laugh in the same language…

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