May 19, 2011
The ultimate bridge
Who would have thought that a noncontact sport invented by a Jewish high school kid in the 1960s would someday find its way to Israel and be used to build bridges between bitter enemies?
Founded in 2008 by veteran American Ultimate Frisbee players, Ultimate Peace (UP) is a weeklong overnight camp open to boys and girls ages 13 to 15 with a mission to help improve relations between Israelis, Palestinians and Israeli Arabs, one flying disc at a time.
Danny Karlinsky, a 26-year-old UP volunteer coach from Thousand Oaks, said the sport, which demands players self-referee and call fouls on one another, is an ideal vehicle for promoting peace.
A central tenet of the game — now officially called Ultimate because Frisbee is a trademarked line of discs — is the “spirit of the game,” said Karlinsky, a search engine optimization specialist. The official term, abbreviated as SOTG, stresses sportsmanship and a “priority of respect,” he said.
The official Ultimate rulebook states: “Ultimate has traditionally relied upon a spirit of sportsmanship which places the responsibility for fair play on the player. Highly competitive play is encouraged, but never at the expense of the bond of mutual respect between players, adherence to the agreed upon rules of the game, or the basic joy of play.”
“We’re trying to change social norms,” said David Barkan, co-director and co-founder of UP. “It’s not just about teaching the game.”
It’s about forming bonds that offer hope for the future of Israeli-Palestinian relations, said Linda Sidorsky, who co-founded the organization with Barkan.
The camp was conceived after players from the Matzah Balls — an all-Jewish recreational Ultimate team that competes in Santa Cruz and of which Barkan is a member — visited Israel in 2005 to lead an Ultimate clinic. There, they taught throwing techniques and ran scrimmages and friendly tournaments with Israeli children and adults, who were familiar with the game but wanted to learn more from the U.S. players.
But something was missing from these clinics.
“On the way back, we talked about bringing kids and teams together who would otherwise never get to know each other,” Barkan said, “and sharing in this unique sport that has so much to offer.”
Jeff Landesman, a Matzah Ball team member and UP coach from Los Angeles, recalled that the group left thinking it would be nice to work with Arabs and Palestinians as well as Israelis.
So the players began planning a camp with that goal in mind. With the help of Israel’s ministry of sports, Ultimate Peace became a reality.
The camp had an effect almost immediately. At the first event in 2009, Israeli and Palestinian kids who had never met before were randomly put on mixed teams for a tournament. Nobody was sure what their reactions would be, but later, when the kids selected their own teams for scrimmages, many opted to play with kids they’d been teamed with earlier; Palestinians and Israelis chose to play together.
In July, the camp will be held in a sports facility in Acco, a town in northern Israel, and is expected to host between 165 and 180 campers, an increase from last year, when the camp was only three days and 145 kids attended.
Children from 12 communities in Israel and the West Bank attended the camp last year. Approximately 60 percent of them were Israeli Arabs; the remainder was split between Jewish Israelis and Palestinians, Sidorsky said.
Campers spend hours each day of camp working on technique, such as throwing mechanics, but they also enjoy various cultural events such as a talent show, arts projects and dancing. At night in the dorms, campers sleep with friends from their own villages, and the camp brings in staff who speak all three languages — English, Hebrew and Arabic.
Community leaders from the children’s schools and local recreational centers are also invited to participate in the camp and receive training so that they can run afterschool practices year round.
“[UP is] not just a camp program,” Sidorsky explained. “This ongoing program we have is a significant piece. We don’t just get the kids together for six days [and] say, ‘We’ll see you next year.’ It’s a program that’s meant to be sustainable throughout the year so they can get together and see each other.”
UP relies heavily on the fundraising efforts of its volunteer coaches, who seek out donations from their friends, families and fellow Ultimate players across the United States.
“It’s a grass-roots effort, and we just have to get donations from wherever we can,” Landesman said.
As the camp continues to grow in scope, UP needs to look for funds in other places, and Barkan said the organization is applying for grants this year. In 2010, the organization received its nonprofit status and is currently awaiting its 501(c)(3) certification.
Contrary to what one might think, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not a frequent topic of discussion between the campers or the staff.
“I kind of feel like once you’re at camp, you forget about it,” Landesman said. “The focus is on the kids and the game,” he said.
However, it’s impossible to completely shut out the political atmosphere, especially when it presents hurdles. One of the biggest challenges the camp faces, Landesman said, is securing permits for kids from the West Bank to enter Israel.
“The permit process usually takes up to a month and requires constant calling and checking up on the situation,” said Becca Polivy, regional liaison and intercultural sensitivity consultant at UP.
“The border police can turn them around or delay them for hours,” Barkan said. “It happened the first year with kids from Jericho. It’s a barrier, figuratively and literally.”
In the past two years, coaches from the United States, including Karlinsky and Landesman, spent time with the campers in their homes in the West Bank and in Israeli-Arab villages after the camp.
“It’s kind of something you can’t explain,” Landesman said. “It’s really a life-changing experience.”
Karlinsky recalled a trip to the Israeli-Arab village of Ein Rafa, where campers expressed how much the camp had meant to them.
Getting involved with sports saved them from getting into trouble, Karlinsky said. “These kids believe in the sport for a very important reason. Not only did they like it, but it gave them a reason to be a part of a community. It was really satisfying to see that.”
Although the conflict in the Middle East is infinitely complex, the camp brings the focus back to the simple basics of peaceful human interaction: sharing positive experiences, forming relationships, understanding one another and working together toward a common goal — even if that goal is just getting a Frisbee down the field. It’s one small toss in the right direction.