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Trying to forge Mideast peace one camper at a time By Fredda Sacharow

Camp leaders conduct flag raising ceremony at Seeds of PeaceA groundbreaking camp in the wilds of Maine is chipping away at ancient animosities half a globe away.

Seeds of Peace embraces the notion that if you take children out of their natural habitat and encourage them to interact daily with “The Enemy,” they will grow into the next generation of peacemakers.

So if you ask Robert I. Toll, L’66, for one reason he has high hopes for this award-winning organization, he’ll rattle off 4,000 of them.

That’s the number of young adults from warring nations around the globe who have come together in the past decade and a half to learn the art of waging peace, and who have become friends in the process.

Toll leads a group of tightly knit friends and fellow Penn Law graduates who are lending support — morally, financially, philosophically — to the conflict-resolution program that won a 1997 UNESCO Peace Prize for its efforts to help participants transcend the realities of bombs, bloodshed and bombast that define their lives.

“I think we have an opportunity here we haven’t got anywhere else to make a difference,” says Toll, whose ties to the land on which Seeds of Peace rests date back to his own childhood days. During an intense three weeks every June, 350 teenagers from Afghanistan, the United States, Egypt, India, Israel, Jordan, Pakistan and Palestinian lands take part in conflict-resolution activities at what could pass for any traditional American summer camp. And indeed, that’s exactly how it started out.

Toll spent boyhood summers at Camp Powhattan in Otisfield, a 67-acre facility in the woods abutting Pleasant Lake in rural Maine. Although his role as chairman and chief executive officer of Toll Brothers, Inc., a builder of luxury homes, takes him far from that serene setting, the developer played a key role in bringing Seeds to life at its present location.

In 1993, a former newspaper editor named John Wallach — a son of Holocaust survivors — approached world leaders he had come to know while covering the Middle East for Hearst newspapers. Trust me with your children, Wallach implored, and I will work to create a generation that cherishes peaceful coexistence.

His plea fell on powerful ears. Yitzhak Rabin, Yasser Arafat and Hosni Mubarak responded by sending a total of 45 teens, ranging from 13 to 16, to far-off Maine. An American presence rounded out that first summer’s class — campers who later that year would be privileged to witness the signing of the Declaration of Principles that became known as the Oslo Accords.

Considered a milestone in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Accords offered a blueprint for future relations among the long-warring parties. Among other provisions, it called for the withdrawal of Israel’s forces from parts of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and established the Palestinian Authority as the ruling body for territory under its control.

Rabin and President Bill Clinton posed for photos that September day holding T-shirts bearing the Seeds of Peace logo.

Middle Eastern and South Asian teenagers at the campAs the camp’s mission began resonating in the early 1990s, Toll sponsored children from Philadelphia to attend the program as part of the American delegation. In 1997, when the developer purchased the property, Wallach asked him to designate the camp the official site of Seeds of Peace. A long and mutually rewarding relationship was born.

“If you can get a significant number of intelligent young adults — teenagers — out of (their) environment to live together, sleep together, eat together, participate in sports with one another and then go to sessions to discuss your feelings, your thoughts, and then to share that anger with your enemy who’s now your friend … that’s a tremendous opportunity,” says Toll.

Camp directors stress a daily diet of respect, trust and communication, Associated Press reporter David Sharp noted in 2006.

A member of the Seeds of Peace board (along with his wife, Jane) and its Strategic Planning, Fundraising and Management committees, Toll recalls sessions that involved “hollering, crying, arguing in a good way and coming to understanding.”

Toll Brothers organizes a clean-up day every May, sending more than 125 employees, friends and family members from throughout the Northeast to whip the property into shape. Steve Adelson, C’66, L’69, a real estate attorney in Boston, sums up the achievement of Seeds of Peace in one succinct sentence: “The kids learn the enemy has a face.”

Like Toll an alumnus of Camp Powhattan and a lakefront resident, Adelson can’t remember if it was an Arab or an Israeli boy who once told him he was terrified to go to sleep the first night of camp because the bunks were “mixed.”

“He was afraid the kid next to him would kill him,” Adelson says.

Campers from different cultures and countries embrace their differencesTo watch that fear evolve into trust is the best metric of the project’s success, he says.

The Boston resident relishes his interaction with campers and staff. During one memorable Fourth of July, his family played host to a Pakistani camper unlucky enough to mark America’s independence with a pesky case of chicken pox.

Adelson has a more personal attachment to Seeds of Peace: His daughter, Leslie Adelson Lewin, C’99, is the camp’s director. Over the years, Seeds graduates have landed in a multitude of highly placed positions. One is on the political policy team for King Abdullah of Jordan, another clerks for the Israeli Supreme Court. The camp’s twin goals of nurturing tolerance and fostering empathy have earned it broad-based acclaim.

In June, the U.S. Congress passed a resolution describing the initiative as “a widely recognized organization that has facilitated interaction among thousands of young people and young leaders and educators from all around the world.”

Paul Shapiro, C’64, L’67, believes Seeds’ strength lies in its careful choice of participants.

“What they have done is consistently recruited as campers some people whose education and community status is such that they are likely to be among the leadership group of each conflicting country in the next generation,” said Shapiro, another of the Maine lakeside buddies.

“The mission of the camp is obviously a spectacular idea. The young people who go there are very, very impressive,” adds Shapiro.

The resident of Boca Raton, Fla., works with QCapital Strategies, a business that buys and aggregates life insurance policies for investment purposes.

Subject of a CBS’ “60 Minutes” segment, Seeds lists on its advisory board former presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, Queen Noor of Jordan, Israeli President Shimon Peres and chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat.

Erekat’s daughter, Dalal, attended the camp in 1997. When flooding destroyed parts of his home town of Jericho later that year, 21 Israeli youngsters rushed to contact Dalal to make sure she was unharmed, The Wall Street Journal reported. Despite its Eden-like setting and daily doses of softball and Frisbee, serious work goes on as campers grapple with very real differences.

Some participants have had friends or family members killed or jailed. Many harbor deeply rooted memories of the intifada, of the Israeli incursion into Lebanon, of border raids by Hezbollah. All are aware one Seeds participant later lost his life in the ongoing hostilities.

Professional facilitators force the youngsters to look into each others’ eyes across dining hall tables, to engage in dialogue driven as much by fact as by emotion.

Doug Frenkel, W’68, L’72, has practiced the art of negotiating throughout his academic career, preparing students at the Gittis Center for Clinical Legal Studies to serve as neutral, third-party mediators.

“On some level,” Frenkel says, “what they’re doing at Seeds has a lot to do with what I teach.”

On another level, of course, stakes for the campers are far grimmer than those his students face when mediating a divorce or trying to forestall a lawsuit.

“My sense is that the goals here (at the camp) are to develop … empathy for someone who up to that point has been perceived as being either unknown or hostile,” says Frenkel, who this past summer stepped down as director of Penn Law’s clinic but who continues to teach mediation at the school.

“The camp offers a safe environment. The kids see that the other person experiences the same conflict from a different vantage point,” he says. “The process begins to chip away at some of the deep-seated, inbred perceptions of hostility the kids came here with because of the politics and what they may have personally experienced.”

Like his friends and fellow homeowners along the lake, Frenkel is both optimistic and realistic about Seeds’ role in the outcome of conflicts that have raged over decades. On the one hand, animosities have created generations of enemies who ingest hatred with their mothers’ milk. One the other hand...

“I would guess — and I am guessing — that I might measure success on the short end by moments of what we might call transformation... somebody all of a sudden developing an understanding of the other person,” says Frenkel. “Some people would say that’s an enormous success, when a young person begins to see the world as the other person sees it. Whether that has long-term implications involves some reinforcement and work, so the scab doesn’t form again.”

Bottom line for Frenkel? “That they at least agree to disagree, to coexist among differences — to replace words for rocks and guns and to learn you don’t have to agree with somebody else to survive next to him.”

That template speaks volumes to Bob Toll.

He has been to Israel three times, Egypt three times, and Jordan once. He believes the political landscape of these nations — of the entire region — could change as a result of the work and play that goes on for three weeks in Maine every summer.

For more information about the camp, go to seedsofpeace.org.

Fredda Sacharow, a freelance writer, is a former editorial page editor at a New Jersey Daily. Her articles have appeared in The New York Times, NJBiz and Att itudes Magazine, among other publications.