Teacher launching local interfaith Hands of Peace program

By Joe Tash

Scott Silk wants to create a spark that can help change the world.

Silk, who teaches Middle East and American history at Pacific Ridge School in Carlsbad, is working to launch a program that brings Israeli, Palestinian and American high school students together to learn more about each other, share stories and, hopefully, become friends.

“We want to sprinkle possible future leaders back into all these communities, future empathetic leaders,” he said.

And the path to creating those future empathetic leaders begins with dialogue, he said.

“Magic happens when you put people in the same room together and let them just talk,” said Silk.  “They realize they have more in common most of the time than they have differences.”

For the past eight years, Silk has worked with Hands of Peace, a nonprofit organization based in Chicago that holds annual summer retreats for students aged 16 through 18, from Israel, the Palestinian territories and the United States.  This summer, the group held its 10th summer program, and now Silk is leading an effort to begin a sister program in San Diego’s coastal North County.

Silk said his own background as a teacher, mediator and attorney made the program a natural fit for him.  He also leads summer trips to the Middle East for students of Pacific Ridge, a private school for grades 7-12.

Ron Hoffman of Carmel Valley, whose daughter, Cara, took Silk’s class and also went on one of his Middle East trips, said he believes the time is right for a program such as Hands of Peace.

“When human beings get close together and talk, seemingly insurmountable obstacles seem to melt away.  We have similar fundamental desires and drives.  The kids seem to get this better.  So I think Scott Silk has hit on something,” Hoffman said.

Gretchen Grad, Hands of Peace founder, said the idea came to her one sleepless night in the aftermath of the attacks on the World Trade Center towers on Sept. 11, 2001.

“The impetus was 9/11,” she said.  “I was disturbed by the world’s path and felt compelled to do something about it.”

Grad, a Christian, enlisted the help of a Jewish and a Muslim friend, and the three women launched Hands of Peace in 2003.  This summer, 42 students from the Middle East and U.S. participated in the 10th year of the program, held in Chicago.

The impact of the program can be seen in the ways the teens’ lives have changed, she said.

“The change each of these students has undertaken is real and lasting,” Grad said.  Some have decided to study in such fields as international relations and diplomacy, and others have joined peace organizations.  They also come back to participate in Hands of Peace programs, telling younger students how the experience changed their view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the world around them, Grad said.

One of Silk’s challenges in starting a San Diego version of Hands of Peace will be to drum up interfaith support, said Grad.

“For a program like this to succeed, it has to have deep, steady support from the Jewish, Christian and Muslim communities,” she said.

The goal is to launch the first San Diego program in the summer of 2014, and then start similar programs in other U.S. cities, Grad said.

As he begins organizing a San Diego Hands of Peace program, Silk is looking for volunteers, interfaith support, sources of funding, potential host families for Middle East teens and local teens to participate in the dialogue.

An informational meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 18, at 3306 Avenida Anacapa, in Carlsbad.

During the 17-day summer sessions, the teens participate in a variety of different activities, from drama and music, to sightseeing excursions.  Students also attend services at a church, a synagogue and a mosque.  But the heart of the program, Silk said, are the dialogue sessions.

Hands of Peace takes no political positions, but no subject is off limits during the discussions.  Tears are shed, but facilitators prevent any potential physical fights, Silk said.  “These are heated discussions, but safe discussions.”

“We believe peace is only possible if people can learn to talk to each other and we want to help people have that conversation,” he said.

For more information, visit www.handsofpeace.org.  Silk can be reached at ssilk@handsofpeace.org.

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