Sometimes a passion leads to unexpected places. For Jim Levine, vice president of human resources at Church & Dwight, the sport of Ultimate Frisbee prompted him to volunteer at Ultimate Peace, a Frisbee camp in Israel that brings together Israeli, Israeli-Arab, and Palestinian players.
The camp was created by David Barkan, Levine’s teammate on the Hostages, a Boston team he played for starting during his junior year at Tufts University. Levine traces the idea for Ultimate Peace back to Barkan’s trip to Israel as an ambassador to teach a variety of people about Ultimate Frisbee.
Summer camps everywhere are renowned for exposing kids to new environments that trigger learning that would never happen in an ordinary classroom. Ultimate Frisbee in the heart of the Middle East is no exception. As Levine explains, the sport offers a great context for learning the skills of peacemaking. “What is unique about Ultimate Frisbee as a sport is at its core it is self-officiated; there are no referees,” he says. “In the rules is something called ‘spirit of the game,’ which is to be respectful of your opponents, respect the game of Ultimate Frisbee, and make calls with integrity.”
“Therefore,” he continues, “you can see how it is a sport that lends itself to bringing people together and having them work issues out together on the field. Conflicts always happen on the field, and you need to resolve them.”
Ultimate Peace has grown from a weekend camp in 2010, to a two-week camp by the time of Levine’s first involvement as a volunteer coach in 2012, and finally for the last couple years to a one-week camp that runs for beginners and more advanced players simultaneously. It began in Akko, Israel, and today operates on the grounds of the Kfar Silver Youth Village, near Ashkelon, Israel.
The staff shows up a few days early to set up and stays a day late to break things down. In 2012, accompanied by his two sons, Zeke, then 18, and Elijah, 11, Levine set off on his first trip to Israel. “I didn’t do the Israel thing itself, but the camp was phenomenal,” he says. “There are two things you can do when you go to a place — you can interact with people or see all the sights. I did a week or 10 days of deep interaction with people.”
Much of what he learned about Israel came through the eyes of his athletes. “One thing I didn’t realize is that there are villages in Israel that are Arab villages and Jewish villages — places where people have not talked to the other,” he says.
He saw that children who grew up in an Arab village would often not know any Jewish children. Everything they knew about Jews had been absorbed through words or in their daily lives, for example, a Palestinian camper for whom the only Jews he had seen before camp were Israeli policemen.
At Ultimate Peace camp Arabs and Jews are thrown together in a simmering stew of physical activity and sportsmanship. “The teens are put together, and all of sudden they’re teammates,” Levine says. “Once you are teammates with somebody, you are bonded with them in some fashion.”
The campers spend all day together from breakfast until 10 p.m., then generally sleep in dorms with kids from the same village. “For most kids, I would say, all of a sudden they get that there are a lot of similarities, and this teammate thing is really important. Differences break down,” Levine says, adding that a few American kids are involved, usually related to staff, which gives the Middle Easterners a chance to meet Americans and perhaps overcome preconceptions.
The camp stays out of larger regional problems. “There is zero discussion at camp about politics, by design, because politics are going to be divisive,” he says, noting that even the coaches don’t talk about politics.
He recalls a moment when someone was trying to “provide a backdrop of the history of where Israel was at the time, from an agnostic perspective.” Whereas the person saw himself as trying to give a factual view, one of Arab kids spoke up and said: That’s not right, we learned X, which was different than what he said. Levine concludes, “It was not a fact; it was an interpretation of things that happened. You have to be respectful of both sides believing that what they have heard was the actual truth.”
The difference that the camp makes in perceptions of the other is palpable, Levine suggests. “Before they only had tribal knowledge, the lore of what the other is,” Levine said. “When you interact with other people, you realize that kids are kids.”
To support his perspective, Levine paraphrased what one Arab camper said about Ultimate Peace: I’ve heard all these things about Jewish people, but these Jewish people are nice. They will stick up for me because I’m their teammate; they’ll support me; they are my friends.
On Facebook, after the 2015 session, third-year camper Braa Saeed from Tamra, an Israeli-Arab village 20 miles east of Haifa, wrote about how much she missed the camp and members of her team, Ultimate Chicks. Though her family had initially had some trepidation, Levine said, she wrote about how happy they now are that she has had this experience: “For my family the people in Ultimate Peace camp, they are another family to me. … We want you to make friendship for another people.”
The camp is conducted primarily in English and Arabic because many Israelis are sufficiently familiar with one or both of these languages. For points that have some nuance, they translate into Hebrew. The camp is about evenly divided between girls and boys.
Every child attending has to pay at least a nominal amount “in order for it to have value,” Levine said. At first the staff was entirely volunteer, but now they have hired a few staff members. Otherwise the camp is funded primarily through fundraisers by staff members and grants.
Supporters of Ultimate Peace, Levine says, are “people who find this an interesting means to chip away at a peace process. Is it going to create peace? Or is it going to create a little bit of mutual understanding that will ultimately make a difference — that is the goal.”
In Levine’s first year as a camp coach his sons joined him, and he suggests it was an important experience, especially for his oldest. Zeke, now 21, is at the University of Texas-Austin, minoring in peace studies and conflict resolution. He participated in a project run by a University of Massachusetts-Boston professor on whether the participants in Ultimate Peace change their attitudes as a result of the camp experience.
Levine says, “He found that it certainly does break down biases during the camp period; it is not clear whether it has effects over a longer period.” Zeke also did a project for a course on the Middle East conflict looking at Ultimate Peace as a conflict-resolution methodology.
Levine’s daughter, Freddie, 18, is a freshman at the College of New Jersey. His son Elijah, 14, is a freshman at Princeton High School, where he plays on the Ultimate Frisbee team.
Levine’s father is an attorney and his mother a professor of economics and a college administrator.
Levine graduated in 1983 from Tufts with a degree in economics. After three years working in various food-service positions, he started the MBA program at the University of Michigan, eventually focusing on human resources.
While at the University of Michigan, Levine played Frisbee in the national championships, although after finishing his schooling he says he played on successively less competitive teams.
His first position after earning his master’s degree was at FMC Corporation, where he performed various human resources roles over 11 years, in Minnesota, Buffalo, and finally Princeton.
Hired by Church & Dwight as a senior manager in human resources, Levine moved up and is today vice president of human resources.
“For 50 to 51 weeks a year I am a buttoned-down corporate guy,” Levine says, “and I spend one week running around with kids, teaching them Frisbee, joking with them — as far as I possibly can be removed from my day job.”
Levine’s experience volunteering at Ultimate Peace has affected him, or at least his perspective, in a couple of ways. For one thing, he now has a very different view of the 18-to-30 age group that people are always complaining about. After spending intensive time and coaching with them, he observes, “They are engaged, and interesting, and interested, and caring, and doing something good for other people at their own expense, of time and money.”
But camp has also changed him personally. “I think I understand differences more and am probably more optimistic; I see that there is good all over the place,” he says. “After the first couple of years, I consciously thought, ‘I need to put myself out there, engage more, be more present in conversations, I need to be more present and listening at camp,’ and that has to translate.”
For more information, visit www.ultimatepeace.org.