This profile was last updated in 2014
The Anti-Defamation league began in 1913 and the New England Regional Office opened around thirty-five years later. For more than ten years, the New England Regional Office had an Interfaith Youth Leadership Program that hosted periodic community events for young people. According to Jillian Bergman, the assistant director of Interfaith Youth Programs, their work changed as a result of September 11. Soon after the tragedy, Joe Mayher and Asif Razvi, both members of the Weston-Wayland Interfaith Action Group, were disturbed by the increase of hate crimes toward Muslims and people perceived as Muslims. Both of them wanted to do something, and they agreed that working with youth was essential for the future of society. With the goal of tapping into young people’s potential as positive leaders, they created the first Camp IF in the summer of 2003.
Interfaith Youth Leadership Program
The Interfaith Youth Leadership Program (IFYLP) is initiated at Camp IF, a regional sleep-away camp that that takes place each August at Camps Kenwood and Evergreen in Potter Place, New Hampshire. The organizers believe the sleep-away camp is an environment that encourages friendship, shared experiences, and bonding. There are five components to the camp: community building, anti-bias training, religious education, leadership development, and action. The first two days of camp are dedicated to community building and anti-bias training using ADL’s World of Difference curriculum. The following three days are reserved for day-long lessons in each of the three traditions represented. Under the leadership of the adult and youth facilitators, each faith group works together to design a day of lessons and activities with the goal of increased understanding for all. According to the program’s outreach materials, “Starting in the morning with overviews of history, sacred texts, holidays and everyday practices, these days of education build up to interactive sessions, open question and answer sessions, demonstrations of practicing certain rituals, teens presenting their own experiences with their faith tradition, and, often, lively sessions of singing and dancing.” Leadership development is built into the whole camp, and is especially emphasized in the last few days of camp.
Education and Dialogue
The camp’s emphasis is on education and dialogue. Bergman also hopes that participants will learn to be an ally and an “upstander.” In a promotional video, Reverend Joe Mayher, a minister from the Congregational Church of Weston and a Senior Facilitator at the camp, said, “I think the change we want to see young people affect in the world is that when they themselves experience some act of prejudice, bigotry, or misunderstanding that they’ll be allies, that they will immediately be able to respond not just by virtue of heart and instinct but by educated mind.” Intra-religious dialogue is built in to a certain extent. The three days dedicated to developing a lesson with members of one’s own religious group provide a valuable opportunity for students to learn about differences within their own faith tradition. For example, Bergman said that there are always participants from different Jewish backgrounds ranging from Reform to Orthodox and Conservative. As a result, students often feel that they learn more about their own tradition in addition to learning about the other two.
Time for Prayer
Five times a day, activities stop and students have the opportunity to pray. It isn’t mandatory, but the teens are invited to participate or observe any of the prayer gatherings. In recent years, students have expressed great interest in the Islamic prayers. When reflecting on their camp experience, many youth talked about how meaningful it was to get up at 4:45 in the morning for the first prayer. For many Jewish and Christian youth, this is their first opportunity to make Muslim friends. “Furthermore,” quipped Bergman, “for teens, it is a big deal to get up that early.” Therefore, it is an ultimate sign of respect for their new friends that they are willing to sacrifice sleep in order to participate and learn.
Regional Action Groups
Following their camp experience, teens are required to attend five meetings in the fall at one of the four Regional Action Groups throughout Massachusetts. The groups meet once per month with their primary goal being to develop a project that will enhance interfaith dialogue and understanding in their respective communities. The twelve adult facilitators lead the groups and oversee outreach and follow-up that happens outside of the meetings. Past projects have included an art exhibit and an interfaith service. In 2006, one group created a film depicting viewpoints of teens from the three faith traditions and the stereotypes and prejudices that each person has encountered in relation to their faith commitment. In 2007, the Regional Action Groups will also include an education component around outreach and organizing skills.
By restricting their focus to the Abrahamic traditions, the Program excludes some people. “It is frustrating when friends from other traditions express interest,” said Bergman, “and we have to say no.” It is also hard to balance the program’s emphasis on openness and inclusiveness while acknowledging that the program is exclusive by design. On the other hand, their focus allows them to gain depth within the three traditions that would be diluted if there were education about more faiths. When asked if she ever encounters resistance to the interfaith work that she promotes, Bergman laughed and answered, “All the time!” She regularly works with families to answer their questions and alleviate their concerns about the impact of interfaith engagement on the spiritual lives of their children. There is also resistance on the political front. The program is not political in nature, but students have plenty of opportunities to engage in political discussions and exchange viewpoints with each other. It is also a challenge to provide adequate education about a religious tradition in the course of one day. At the end of the camp all participants fill out a survey, and each year some campers write, “I wish I could have learned so much more about each of the religions,” while others write, “I wish we had played more kickball instead of sitting in so many activities and classes.” The ongoing difficulty is in trying to balance the activities that youth would normally experience at a summer camp with the goal of providing religious education. While the Regional Action Groups are focused on organizing and not education, the planners hope that campers will continue to learn more after their camp experience.
Repairing the World
Teens complete the program with a sense of empowerment, increased education and understanding, new leadership skills, and a mandate to do more. Bergman estimates that well over half of the participants continue to work in some capacity with a religious or interfaith group. One camper named Ben eloquently stated his sense of responsibility for remaining active, saying, “In Judaism, the Hebrew phrase ‘Tikkun Olam’ translates to ‘repairing the world.’ Going to Camp IF showed me why the world needs to be repaired and how it could be done. The only thing left is who is going to do it, and that would be me.”
While the camp started with forty participants in its first summer, it now boasts one hundred participants from the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim faiths, and organizers try to make sure that each group is equally represented. Because ADL is a Jewish organization, it has been easiest to recruit from that community, followed by Christians. Each year, the number of Muslim participants has increased, and Bergman expects the best representation yet at the fifth annual camp in 2007. Generally, there are an equal number of boys and girls at the camp. Though there is some ethnic diversity amongst the participants – there are usually a few Asian, Cuban, Mexican, and African-American participants – they are aware that many ethnic groups are underrepresented, and they would like to foster a more diverse group. In its fifth year of existence, Camp IF has had around 250 participants in total, but has affected the lives of thousands of others through outreach done by the campers following their experience.
In addition to the three regular staff members of the Community Outreach Office, ADL employs twelve adult facilitators from different religious groups who work at the camp and facilitate Regional Action Group meetings. Each year, several youth are invited to return to Camp IF to work as Youth Facilitators. Additionally, they employ a full camp staff during Camp IF.