To bring peace to the Middle East, organizers are turning to an unlikely solution — ultimate Frisbee.
The sport’s guiding principles of respect and friendship have united hundreds of Israeli Arab, Israeli Jewish and Palestinian youth, who play together through Ultimate Peace.
The organization offers a summer camp in Ashkelon, programming in local communities and a high school Leaders-in-Training (LIT) initiative.
Hannah Henkin, a Radnor native, has been involved with the camp since 2010. The recent University of Michigan graduate started in the LIT program and has returned as a coach three times, most recently in 2015.
“They’re there to learn and play ultimate, but really, they’re there to have a positive, shared experience,” Henkin said. “They bring back a whole new understanding of the other side to their communities.”
David Barkan, who grew up in Philadelphia and attended Akiba Hebrew Academy, now Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy, created Ultimate Peace in 2008.
“We’re teaching kids how to solve conflicts on the field because there’s no referee. Our special sauce is spirit of the game,” he said. “The off-field applications to their day-to-day life are astounding.”
Spirit of the game refers to the main rule of ultimate: Contenders must respect fellow players by making fair calls during games. At most levels, ultimate lacks referees, and players govern themselves, employing spirit of the game to enforce fouls or out-of-boundaries, even against their own team.
The basic rules of ultimate follow that of football, although with a pace similar to soccer. Points are scored when a player throws the disc, also known as a Frisbee, to a teammate in the opponent’s end zone. The sport does not permit running with the disc, so the game moves quickly as players rocket the Frisbee while others sprint to catch it first.
For Ultimate Peace, the sport transcends boundaries.
“They’re best friends. Jews and Arabs going to each other’s houses. Their families know each other,” Barkan said.
In America, ultimate is also reaching the Jewish community.
Rabbi Ariella Rosen is an avid ultimate player, having learned the sport at summer camp. The spiritual leader at Adath Israel plays in a summer league and worked with Ultimate Peace’s community initiatives between 2011 and 2012.
As she entered college, the sport became a fun way to stay active and bond with new peers.
She noted there’s interest in teaching a class about the parallels between ultimate and Judaism and offered a brief synthesis.
“There’s not really one truth when it comes to Judaism. You have to have a conversation with different opinions and talk it out. That’s what the entire Talmud is about. That’s really what spirit of the game is,” she said, explaining how a contested call involves deliberation on field. Plus, “there’s the empathy piece, too.”
Rosen noted, “There’s a really beautiful community” surrounding the game.
Dena Behar, of Penn Valley, concurred. The Cornell University sophomore values the sport’s dedicated community.
“I played other sports growing up, like gymnastics,” she said. “[In gymnastics] we were told to focus on ourselves. Spirit wasn’t important.”
Behar was captain of the girl’s ultimate team at Lower Merion High School and plays on Cornell’s varsity women’s team.
The sport attracts an array of Jewish players.
“There’s a modern Orthodox girl on our team,” Behar said. “It’s super normal. The boys’ team has a modern Orthodox player, too. He just can’t drive to tournaments on Friday night or Saturday.
“Any sport can bring people together,” Behar said, although ultimate’s emphasis on friendly competition means opponents can battle through an intense game yet share embraces after the clock stops. “It bridges divides.”