Meredith Rothbart is currently the Director of Development for Kids4Peace in Jerusalem. She handles external relationships, marketing, fundraising, social media and the website, and has been involved in the organization since 2009. Meredith was gracious enough to sit down with me and talk about her past, how she got involved in Kids4Peace, and how the organization has changed, and changed her.
Meredith describes her childhood as one in which religion developed pluralistically. She grew up in Pennsylvania and got involved extensively with her Jewish faith in many different facets. Active in University Jewish groups and attending Jewish school, summer camp and youth movement, she gained an intimate understanding of Jewish values and traditions. She was unable, however, to decide what sect of Judaism to identify with most. Her parents, wanting her to be “balanced”, sent her to an Orthodox Jewish Day School and a Reform Jewish summer camp. In America she participated expansively in Jewish reform camps and activities, now living in Jerusalem, she considers herself to be Orthodox and religious Zionist. “I’m definitely a proud product of the Reform movement in America,” she explained, “just one who followed the spiritual, social-justice, and Israel-connections all the way through to the lifestyle I have today.”
Despite growing up surrounded by Jewish faith and customs, the moment of realization came to her not in a camp or at school but in Poland in 2008. She described to me going to a concentration camp and in this camp, there are no records of the victim’s actual names. Instead, on the walls of the gas chambers, are thousands of first names, and as Meredith looked on the walls, she saw her own Hebrew name, and the names of her friends, relatives and neighbors. She was previously planning on “eventually” moving to Israel yet at that moment, she knew she:
“just had to move to Israel, join the army and devote my life to making the world a better and safer place for Jews, and for the rest of the world.”
She did just that. Meredith immigrated in 2008 and spent a year in religious seminary, then joined the military where she was able to see “the complexity of the situation” for the first time.
When Meredith spoke of joining the military, I imagined that to be very counterintuitive, given that the military traditionally uses force against different groups of people. However with further discussion, Meredith explained the side of the military which the media does little to cover, and a side that as an American, I was completely ignorant to. She describes the military as “more of a conglomerate. Some people teach in schools as a soldier, or help underprivileged kids. It’s like America’s military, Peace Corps, and Americorps all in one.”
Meredith served in the West Bank in Ramallah as a part of the Civil Administration of the military. She worked in COGAT (Coordination of Government Activities in the Territoris), and was a liaison between the Civil Administration and international agencies working on international development projects for Palestinians in Area C. She told me of working to coordinate medical aid and food supplies to the West Bank and Gaza. One task which she described involved coordinating the transfer of 2000 tons of explosives from Israel to Palestine to create cement for housing. Yes, Israelis gave explosives to Palestinians. Yet they were used for improving the lives of many. With this, I understood Meredith’s role as a peacemaker even in the military.
Meredith started her first Kids4Peace summer in 2009 when she went to a North Carolina camp and was “in shock the entire time.”
“I was always really scared of Arabs, but these weren’t scary, they were nice. I felt betrayed by my upbringing, that I was never exposed to the challenge of the Palestinians and the struggle of the Palestinians. When it ended, I just cried and cried. I couldn’t handle the realization that I didn’t know anything. I needed to learn more, and know that this was what I wanted to do with my life.”
The lack of perspective that Meredith received before Kids4Peace is unfortunately the norm. However, Meredith told me that we must “look at it as something we need to improve. Do not be self-hating because that doesn’t help make a difference. We need to see it as an opportunity to make ourselves something better.” Kids4Peace is working to change the conversation — to bring new questions, and new answers to the struggle for peace, ones that are based in real relationships of trust and understanding.
“I hope that society, including our leaders and ordinary people see that Kids4Peace is able to do it. We are able to bring all sides together with respect and understanding. If we can reach more people, it won’t even matter what the political solution is because society will be ready for peace. That is what we need.”
Meredith’s passion for peace certainly runs deep. Meredith had a beautiful baby girl in March of 2013 and named her Shalva Henn, Shalva meaning Peace, and Henn meaning Grace. In 2012, Meredith joined the Kids4Peace team, first as Director of Communications and Special Projects, and now as Director of Development. She continues to work to make the world a better, safer place for all people.