Tension Release

Bobbie Gottschalk, A.M. '66, helps Seeds of Peace defuse international conflict by making it personal

By Patti Wolter

News Type
SSA Magazine (Archive)


Bobbie Gottschalk, 68, has more than 2,600 Facebook friends. A handful are family, the rest are from around the world, mostly in South/Central Asia and the Middle East. So when thousands of Egyptian youth and young adults united against longtime ruler Hosni Mubarak last January, Gottschalk, A.M. ’66, did what any avid social media user would do: She went to Facebook and Twitter to check in on her friends. Her message to those in Egypt? First, “Are you okay?” And second, “We believe in you.”

Participants at summer camp hugging with a glistening light blue body of water behind them

Egypt’s uprising, in other words, was especially fascinating for Gottschalk, the co-founder of Seeds of Peace, an organization that brings youth from regions in conflict, such as Israelis and Palestinians, together in an intensive summer camp in Maine, where they learn to talk through their differences and see mutual goals, intelligent risks and shared fun as tools for peace. The teenagers return to their home countries, which include Israel, Palestine, Pakistan, India, Afghanistan, Cyprus and the Balkans, but they are forever linked to Seeds of Peace. They lead workshops, attend conferences, publish their own magazine, continue cross-cultural education programs, and ultimately build a lasting web of “Seeds” that promote peace across borders, oceans and conflicts. “At the most basic level, one of the most important things that Seeds of Peace does is that it humanizes everyone involved,” says Seed Serena Kefayeh, who was a camper in 1997 and 1998 and then a camp program leader in 1999. Kefayeh grew up in Jordan and today is the director of Georgetown University’s Master’s in Journalism program.

“When campers first arrive in Maine, they have their guard up and have little or no intention of listening to what the ‘others’ have to say. Over the course of the camp, you begin to see the other campers as individuals and as teenagers just like you,” she says. “You start to understand that they’re people who might not be as bad as you initially thought, and that there’s more to them than just their nationality. And Bobbie has been the driving force that has helped keep the Seeds of Peace mission alive and strong for all these years.”

After almost two decades in action, there are some 4,500 Seeds, most of them under 30. Gottschalk is in regular communication with close to 3,000 of them. “From the beginning I have tried to keep the group together,” says Gottschalk, who served as the organization’s executive vice president until 2006, when she transitioned to being a board member. “I am still the consistent person as far as the Seeds are concerned.”

In Egypt, one of the Seeds and his friends created a music video filmed in Cairo’s Tahrir Square (the center of the demonstrations) that received more than 1.4 million views online, and they helped lead cleanup efforts in the square after the hundreds of thousands of demonstrators dispersed. “While this may have been a very internal issue for Egypt, it does show how we can empower young people to make a difference,” says Leslie Lewin, Seeds of Peace’s executive director.

“One of the things that scared me to death was when the Internet was cut off [in Egypt],” says Gottschalk. “That’s the way we keep in touch with these kids. My Facebook page was all about getting the Internet up. And I asked the thousands of other Seeds to post to Seedbook [the Seeds-only social network] and Facebook to encourage their Egyptian counterparts, so that when we got the Internet back, they would see we were all supporting them. When one group of Seeds or even one is in trouble, we rally to their sides. It’s not a political matter; it’s a human matter.”

Providing that personal, deep connection has been a key role for Gottschalk since Seeds of Peace began. She’s attended every one of the summer camps, and she is a common thread for the Seeds. “Every one of our Seeds knows her, which is a unique and special role for her to play,” Lewin says. “She puts an incredible amount of time not only on her own contact with our campers post camp but also their contact with each other.”

Bringing the “human factor” to solving conflicts is what Gottschalk has been trying to do since she first started in social work. She remembers her first field placement with what is now known as Metropolitan Family Services in Chicago’s old stockyard neighborhoods while still studying at SSA in the mid 1960s. “The first client walked in and I wasn’t fully trained yet. I realized I could reduce the impact of that [lack of training] if I related to people as equal human beings,” she says.

Gottschalk’s second placement was with the Chicago Childcare Society, where she worked with foster kids and adoption services. “I had foster children who got placed in adoption. It was great. They were all being given a boost in life they wouldn’t have already had otherwise,” Gottschalk remembers. “With Seeds of Peace we work with kids from Gaza and the West Bank, Afghanistan…these kids also have very few opportunities. And any time we can offer them opportunities for scholarships to universities or a boarding school in the U.S. I feel like we are giving them the same kind of boost, the same way you feel when you place a hard-to-place child in a loving adoptive family.”

More than 40 years since she graduated from SSA, Gottschalk says she is still influenced in her daily work by two mentors from the School. “Helen Harris Perlman would say, ‘Don’t go any further than the client is willing to go,’” she says. And Joy Johnson gave Gottschalk the principles she applies to the group work she does with Seeds campers. “[Johnson] gave me four things that had to be advanced for a young person to want to be in a group. There has to be somebody who demonstrates they like that person. It has to be safe in the group. There has to be a benefit for that person. And there has to be something the person can give back to the group. I have found these thing to be true of all human beings in every group,” Gottschalk says.

After graduating from SSA, Gottschalk moved to Washington, D.C., where she worked with the Jewish Social Service Agency. There she started one of the first Jewish residential programs for adults with disabilities, as well as a mental health clinic for people who are deaf.

Starting Seeds of Peace came about as a happy coincidence. Journalist John Wallach had written a book about Palestinians that Gottschalk’s book group was reading. She invited Wallach to come and talk to the group, during which he mentioned he had an idea for a special camp to bring Israeli and Palestinian youth together. Gottschalk, then between jobs, volunteered to help.

In four months, the pair had the first camp up and running, with Gottschalk serving as the sole employee. “It was a huge departure from working under the umbrella of the Jewish Social Services,” Gottschalk says. They had to solicit donations, barter with providers for food, airfare and other camp basics, and appeal to their U.S. representative for help getting 501c(3) status. “The hardest part of starting was that it’s scary. You are out on a limb. It was international—I wasn’t just calling up my friends,” Gottschalk says. “Often I thought, ‘What’s a nice Jewish girl doing chasing after Yasser Arafat?’”

Gottschalk is quick to point out that Wallach was the charismatic visionary of Seeds of Peace until his death in 2002. Her leadership role was to help shape how the program could succeed. For example, Lewin notes that the pathbreaking component of the summer camp—the 90 minutes every day the campers spend in conflict resolution with teens from other countries is largely influenced by Gottschalk’s social work background. “Bobbie helped create the co existence program,” Lewin says. “She and John thought from the beginning that we should embrace these difficult topics rather than avoid them, and Bobbie offered a lot of leadership in that aspect of our curriculum and its development.”

For campers, Gottschalk’s role in mediating conflict is essential to their experience. Iddo Shai, an Israeli Seed from the camp’s first summer in 1993 and now a content developer in Los Angeles, remembers clearly how Gottschalk helped him through early sessions in which a Palestinian youth started saying the Holocaust never happened. Members of Shai’s extended family had died in the Holocaust and the other youth were demanding proof.

“It was a lot to handle for a 13-year-old,” Shai says of himself. “I shut myself out to anyone who came to talk to me. Then Bobbie came to me and she was very honest. ‘You have to understand where he is coming from and that some people don’t have an emotional connection to the Holocaust,’” Shai remembers her saying. “She wasn’t trying to sugar coat it. She said, ‘People think like that and that’s why we have these camps. At the end of camp he may feel differently, but you have to talk. You have to listen and learn from that experience.’ That’s the moment Bobbie and I clicked.” Shai says he still talks to Gottschalk on an almost weekly basis.

Today Seeds of Peace runs year-round programs for continued leadership development and dialogue across borders and has full-time staff in offices in Tel-Aviv, Jerusalem, Ramallah, Lahore, Mumbai and Kabul, with additional staff in Gaza, Cairo and Amman. Gottschalk says that never did she imagine Seeds of Peace would grow as it has. “I thought it would be an experiment we would always point to. But once it got going, John and I both wanted it to be international, not just the Middle East.”

The Seeds who attended the first Seeds of Peace Camp in 1993 are now in their early 30s. As they and the other Seeds have grown up and moved on to careers, they became journalists in their home countries and abroad, international lawyers, educators, film producers, heads of NGOs, even members of the official negotiating teams for the Palestinians and the Israelis. Some are involved in new websites like Palestine Note; others are working on a new planned community in the West Bank called Rawabi. Two Seeds are Israeli TV anchors, another is a Cairo correspondent for The New York Times who covered the events in Egypt this winter. “These are extremely talented young people,” Gottschalk says.

Gottschalk’s role at Seeds of Peace has evolved to the bigger picture tasks of a board member, such as fundraising and reporting to the executive committee. Over the years she has won numerous awards for her work, including a Medal of Honor, presented by King Hussein of Jordan in 1997 and an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from Franklin Pierce University. But she still sits in on the monthly international staff phone conference call and attends every summer camp.

“Her historical perspective and ability to understand all aspects of our growth is absolutely invaluable,” Lewin says. “She has an incredible heart, as big as they come. And at a place like Seeds of Peace, you see that play out on such a huge scale.”