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Jewish-run summer camp includes Muslim kids and it's making a big impact
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Forward - photo by Billy Hallowell
A summer camp program in Brooklyn, New York, is trying to bridge divides by bringing together Jewish and Muslim kids to play, swim and enjoy the outdoors.

It's an effort unfolding at the Kings Bay YM-YWHA, a Jewish community center that serves both local Jewish families as well as "the community at large, including families and individuals of all ages and ethnic, racial, religious and cultural backgrounds," according to the organization's website.

The walls started to come down between local Muslims and Jews back in 2011, when the Elbassionys a local Egyptian-American family decided to send their four daughters as either campers or counselors, the Forward reported.

It was a decision that had a major impact, with other Muslim families later becoming involved in summer camps at the Jewish-run center.

"We just didnt have this relationship with anyone in the Muslim community on this official level, and there was no trust in us that it would be appropriate to send kids from a Muslim background to a Jewish community center," Daniel Zeltser, associate executive director at a Kings Bay Y location in Sheepshead Bay, told the Forward of the situation before the Elbassiony family joined in.

Just a few years later and Zeltser estimated there are between 25 and 30 Muslim campers among the 1,000 who attend summer programs at the center.

Dunia Elbassiony, 20, is one of the family's daughters who serves as a counselor for Kings Bay YM-YWHA. She said she decided to take the position after realizing that no Muslims were on staff at the camp.

It was a move that she said did raise a few eyebrows among her fellow Muslims, with some worrying about her safety and wondering why she didn't simply try to work for local Muslim groups.

Eventually, Elbassiony said people came to understand her decision one that she believes is having a positive impact.

"Its very important for the children to see that there are hijabis (women who wear headscarves) working here, there are Jews working here," she told the Forward. "They see everyones the same and its not a big deal."

Chloe Louzon, a 23-year-old Israeli-American, who also works at a counselor at the camp, said the experience has helped her grow, admitting she once had some preconceived notions.

"I will definitely admit that I was biased before I was exposed," she said, citing some of the past negative views that she once had about Muslims. "I grew up in a Yehsiva, I grew up kind of in a bubble."

It's an experience Louzon said has helped her push back against Islamophobic comments if she hears them.

But Zeltser told the Forward that some people have surely had their doubts, with some in the Jewish community questioning the decision to allow a Muslim presence at the camps.

He said, though, the Kings Bay YM-YWHA is open and honest about its intent and people with doubts are more than welcome to "come over and visit" to see Muslims and Jews working and playing together at the camp.

Summer camps are just one way in which the Kings Bay YM-YWHA is bringing Muslims and Jews together. In June, more than 300 Muslims, Jews and Christians came together for an Iftar dinner a meal Muslims eat after sunset during Ramadan, according to Brooklyn Daily.

Rabbi Shlomo Segal of Sheepshead Bay said the effort allowed people from those faiths to share their teachings and eat together, despite the negative headlines that many times emphasize the debates over and between faith.

Segal said the goal of the effort is to "enable religion to become a positive force in the community."

Kings Bay YM-YWHA also runs a "Young Peacebuilders" program for young women ages 15-18, an intercultural, all-girl project that the organization hosts in collaboration with the Turkish Muslim Community.

"The ultimate goal is to contribute to peace and harmony in society by building bridges of long-lasting friendships," a description reads. "KBY and TCC spend the year together, getting to know each other's culture and religion."
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