The above Journal Photo by Monte Mitchell

It shows "Boys at the interfaith camp at Elk Shoals enjoyed getting into the water of the South Fork of the New River."


At Peace: Camp a refuge for U.S., Israeli, Palestinian boys

Published: July 25, 2009



The boys are Israeli, Palestinian and American, and have come together for a week of summer camp and fellowship at Camp Elk Shoals along the South Fork of the New River.

They lean forward when Paul Bailey, a New River State Park ranger, shows them a model of a hellbender, a beady-eyed, flat-headed salamander that's a foot-and-a-half long.

"This is the average size of what we find here in the New River," Bailey says.

"What?" said Gabriel Bennett, a visitor from Florida who seems surprised that the water he's been wading in contains such a creature. Later, he'll say he's not worried.

The ranger shows the boys fox pelts and deer antlers and lets them smell sweet birch twigs. Then rain starts pouring down.

The deluge threatens the promised time to wade in the water, but Ehsan Nofal, a 13-year-old visitor from Jericho, is captivated. He gets up to take photographs of the rain.

"It's beautiful," he said.

The ancient city of Jericho, north of the Dead Sea and home to 25,000 Palestinians, is an oasis fed by springs, but gets just 6 or so inches of rain a year. The mountains got that much rain in June.

"The rain does not disappoint here," said Elk Shoals executive director Pete Parish. "The kids from Israel and Palestine find it fascinating the sky can release so much water. It's heaven sent, literally."

There are 29 boys at the camp this year, most from churches, synagogues and mosques in North Carolina, but the group also includes a delegation of eight visitors from Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

It's the first such delegation since the Interfaith program started at Elk Shoals in the wake of the  Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Girls attend next week and will include a group from Costa Rica.

The goal is to promote fun and fellowship, allowing each child to observe his or her own religion while making friends with people from other faiths. Elk Shoals is a United Methodist camp. Parish helped form American Interfaith Camps, a nonprofit body that organizes the Interfaith camps and includes Christians, Jews and Muslims.

Organizers at the Peres Center for Peace in Tel Aviv got the idea to send the delegation to Elk Shoals after a basketball coach at the center saw a documentary about the interfaith camp. Six boys, and counselors Fares Swaitti and Avishai Hatzor, all from Peres Center programs, are attending the Ashe County camp, which started Sunday and ended yesterday.

"The opportunity for a delegation of children from our projects to participate in the Elk Shoals Interfaith Camp will be very precious," organizers at the Peres Center wrote in a proposal. The Peres Center for Peace was founded in 1996 by Israeli President Shimon Peres, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and former prime minister. (In Israel, the prime minister is the head of the government.)

At home, many of the Israeli children whom the Peres Center works with were within range of Hamas rockets during the Israeli-Hamas conflict that started late last year, according to the proposal. The Palestinian children from the West Bank were far enough away that they weren't in danger, but children from both groups were exposed to seeing carnage in television reports and they saw adults who were angry about the fighting.

When the rains let up, the boys from Jericho and from the Israeli city Kiriyat Gat waded in the New River on Wednesday afternoon.

Ehsan had a special visitor. His 27-year-old brother, Moe Nofal, and Moe's new wife, Toni, drove 16 hours from their home in Milwaukee to see him. It's the first time Moe Nofal has seen any of his family since moving to the United States three years ago for a chance at a better life.

"I'm happy, I'm glad" to see my brother, Ehsan said in English.

His brother translated more complicated sentences from Arabic as Ehsan told how he's been shown things he'd never seen before.

■ Monte Mitchell can be reached in Wilkesboro at 336-667-5691 or at

Click here ( * ) to see pictures of our 8 foreign visitors, and click here ( * ) to return to the Camp's homepage.