For the last several years, the Circle of Light and Hope, one of the IEA’s 37 ongoing dialog groups, has been discussing a very wide range of religious topics at our monthly meetings and retreats. Meetings take place in either the Gush Etzion or Har Gilo/ Beit Jalla area, with retreats being either at the Everest Hotel near Har Gilo or at the Austrian Hospice in the Old City of Jerusalem. Recently, subsequent to the attack on a Mosque in the town of Beit Fajar, it was decided to discuss the idea of “Sacred Space” in each religion. At the end of this meeting, several of the Muslim members of the group asked if it might be possible for them to visit a synagogue at some point. Several of the group’s Jewish members, including myself, are members of Kehilat Yedidya in Baka, a Modern Orthodox synagogue which is both geographically convenient (walking distance from the Bethlehem checkpoint) and which regularly welcomes groups of non-Jewish visitors. So with warm encouragement from the synagogue's leadership we decided to arrange a visit.
The group of 6 Muslim members of the Circle of Light and Hope arrived, on Friday Nov. 26th, at about 3:30 PM, about an hour before the Sabbath began, in order to meet with the Jewish members who were present and spend a little bit of time learning about the structure and content of the Kabbalat Shabbat (Receiving the Sabbath) prayers. They were also given copies of the entire Kabbalat Shabbat prayer and much of the Maariv (evening) prayer in both English and Arabic. While we were studying the text of the prayers and customs/actions related to the prayers together, Drs. Yehuda Stolov and Taleb al-Hariti, the Muslim co-chair of the group, were interviewed by reporters from an Italian TV station. We then joined the synagogue members for a lovely, melodical and very peaceful Kabbalat Shabbat service.
The impact this visit had on all of us truly cannot be overstated; indeed it may have been the first time that Palestinian Muslims were welcomed into an Orthodox synagogue. We sincerely hope to be able to arrange more such visits to each other’s houses of worship in the very near future, in order to continue to break down walls of misunderstanding and build trust, friendship and respect.
Below you will find the story of a historical visit of a join Israeli-Palestinian interfaith encounter group to the Palestinian side of the City of Hebron, with permission from the army authorities.
With us was a reporter of ISRAEL21C and here is his story:
On a personal note: I joined this so special visit and encounter and for me there were several extremely unique elements to it:
First thing that was striking, was the calm and relaxed atmosphere of the tour. Most tours include a lot of anger – either towards the Jewish side or towards the Palestinian side. This tour was different and it was for me an indication to the high level of friendship and trust that developed within the group.
Another striking element was the emptiness of the old market. I was last in it when I was briefly a settler I Hebron some 30 years ago and I remembered it as full of life – with Jews, Palestinians and tourists filling it to the degree one could hardly move in it. It was very sad to see it so quiet and empty.
Then, in the Cave of the Patriarchs I met the spokesman of the Hebron Settlers and was happy to see how happy he was to hear about our group and its special visit and how he longed with me to the return of the good old days.
I went back from this day with a lot of hope!
On November 4th we had our encounter in the city of Hebron. We were around ten of the group members from Hebron, five from Qalqilia, three from East Jerusalem and seven Israelis.
We began with a visit which included a tour of the old city, the old market and the Cave of the Patriarchs. The tour was led by the Palestinian members of the group from Hebron. They explained why the market is nearly empty and showed us the division between the Palestinian side of the city and the Jewish side of the city. The explained the complexity of living in the city and its consequences. When we arrived at the Cave of the Patriarchs we split and entered from different entries: the Muslims from the Muslim side and the Jews from the Jewish side.
We then all went to sit in a café in the city center, where we talked about the sanctity of the the City of Hebron in Islam and in Judaism. Finally we reached the conclusion that the city is holy to both religions for the same reason: the fact that the Patriarchs are buried in it. We ended with Falafel, Nargila and lemonade and everyone said they enjoyed a lot this visit!
It is important to note that despite the political differences between the two peoples, the tour went in a very calm and peaceful way, in which we were privileged to get to know the city and hear about it through the people who live in it. May many such encounters happen!
Our third meeting was in Bethlehem! It was very exciting for the Israeli members, all of them young and never been there before. After a few days of handling the permissions issues, we drove from Jerusalem to Bethlehem.
At first, we met Nour, the Palestinian coordinator. Nour took us on a tour around the city. We visited al'Aida refugee camp, and drove all around beautiful Bethlehem.
Later on, we got to the YMCA Palestinian crafts center in the city. We saw wonderful Palestinian crafts and were exposed to this YMCA great project. Then, we had a break-fast dinner that ended the fast of the Palestinians for that day of Ramadan.
After dinner, we drank coffee outside and enjoyed the good weather and the sweets. We talked about Ramadan and about fasting in Judaism and Islam. After a nice conversation, we went to see the Nativity Church and the nice square of Bethlehem. We were driving threw the old city of Bethlehem on our way back to Jerusalem.
During the last eight months, we have been planning and working on the development of a new group of the Interfaith Encounter Association. This is a group of students from Bethlehem University and from the Hebrew University.
We first had a few encounters for a core group of 6-7 people. During the months February-April 2010, this group met five times in different places: at the Everest Hotel located in Beit Jalla, in Talitha Qumi and in Jerusalem, in order to plan the first meetings of the larger group. During those meetings, we developed a close connection between the members of the core group. We became friends and meet regularly. We faced several problems while trying to create the group, but it made us feel more acutely the need for this group.
In March we had a preparation meeting, at the Hebrew university, in order to prevent technical problems during the first group's encounter. Unfortunately, the first meeting of the whole group was canceled, after a few days of fighting and riots in the area. The students of Bethlehem were facing objection to the idea of meeting Israelis and we decided to postpone the first meeting.
A month later, we called another meeting and set everything for it to succeed. When Nour, the Bethlehem coordinator, went to bring the permits from the Civil Administration, we faced a technical problem: For some reason, we got the permits for the wrong hours of the day. The Palestinians couldn’t make it to the meeting, so the Israelis met for a short time and talked about their expectations from the encounters.
The coordinators met each other once more, and finally we had the first meeting of the Bethlehem-Jerusalem group on May 23rd, at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
After enjoying the refreshments, we introduced each other and had some warm-up games. Later on, the group split into two groups, and we decided about the topics we would like to discuss on the next meetings.
By the end of the encounter, we had a wonderful tour around Mount Scopus Campus. We saw the beautiful views of Jerusalem and the mounts of Jordan, and also visited the synagogue of the campus.
On the second time we also met at the HU in Jerusalem, on July 4th. Some of the Palestinian students couldn’t come, because their permissions were washed accidentally after being forgotten in the pants of the person who picked them up from the Civil Administration…
The topic was "our roots". Yif’at and Rahhal introduced a short presentation about the Palestinian history and about the Jewish history.
Afterwards, every person shared his or her family story.
The meeting was very moving and we were excited to share our stories and to listen to others’ stories.
After a few days the coordinators met again and had a nice walk along the road of Ein Lavan Spring (near Walaje)
Our third encounter took place in Bethlehem! This was the first time since the formation of IEA that we were able to obtain permits for Israelis to go into a Palestinian city and we were very excited about it! The report from this encounter will be circulated soon.
This new group was created thank to the work ofYael, Henri, Nour, Noy and Ward from the IEA.
The 30th retreat of Israeli-Palestinian interfaith encounter took place on Thursday and Friday, June 10th and 11th, in the charming guest house of the Austrian Hospice, at the heart of the Old City of Jerusalem. We are grateful to them for their wonderful hospitality. The retreat was jointly organized by the Interfaith Encounter Association and the Palestinian Peace Club from Yata (south of Hebron). The theme was: marriage.
The retreat did not start on time. Technical difficulties resulted in late receipt by the Palestinian participants of their entry permits to Jerusalem. So we first met each other during dinner. After dinner we squeezed two sessions into one: we briefly introduced the two organizations and the guidelines for our conversation during the retreat. Then we quickly introduced ourselves and heard a short presentation of the Jewish perspective by Ms. Shirel Guez. All this briefness left us nearly an hour and a half for good conversation in small groups – including more detailed self-introduction, sharing by each of us of a marriage story that moved us and a conversation following on the Jewish presentation. Conversation continued long after the session officially ended.
The morning started with the Muslim presentation by Mr. Raed Abu Eid and the Christian presentation by Ms. Raffaela Corrias. Participants then went back to the small groups to continue the conversation, for about an hour and a half, until they broke for coffee and cake.
After the break we gathered together for the closing circle, in which each of us shared a short sentence about what he or she is taking back home from the retreat. We went down for lunch and then fare welled warmly from our new friends.
The Interfaith Encounter Association
P.O.Box 3814, Jerusalem 91037, Israel
Ms. Evelyne Savir (Chair)
Dr. Shlomo Alon
Ms. Nadia Tutunji-Nuseibeh
Ms. Saheer Siam
Mr. Rizk Azam
Ms. Randa Zreik-Sabag
Dr. Yehuda Stolov, Executive Director
Mr. Salah Alladin, Assistant Director
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