Training 80 Youth Encounter Leaders

May 25, 2009

PRAYER - 24th Israeli-Palestinian retreat of interfaith encounter, April 30 - May 1, 2009

Playing the Oudi
Playing the Oudi

In the afternoon of April 30th we opened the 24th Israeli-Palestinian retreat of interfaith encounter. It was again a joint retreat of the Interfaith Encounter Association and the Hope Flowers School, sponsored by Canada's Networking for Peace program – to whom we are deeply grateful.

We began by briefly introducing the two organizations and their activities, followed by introduction of the agenda for the retreat and its guiding principles. Then participants went into small conversation groups for a session of self-introduction. They first shared their life story and then they each shared a story of a personal meaningful experience of prayer.

Conversations were so alive that it was difficult to break for dinner and when we did – they continued during the meal. After dinner we had a joint social evening with happy songs led by Ribhi's oud for many hours.

The morning started with the Jewish perspective. The short presentation of prayer in Judaism was given by Rabbi Gideon Sylvester. Rabbi Sylvester shared a story he heard from his rabbi about a child taken by his father to the synagogue for the first time. He is so touched by the sincerity and intensity of the prayer that he feels overwhelmed with his wish to pray to God, but as he doesn't know to read he reaches to his whistle and blows it loudly. Many are upset but the rabbi says that all the prayers of the community were elevated to God thanks to the pure intention of this whistle. This story stresses the most important element – which is the heart's yearning to God. But one should also know the procedures and follow them. The guiding principle is to remain in connection with God all the time. There are three daily prayers – in the morning, afternoon and evening. They are coming from the Patriarchs – Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – and also represent the sacrifices of the Temple. This represents the past. In the synagogue the praying are facing the ark, which contains the Torah scrolls so represents the present of the full commitment to the whole of the Torah and its commandments. The synagogue itself is directed towards Jerusalem, which represents the future with the Third Temple and the better world which will come with it for everyone. The presentation raised many points of interest and the conversations continued in the small groups. Following the groups' session we broke for the Jumaa prayer and lunch.

The afternoon was dedicated to the Muslim and Christian perspectives. The Muslim presentation was delivered by Mr. Samer Ghaboun. The presentation started with a brief idea about the Muslim prayer and its importance; which is considered the most important element among the five elements that Allah ordered the Muslims to do. Muslims should pray five times a day from sun rise to sunset. There is importance to the way of how to be prepared for the pray through purification ("alwodoo") and it is very important to clean the self before praying because people pray for Allah (God). Samer also spoke about the declaring for praying through alathaan (announcer) and that is to call by the loudspeakers in the mosques. He also explained the way of praying and what people shall say during the prayer.

The Christian presentation was given by Ms. Seren Ghattas. The presentation started with a brief introduction about Christianity and the Old and New Testament, which are the two parts – the old and the new – of the holy book in which the Christians believes. The prayer of Christians can be done any time, unlike Islam which has specific time for each pray. The presentation gave an idea about the bread Christians eat after the prayer, which represent the body of Jesus which is called communion.

In the concluding session many participants spoke to the high potential of interfaith encounter in the building of peaceful relations between the peoples. Many said the retreat helped them regain the hope they lost.

Dec 16, 2008

The Binding of Abraham's Son - the 23rd Israeli-Palestinian retreat of interfaith encounter

Small group
Small group's dialogue

The Binding of Abraham's Son

23rd Israeli-Palestinian retreat of interfaith encounter

The 23rd Israeli-Palestinian retreat of interfaith encounter took place on the 4th and 5th of December in the tranquil Everest Hotel in a remote area in the outskirts of Beit Jalla and very near Har Gilo, a location which made it easily accessible for both Israelis and Palestinians.

The retreat focused on "The Binding of Abraham's Son" and was jointly organized by the Interfaith Encounter Association and the Hope Flowers School, with the generous support of the program Networking for Peace of the Canadian Government, to whom we are all most grateful.

The special success of this retreat manifested itself even before we began in two ways. First it was exciting to realize that so many of the participants were new faces. If this was for a minute sources for concern about how well will the conversations go, it soon became a source of further thrill when we saw spontaneous friendly conversation already starting among people from both groups who arrived early.

The structured part of the program opened with introducing the two organizations, the program and the guidelines for the retreat. Throughout the retreat – it was jointly facilitated by Ms. Ghada Issa of the Hope Flowers School and Dr. Yehuda Stolov of the Interfaith Encounter Association. Participants were invited for a social game that led to their grouping in groups of six. In the small groups they each introduced themselves in greater detail than in the plenary. Then they were asked to share stories in which someone sacrificed something for them. The conversations were so lively that we had to invite the groups to continue them over dinner.

After dinner we had a social evening with joint singing in Arabic and Hebrew, joint informal chats and a few nargilas.

The next morning started with the presentation of Rabbi Yaron Durani of the Jewish perspective of the theme. The Binding is extremely meaningful in the Jewish tradition. The request of God from Abraham was especially terrifying from three aspects: a. A true believer is prepared to sacrifice himself for God, for example – in case when he is forced to act against the Torah. But it is much more difficult for him to sacrifice his son. And even more so when this son is the future of the whole nation; b. Abraham struggled his all life against idol worshipers who were sacrificing their sons. Now when he is already old and have a large crowd of followers suddenly he is told to act as an idol worshiper! This is a real danger for his life project and vision as well as to his faith; c. There is a contradiction between the promise to build the nation through Isaac and the command to sacrifice him. A regular person would recognize the contradiction and choose one of the options, perhaps the one more comfortable for him, while questioning whether the order to sacrifice his son did not come from the Satan. But Abraham was the greatest believer so he believed in both sides of the contradiction. Finally Abraham did not sacrifice Isaac as God stopped him in the last minute – because this act is immoral. But why then that God ordered him to do that? God did so as the believer should be willing to sacrifice anything for God. Willing, but not actually sacrificing as the Torah rejects totally the possibility of human sacrifice. In the first days of the Jewish year we blow the Shofar, made of a sheep's horn, in order to remember the Binding of Isaac and that God both wants us to be dedicated to him but also to refrain from sacrificing humans.

As we always do – following the short presentation, participants went back to their small groups (now bigger groups – each composed of two groups from the previous evening) and shared their thoughts and feelings following the presentation.

The next session was dedicated to the Muslim perspective, first presented by Ms. Fadila Eswed. Abraham faced many tests and difficult ones. Abraham saw a vision in his dream that he should sacrifice his son. He told Ishmael and consulted with him – without ordering him to accept. But his son the believer replied: you do what you were told to do and I will be obedient. Abraham went with Ishmael and prepared everything for the sacrifice but when he put the knife he brought to Ishmael's neck – the knife didn't work. Then God spoke to Abraham through the angel Gabriel: you proved to be a true believer and withstood the test. God sent to Abraham a sheep to be sacrificed instead of Ishmael – a big white sheep from Heaven. This was the day before the Feast of the Sacrifice (Eid el-Adha) and therefore it became part of the Suna to sacrifice a sheep before the Feast. As a reward for his withstanding the test – God gave to Abraham another son: Isaac, who was born later according to the Muslim tradition.

Again – participants retuned to the groups and continued their conversations until lunch.

After lunch we were privileged to host Eyal Davidov of the King David Drummers, who brought with him many drums and led a joint drummers' circle for more than an hour.

Before sunset we gathered to have the Jewish prayers for the receiving of Shabbat, followed by the Muslim and Jewish evening prayers, each conducted in it traditional way, facing opposite physical directions (as is the situation south of Jerusalem) but directed to the same God. With the similarities and the differences – this was a powerful experience for many participants who have never before witnessed the prayer of the other.

Following the prayers, the groups wrapped up and we all convened to the concluding session. Brainstorming about themes for future retreats the group suggested to focus on prayer, on Jerusalem and on different Biblical figures who are also mentioned in the Koran (Moses, Joseph etc.) Concluding the structured part was a short summary by each participant. For most of them this was their first encounter with the other and many noted how powerful and positive it was and how much they desired to have more such encounters.

The evening continued with dinner and informal conversations until late at night.

Groups' conversations
Drummers' circle
Aug 5, 2008

Receipt of the Divine Word

A presentation
A presentation

How does God communicate with us?

That, in essence, was the question that a group of Palestinian Muslims and Israeli Jews explored over two half-day sessions, Thursday and Friday of last week, at the Austrian Hospice in Jerusalem’s Old City.

We were participating in a joint retreat of the Interfaith Encounter Association, an Israeli organization, and the Palestinian Peace Society.

The Jews were mostly “Anglos,” native English speakers, immigrants to Israel. Professionally the group included two people on the staff of IEA (both of whom have PhDs in topics related to Jewish mysticism!), a hazzan/artist, a teacher, a businessman/rabbi, etc. The Palestinians were all from Hebron or Tulkarm and included a professor, a government official, an accountant, a businessman. Very diverse group.

Fr. Markus Stephan Bugnyar, the rector of the Austrian Hospice (which is NOT what the term “hospice” connotes in contemporary American English – it is, rather, a guesthouse for tourists!) presented the Christian view of revelation. He pointed out how Jews believe the Torah was revealed to Moses, and the Koran was revealed to Muslims, but Christians have no concept similar to this. Jesus did not write any of the gospels himself, in the way that Moses is considered the author of the Torah, or Mohammed the author of the Koran. Further, unlike the Torah, where we see the refrain “God spoke to Moses saying” over and over, phrases like that aren’t used in the New Testament. God does not speak to Jesus – Jesus simply speaks. They take this as a further proof of the divinity of Jesus. When we started discussing the concept of the divinity of Jesus,” Jesus as God,” one of the Muslim participants got quite upset and needed to be calmed down by his co-religionists.

An important ground rule was mentioned by the meeting organizers – we are not there to critique each other’s religions. We were there to hear what Christians have to say about their relationship with the Bible, what Muslims have to say about their relationship with Koran, etc. NOT what Christians think of the Koran or what Muslims think of the New Testament. Keeping that principle in mind is a good way to avoid acrimonious debate that does nothing to further respect for each other.

Rabbi Joel Zeff, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Hamivtar, presented the Jewish perspective. He talked about the desire of humans to love God and of God to love humans and about the challenge in that as God is infinite and we are finite. The solution comes from the Mystical saying that the whole of Torah is composed of God's names. And as the name represents the essence of the thing, this means that the Torah is the essence of God. God put his thoughts and will in the Torah – we connect with God through the Torah. The Mystics of the Kabala say that when we learn Torah we take its wisdom and put it in our brain, but as the Torah is God's essence – when we do that actually God is in our soul. In this way we make love to God and the main importance of the revelation is the way to do that.

Dr. Taleb Al-Harithi, coordinator of the Palestinian Peace Society presented the Muslim perspective. He talked about how the archangel Gabriel served as an intermediary between God and Mohammed, but just as for the Jews, their holy scripture is believed to contain the word of God. He also spoke about how the Muslims also consider the Torah and the New Testament revelations of the Divine Word. Interestingly he mentioned that Muslims believe in the immaculate conception, the concept that Mary was made pregnant without a physical father, but they don’t take that as meaning Jesus is a physical incarnation of God – they just believe that it was a miraculous pregnancy. They revere the Jewish prophets and Jesus as prophets, some of whom, like Moses, rise to the highest rank of “messenger of God.”

Following each of the presentations we had time for conversation in small groups. Some of the issues that came up were: what brings us closer to God and what take us away from him? Even prophets make mistake – only God is perfect; The most effective love is the one based on the guidance of religion; True lover of God truly loves people; and more.

As is often the case when I’ve been involved in gatherings of the “Abrahamic faiths” we discovered that Judaism and Islam are very close to each other theologically – Christianity is sort of the “odd man out” with a lot of concepts that would appear to be rooted in Hellenistic thought, not Jewish thought. One of the participants asked whether it is better that people be religious, or not? In other words, is religion a force for good, or a force for evil?

I shared the idea that in each of our traditions we can find teachings of love, and teachings of religion can be a powerful force for good and peace. If we focus on the “Torah of hate,” religion can be a powerful force for racism and violence. I think this is why the Baal Shem Tov (the Besht) taught that one has to do teshuva BEFORE studying Torah – for Torah is an amplifier that can make good people better, or, God forbid, bad people worse.

I hope that in future gatherings we will feel comfortable enough with each other to take a look at the “troubling texts” we each have in our traditions, and talk about ways we can defuse them within a religious context. I don’t think we can simply ignore the unpleasant verses in the Koran or the Torah.

All the participants I think left feeling warmly toward everyone. Our challenge is to bring that message to others – the Palestinians need to let their friends know that not all Jews are crazy people bent on oppressing them, and the Jews need to let their friends know that not all Palestinians are latent suicide bombers. Long term, I believe activities like this are essential to building bridges and building peace. If only we could multiply the number of participants geometrically!!!

Based on a blog written by Rabby Barry Leff (who took part in this retreat), adapted by Yehuda Stolov

Group conversation
Group conversation
Two in dialogue
Two in dialogue
Dec 19, 2007

"Binding of Isaac/ Ishmael" - a joint Israeli-Palestinian interfaith retreat

Joint dinner at the retreat
Joint dinner at the retreat

The Binding of Isaac/ Ishmael in Judaism, Christianity and Islam

A joint Israeli-Palestinian interfaith retreat of Palestinian Peace Society and Interfaith Encounter Association November 29th-30th at the Austrian Hospice

The retreat started with the introduction of the two organizations and their approaches to building peace in the region. It was remarkable to see how both organizations share so much in common in that regard. Both talked about their commitment to the promotion of peace, about the need to include in the process all ideologies, religions. Political views etc, and both spoke to the necessity of building the grass-roots infrastructure without which peace can not stand and of the power of encounter and mutual acquaintance in constructing mutual trust. The Palestinian Peace Society is based in Hebron and works since 1993 and the Interfaith Encounter Association is based in Jerusalem and works since 2001.

Then each of us introduced himself or herself and we shared a personal story in which someone sacrificed something for us.

Then we continued with the three religious focuses on the theme. First was the Jewish perspective and unlike the usual model where we have a short presentation first and then a conversation, this time they were combined thanks to the decision of the presenter Rabbi Bob Carroll to conduct the presentation around joint reading – that soon became joint learning – of the biblical text. We read the text in Hebrew and English and translated it into Arabic too. Here are some points that came up in the presentation and conversation: • Our venue at the heart of the Old City is perfect for the theme as in the Jewish tradition the binding took place just some two hundred meters from here… • Unlike many other religions (Christianity, Buddhism and others) where the founder spreads his message through disciples, Abraham spreads the message through his children – which could be problematic, as anyone who raised children knows. But on the other hand: if a disciple does not believe any more in the message – he is no longer part of the group; when family one continues to love even if they do not follow the message. • In fact, in Judaism Ishmael was also about to be sacrificed when he was sent to the desert with Hagar. And both gained from this event too: Hagar was awarded a conversation with the angel and Ishmael was purified through his desert experience to the degree he could grow into a nation. In Islam: Hagar asked Abraham why he leaves them in the desert but when he answered that it was the command of God – she accepted it. • Abraham was willing to sacrifice his whole future without any argument, out of his full belief in God. This resulted in the future becoming of the place of the binding into the Temple. Kierkegaard wrote a book about the Binding. He says that it is easier to justify God by saying that he never meant for a real sacrifice – only to try Abraham; but how can we justify Abraham? He answers that if Abraham had refused we may have applaud him as caring for his son, but what he chose to do was not to effuse to identification with human suffering throughout human history and this is a much more meaningful act. We had a long conversation about full obedience to God versus arguing with Him. We mentioned Abraham's argument about the destruction of Sodom, Moses' argument that prevented the destruction of the Nation of Israel, the argument of Prophet Muhammad encouraged by Moses to ask for reducing the number of daily prayers from 500 to 50 to 5, and the criticism on Noah who did not argue when God told him to prepare for the coming flood.

The second session focused on Christianity and was presented by Kerstin. Kerstin pointed out the interesting fact that we kept speaking about "sacrifice" which is the Christian term, instead of the Jewish term of "binding". In Judaism Isaac is 37 years old and definitely can not be forced by the 137 years old Abraham. In Islam too: Ishmael was a young adult. The agreement to be sacrificed came out of deep faithfulness. In contrast: in Christianity the emphasis is on the sacrifice and Isaac is portrayed as a small child. The old approach interpreted the sacrifice as working against human sacrifices but it is now clear that human sacrifices were not common in the time of Abraham, which can also be understood from Isaac's question about the lamb for the sacrifice. The new interpretation talks about trying Abraham and Isaac. This is being connected to Jesus who was actually sacrificed y his father in order to grant forgiveness for the sins of humanity. Christianity makes a direct link between Moriya and Golgotha. For example: Rembrandt paints the sacrifice and the crucifixion in very similar way: the cloths, colors, light emanating etc.) The conversation following the presentation touched on issues as: animal and plant sacrifices, Messiah and the Temple, and charity.

The perspective of Islam was presented by Dr. Taleb Alharithy. It talks about Abraham coming to Ishmael and telling him that he saw in his dream that he has to sacrifice him and about Ishmael accepting. In memory of this event Muslims celebrate Eid el-Adha – the Holiday of the Sacrifice. In this Holiday every Muslim who can in obliged to take part in sacrificing one of a few kinds of animals (a lamb for one family, a cow for seven families etc.). There are many details for the right sacrifice: the animal has to be healthy and not crippled, the slaughtering has to take place after sunset and after the prayer, it is preferable for the person to slaughter himself but it is possible to hire a slaughterer – however without paying him anything. One should select the healthiest and heaviest of his animals, which are at the minimum age of: six months for a lamb, a year for a goat, two years for a cow and five years for a camel. The meat should be mainly given to the poor. It is best to give it all to charity but it can be divided up to a third for himself, a third for his friends and a third for charity – definitely not more than a third for himself. On that day: a animal should not see another animal being slaughtered, the slaughtering has to be very swift with an especially sharp knife, which should not be sharpened in front of the animal who should not be facing Mecca. It is forbidden to sell anything – not even the skin or the bones. In Saudi Arabia the meat of the millions of pilgrims is collected, being frozen and sent to poor Muslim countries. The conversation then touched upon: vegetarianism, eating meat as sublimation of violence, prophets and the interesting point that from a Muslim perspective it is not important is the son was Isaac or Ishmael as both are equally respected as prophets.

We concluded the retreat with a joint delicious lunch and with gratitude to the Austrian Hospice for their wonderful hospitality.

Joint study of the biblical story
Joint study of the biblical story
Listenong together
Listenong together
Oct 9, 2007

The Woman in Judaism, Christianity & Islam

The Woman in Judaism, Christianity & Islam

A joint retreat of Hope Flower School and Interfaith Encounter Association

August 23-24, 2007 Austrian Hospice Guest House, Old City Jerusalem

The retreat opened with welcome greetings by Mr. Ibrahim Issa, Director of the Hope Flowers School, and Dr. Yehuda Stolov, Executive Director of the Interfaith Encounter Association. They welcomed participants, shared some background about their respective organizations and portrayed the ground rules for the retreat.

Then participants briefly presented themselves in the plenary and then moved to a more detailed self-presentation in small groups, presentation that included sharing with the other members of the group a story about a woman that was significant in their lives.

After a lovely dinner we started the first session, which focused on the Jewish perspective. Rabbi Bob Carroll started his presentation by stating that the Halacha (Jewish law) encourages, but do not oblige, women to be children's bearers and caretakers and therefore exempts them from certain commandments. For the believer – this is part of the divine plan and therefore a blessing and not a curse. It is possible to absorb ideas of equality but only if filtered in a way that they correspond with the Torah. This is unlike the modern approach, which allows religion only when in correspondence with its values (including equality). The actual duty to bear children is laid upon the man and in principle a woman can design a life course that does not include children. However, women are encouraged to marry and have children. Usually there is no prohibition on women if they wish to fulfill commandments of which they are exempt. In the Talmud Rabbi Eliezer said that one who teaches his daughter Torah it is as if he teaches her insipid content. But in the 20th century it was acknowledged that a situation where a woman can hold Ph.D. in Mathematics and at the same time have primary school level education in Judaism – is dangerous as it can lead to the perception that religion is for children only. Now there is prosperity of Yeshiva institutions for women.

The following discussion dealt with the possibility of different occupations for women, restrictions put on women beyond the religious requirements, women's singing, head covering.

In the following morning Dr. Taleb Al-Harithi presented the Muslim perspective. Prior to Islam the attitude towards women in Arabia – and perhaps the whole world: it was some 1500 years ago – was very negative. For example: there was a custom to burry alive baby girls. Islam strictly prohibited it and this custom stopped completely. Prophet Muhammad said that the one that treats women good will go to heaven. There were some ten cases of women who were queens in the Muslim world – in Egypt, Morocco, Andalusia, Iraq and more. There are two Suras (chapters) in the Koran dedicated to women: the Sura of Women, which is the third longest in the Koran describes the rights of women, how they should behave and how they should be treated. The other one is the Sura of Marry, who is very much respected in Islam. This is one example of how a woman can be a model for special connection to God. Other examples are the four mothers, the wives of the Prophet etc.

In the following conversation participants talked about divorce, inheritance rights, differences between Islam and tribal customs (that sometimes contradict), masculine and feminine images of God and his being beyond image and beyond gender, and more.

The Christian presentation started with Ms. Kristine Schnarr who talked about the fact that Jesus loved and respected women. In her Lutheran Church women lead the peace activities and are called to share their spiritual gifts. In some churches women can be pastors and in some not. Ms. Maria Anastasi added from her experience in the Greek-Orthodox Church that there is equality in the functions of women in worship and as part of the community but they can not be priests or enter the sacred area of the church. Also: the three most elite monasteries are such due to the fact that women can not enter them.

The following conversation went back to many of the themes already discussed – inheritance, divorce, dressing, mixed prayer etc. – with comparisons between the three faiths.

Before we went to the closing lunch we concluded in warm words, sharing the deep experience we had and the wonderful new friendships, committing to continue the process and thanking each other for their contributions to the success of the retreat.

(*** We are most grateful to the Austrian Hospice for their extraordinary hospitality!!)

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Project Leader

Dr. Yehuda Stolov

Executive Director
Jerusalem, Israel

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Map of Training 80 Youth Encounter Leaders