One participant wrote after the retreat: "Thank you so much for organizing the interfaith encounter at the Everest Hotel, November5th-7th.
It was a stimulating and exciting experience for me, and all the participants clearly felt likewise. It was a unique opportunity to bond with Palestinians across the national and religious "divide", and to learn about one another's respective traditions and culture.
Above all, it was a very significant reminder of the plain fact that we are all individuals, with similar hopes, dreams and concerns."
What actually happen at there retreat?
In the afternoon of November 5th we opened the 27th 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 with each other elements of the story of Joseph that inspire or move them.
After dinner we enjoyed a social evening with Palestinian flavor of the Oud and singing, followed by relaxed conversations into the night.
The morning of the second day began with the Jewish perspective. Unfortunately, Nachum – who was planned to deliver the Jewish presentation – could not come in the last minute so Yehuda replaced him. He presented the Biblical story from Genesis about Joseph being the son of Jacob's beloved wife, being favored etc.
As usual, after each of the presentations the conversation continued in the small groups.
After the Muslims returned from the Jumaa prayer, Yasser presented the Koranic story, which is nearly identical to the Biblical one. There are, though, a few interesting differences between the stories. According to the Koran Jacob suspected that the brothers plan to harm Joseph and did not agree he will go with them to the field until they swore to him that they will bring him back safely. Later – Joseph refused to go out of prison until it was proven that he was innocent. Joseph revealed himself to Benjamin already when they were together for the first time, but asked hin to keep it secret. The brothers did return without Benjamin but after Jacob became blind out of sorrow – they went back to ask Joseph to release Benjamin. Then Joseph revealed to them, they apologized and he gave them his shirt to put on Jacob's face in order to cure him.
Before sunset we all gathered for a prayers session. The Jewish participants gave a short explanation about the special prayer for the receiving of Shabbat and performed it with a lot of singing, Karlebach style. Then the Muslim participants explained the Muslim prayers and their preparations and performed the evening prayer. The conversations around prayers continued for some time. Then Chana shared a story, coming from the Jews of Afghanistan, about the search for justice, followed by personal reflections of participants.
Dinner was followed by relaxed informal conversations through the evening, which continued on Saturday with some of the Palestinians who returned to visit the Jews who stayed in the Everest Hotel until the end of Shabbat.
Our Father Abraham – Father of Monotheism
in Judaism, Christianity and Islam
A joint retreat of
Palestinian Peace Society and Interfaith Encounter Association
The 25th Israeli-Palestinian retreat of interfaith encounter started on Thursday, July 16, 2009, in the charming and tranquil guesthouse of the Austrian Hospice, at the heart of the Old City of Jerusalem. We were a highly mixed group of Israeli Jews of different levels of practice, Palestinian Muslims and International Christians of different denominations – Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox.
We began by introducing the two organizations – by their directors: Dr. Taleb Al-Harithy of the Palestinian Peace Society and Dr. Yehuda Stolov of the Interfaith Encounter Association. We also introduced the program and the guiding principles for the retreat. Then we briefly introduced ourselves in the plenary and split into small groups for more in depth personal introductions. Beyond the sharing biographical details we also shared with each other ways in which Abraham is meaningful and inspiring to us, as a way to deepen the way we get to know each other and at the same time start the conversations about the theme of the retreat.
The first session focused on the Jewish perspective. The short presentation was delivered by Dr. Yehuda Stolov, who used the nice summary of Rabbi Yehezkel Abramsky. Abraham was born in the year 1948… to the Hebrew calendar (on which now the year is 5760). He was born and raised in Mesopotamia, in a society that heavily worshiped idols. Abraham thought from an early age that this could not be the real worship and made a lot of intellectual and spiritual effort to discover the real God, until finally God revealed himself to him. His love to God derived love to all his creatures and his main way to bring people closer to God was through his amazing hospitality, open to all. After the person ate, drank and rested and wanted to thank him – he would direct them to the real source of the good things they got, God. For Abraham – belief in God was the ultimate key for peace, as no nation would attack another if they really understood that God is the real source of what they will have. Abraham became a famous leader in his generation and it is interesting to note that according to Philo of Alexandria, Abraham invented writing. After he discovered God he started to combat idols and promote the worship of God. His father Terah had an idol shop and when he left it under Abraham's care – he smashed all of them but the biggest, and put the stick in his hand. When his father returned he said the big idol smashed the others. This was told to Nimrod the king and he through him to a burning oven – but God saved him. God ordered him to go to the land that at that time started being invaded buy the Canaanite tribes. Hi relations also with them were very good and when needed he protected them – both his sward, for example when the four Mesopotamian kings captured his nephew Lot; and by his prayer, when God decided to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. His 100th year was eventful: at 99 he was ordered to circumcise himself and Ishmael, argued with God trying to save Sodom and Gomorrah and had his second son Yitzhak, who was the main continuation, according to the Jewish tradition, of Abraham.
Following the short presentation, participants went to their small groups for a more personal and in-depth conversations around the theme and derived issues, as they did in the following sessions. These group conversations are the heart of the retreat's experience and process.
In the morning Dr. Karam Nasreddeen presented the Muslim perspective. Most of the stories were exactly the same as the Jewish stories. He added the description of Abraham's way to Monotheism. He saw a star and said this is the God to worship but then the star disappeared so he knew it was not. This repeated with the son, the moon etc. until he realized the God who created all of them.
Abraham was born in Iraq and then lived in Arabia with his wife Hagar and their son Ishmael. He left both of them in the desert without explanation and in the fourth day Angel Gabriel knocked with his foot on the ground – and Ein Zamzam started to give water, and still does so today. The tribes around came to Hagar for the water and she allowed them to use the spring in return to their protection.
Abraham and Ishmael built the Qaaba in Mecca.
Abraham wandered to southern Syria (=the Holy Land) and lived between Beer Sheba and Hebron. Lut's people lived not far in 7 towns and the three angels came as men dressed in white to inform Abraham about God's decision to destroy the area.
Abraham is most important in Islam. One of the biggest Suras of the Quran is dedicated to him and he is called the father of all prophets.
Ms. AnnMarie Micikas presented the Christian perspective. Abraham is mentioned 234 times in the Old Testament and 72 times in the New Testament. Abraham is in the middle of the faith chain. In Protestantism especially salvation is by faith rather than by action and Abraham is significant as he is the first person who was saved by faith. By having faith everyone can become the son of Abraham. He is also special for forming the covenant with God that does not depend on human deeds. For Christians the most important story is the sacrifice of Isaac as this is parallel to the sacrifice of Jesus. And the understanding of the great difficulty for Abraham to sacrifice Isaac makes us understand how difficult it was for God to sacrifice Jesus. Abraham did not finally sacrifice Isaac, but he did sacrifice his final decision of what's the right deed. Even though Abraham was not perfect and did make mistakes – still he is called the friend of God and the whole world is blessed through him.
In the moving concluding session many of the participants pointed out their surprise from how harmonious the conversation went. Many expected confrontation but the interfaith encounter approaches directed the conversation to be of dialogical nature.
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.
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.
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
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