The IEA retreat of the South of Hebron group on the topic of “Finding Community” was held at the Biankini Resort from Thursday, November 12 to Friday, Nov 13, 2015. The retreat combined practice of Zen meditation with conversations on the theme of “Finding Community in the Muslim and Jewish Traditions.” Participants were asked prepare their presentation on the topic by addressing these following questions:
- What do my scriptures tell me about community?
- Who is my community?
- What do I receive from them?
- What do I give to them?
- What is my responsibility towards my community?
- How may I expand my sphere of community?
Due to the very tense situation in the Holy Land caused by the recent escalation of violence, the Biankini resort was empty except for our group. 4 Palestinian members from South of Hebron braced the difficult situations at the road checkpoints to attend, while the four women from Bethlehem who also wanted to join had to turn around half-way. The South of Hebron group mentioned how soldiers at the checkpoints would not believe that they were going to meet with a Jewish group for interfaith dialogue and laughed as if this was the greatest joke they ever heard. 5 students attended from the Yeshiva. Yehuda Stolov joined us on the last morning.
Maria gave the introduction consisting of a review of the basics and fruits of Zen-meditation, followed by an exposition on Sangha – community – in Buddhism. While the Buddha founded a monastic community of monks and nuns, the lay community supporting the monastic community and deriving spiritual guidance and help from it is a full part of the Sangha as well. A monastic life was deemed to be the most conducive way to overcome the basic three “poisons” that ail our humanity: the delusion of a separate ego-self, giving rise to greed and anger, both on the individual and group/ societal/corporate/governmental level. The goal of spiritual practice is not dis-engagement from world, but compassionate action based on awareness of the suffering caused by this delusion of a separate self. The ideal Buddhist community is based on the realization of the deep inter-connectedness of all life (including animals, plants) on this planet and the practice of universal friendship that does not privilege one`s own family or group over others.
In Islam, the community is based on the 5 pillars – profession of faith, prayers 5 times a day, charity (both obligatory and private), keeping of Ramadan and pilgrimage to Mecca. Everyone who professes faith in One God is considered a member of the Muslim community. The community is governed by Shariah law. The Imam/Sheikh ideally is an expert on the law and its interpretation. In Palestinian Sunni Islam, the Imam is not a spiritual figure, but a government employee of the Ministry of Religion who bases his sermons on topics given by the ministry. The Imams take turns at the various mosques. In their sermons, they typically take a verse form the Qu’ran and apply it to problems in society. There are now many internet sites or books with sermons/teachings by Sheiks that in many cases are found to be more inspirational than the sermons at a local mosque. Children learn prayers (verses from the Qur’an to be said in Arabic) in the family and school. They need to know prayers by the age of 10 to fully participate in community prayer. Prayers said in private at home do not get the same credit (27 credits) as prayers said in community, especially if they are said in the most holy places like Mecca (100.000 credits), Medina (1000 credits) or Al Aqsa (500). Community worship is the heart of the community. The credits are redeemed in paradise.
The obligation to the community is taking care of one`s family and neighbors, charity, and work for justice. The most powerful way to change and open up community is through education that extends through college level. Some of the SOH members volunteer in local schools. They see their participation in IEA as their responsibility and contribution to creating a more peaceful and just society in Israel/Palestine, especially in absence of a political solution.
In Judaism, community is essential to practice the faith and of a Jewish life. It is the main aspect of one`s identity. I am part of a community that worships God. Jewish people understand themselves as the microcosm of the world. It is their responsibility to bring knowledge of the one God to the rest of the world and to take care of the world. A community is about values and takes responsibility for the spiritual life of its members. The most important Jewish institutions are learning institutions from early on. Teachers used to put honey on the letters of the Torah to teach small children the sweetness of Torah. The main goal of the community is to study Torah/together. The basic unit for Jewish community life is the family. Even the high priest had to be married, since a man without children cannot develop true mercy and is therefore not allowed to judge others. A father has to teach children the prayers, and if he is unable or unwilling to do so the community takes over. The synagogue is the center of the community, and one needs 10 people to pray in the synagogue. The age of obligation is 12 for women, 13 for men. Charity (10 percent) is an obligation, but the upper limit is 20 percent of your income.
Problems arise with virtual communities or communities that are too big and anonymous for the rabbi to know and guide everyone.
Ideally speaking, the synagogue should be located in the center and highest place of the community. Responsibility towards the community: You have to help your own family and community first before you extend your help to others. All Jewish people are related like a family. There are many volunteer opportunities – Chabad sends people around the world to create Jewish centers for worship and outreach, help of neighbors, charity, sharing your gifts – teaching yoga for example as spiritual lesson, teaching children, studying together.
For a final round, we asked all participants to share their impressions of the retreat. On both sides, there was the earnest plea to really listen to the suffering of each side, to practice compassion (literally: suffering with, as explained by Maria). Without the feeling of the suffering of the other, there will be no solution. There was agreement that the cycle of violence needs to be broken as much as possible by spreading the good news that coming together in friendship and listening to each other, that disagreeing while staying friends, is a real possibility. On the Palestinian side, the danger of violence being spread via social media without any alternative voices was emphasized. The message young people receive on face book is “Kill, Kill, Kill! – Nobody says “Peace.” Thus, children react to the violent images on face book and get out of the control of their parents. What is needed is mutual respect as human beings, not reacting to images, but listening to the heart, like in this retreat. There needs to be understanding that the present violence comes from only a small minority of Palestinians, and that not all should be punished indiscriminately. Since no military solution is possible, building trust between the two communities is the most essential step. After the Yeshiva students also expressed their own fears for their communities being victims of violence, both sides committed to “Spreading the good news”, thinking of ways of doing this, in addition to spreading their experience by word of mouth. The idea was proposed of sending positive messages on social media, conveying that “We have met the other side – and they are not the enemy.” There was agreement that media feeds on violence, and that an alternative sort of media needs to be created. Yehuda commented on the fact that, through our spiritual work and dialogue, we have created a safe oasis, and that we need to enlarge this oasis and bring more people inside. Once we have 4000 groups of Interfaith Encounter instead of the present 40, change in the Holy Land will come….
We finished our meeting with meditation and a silent prayer for divine guidance and the song of Shalom/Salaam. As we found out later, there was a terrorist attack near the Yeshiva at the end of our retreat, which claimed the life of a rabbi and his son. But as tragic and shocking as this event was, it reinforced the communications of the group and the resolve of going on with the meetings, since there is “no [other] choice”.