Exclusive: Christian, Muslims and Jews to build a joint house of worship in Jerusalem

In theory, this should not be a big deal: men and women of faith, who share a belief in one God and a love for the city of Jerusalem, coming together to pray, study and sing.

In practice, it is about as plausible as a snowball’s chance in the desert. 

But, for one week in September, a small structure of four walls and a bit of balcony, called the Alpert Youth Music Center will become AMEN, a home for something that has never before been attempted in the Holy City – a place of worship for the three great monotheistic religions “who share a passion for Jerusalem in which they will co-exist temporarily under the wings of the Almighty.”

Under the radar, away from the public eye, a small clutch of religious leaders have been gathering for years to believe, to hope and to reconnect via the atavistic language of faith. 

The experiment, of which the public will see merely the tip of the iceberg in the weeklong joint house of worship, is no less a turning inwards towards an ancestral form of communion than it is an explicit turning away from the polarization and vulgarity of contemporary political discourse. 

Speaking with The Media Line, Tamar Elad-Appelbaum, the rabba (feminine form of rabbi) and founder of the Zion synagogue community in Jerusalem, told The Media Line “This sort of thing is very natural for an entire sector of the public. You pray together. It goes back to the most ancient ways people here in this city prayed, and prayed communally, so communicated. Today we live in categories that, frankly, we could do without.”

“When you move beyond certain empty but limiting borders in which we are by and large constrained today, you find a yearning for a shared experience that our forefathers invented, that is in no way separate from the distinct heritage each of us carries. There is nothing new age about this. We are not creating anything new. It is very important that it be clear: It is the real Jewish tradition in which others were invited and we were invited; and in our joint work we are very strict about hosting and visiting.” 

The concept they have created, which the believing public is invited to join between September 5 to 11, is part of a festival known as Mekudeshet, Blessed, part of Jerusalem’s Season of Culture. 

“The reality is based on Isaiah's prophecy, 'My house will be called a house of prayer for all the nations.'”  It is, the festival organizers say, “an old-new reality that draws its inspiration from the ancient traditions of meeting and cooperation. A reality that turns what is holy for you and for me from separate rooms into one open temple that is filled with shared and sacred inspiration and faith.” 

Said simply, the organizers’ ambition, strategy and hope is that, in fact, religion is the key to a lasting life in the region, and not the source of the strife.

“I think many of us who grew up in a very wide spectrum of traditional worlds grew into the Torah concept of darchei noam, pleasant ways. Political dialogue has alienated many of these publics that are deeply steeped in traditions, many people who come from Jewish education, many of them intuitively find themselves in this place in which the language of invocation is the language of communication between people, because society and politics now speak only in a very polarized way. Nothing else is given expression.”

“I was quite astonished,” said Elad-Appelbaum, “to find how naturally, a very wide range of people were drawn to return to a simple, natural, primal place of fellowship and pleasant ways. As the years have passed, I see there are hundreds of people who with proper leadership can create something entirely new. 

Sheikh Ihab Balha, of the Sufi Muslim community in Jaffa, who also teaches and studies at the Islamic College in Baqa al-Gharbiyye, in the lower Galilee, told The Media Line that the leaders of this movement, revolutionary as it is, “did not have difficulty connecting to create this idea, most of us have a great spiritual aspect and an awareness that when you cling to many things like land (pull us apart) on the contrary, we cling in to the love of God. So it was not at all difficult to bring us together.”

“In terms of the idea,” he said, “our reality is that in the State of Israel and with the Palestinians we live in a reality of war and with media that harm people left and right and maximize cleavages and estrangement, and we have leaders that maintain this attitude – it's clear as light. So we intend creating something religious and true against the lie that everything is a lie and only war exists. We people of faith believe that the distance of politicians and leaders from the world of religious life and we have come to see that it is specifically religion that can bring peace, not contentious negotiations.”

Yair Harel, the cantor, composer and liturgical leader at the Zion community, who works with Elad-Appelbaum told The Media Line “my role is to find how the religious connection also has an artistic and musical dimension, how the encounter that we live can be opened up to the public as well, to a public that does not live in its daily life with the intensity that we do, but a way that remains organic and holds a space that belongs to any sort of religious people, not just believers.” 

“We are a group for whom the pure desire was to create a group for whom this is the daily practice of life, it is our way of encountering ourselves, thought we do not necessarily do it all day.  But prayer does not only occur in the world of knowledge or tradition; we listen very much to the learning that has accumulated among us and try to peel back what the differences are without falling back onto a lower common denominator or have anyone of us feel that our work is inauthentic. We are coming from a deeper root, a deep human language. We believe in the power of prayer to influence what is taking place,” concluded Harel.

Xmas Shabbat Grounds Some Merry Mitzvahs


Consider this year’s fluke on the December Dilemma: Christmas Day usually occurs during the workweek, with Jews often handling this day off by filling Dec. 25 with some volunteer work — then Chinese food and a movie.

But the quirks of the calendar find this Dec. 24 falling on a Friday, meaning Christmas Eve and Christmas Day are in a rare calendar co-existence with Shabbat.

“It falls on Shabbat; it’s Friday night,” said Leslie Klieger, who as director of Sinai Temple’s young adult leadership group, ATID, coordinated 105 volunteers for a Mitzvah Day last Dec. 25, which fell on a Thursday.

So Sinai’s ATID volunteers will be praying in shul instead of cleaning Santa Monica beaches, playing with abandoned Beverly Hills dogs or feeding Skid Row’s poor.

Any volunteer work this year, Klieger said, “would involve breaking Shabbat. The fact that it falls on a Saturday, it’s more like any other Saturday for Jews, whereas when it’s in the middle of the week, it’s a free day off from work.”

The coinciding of Shabbat and Christmas doesn’t strike some Jews as a problem.

“I haven’t really thought about it,” said Eric Greene, a young Jewish professional and Progressive Jewish Alliance vice president. “Sometimes I have friends in from out of town, but there’s no sense of a Christmas ritual. There’s nothing so regular with me.”

Conservative Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, usually spends Christmas Day helping feed the poor at Pasadena’s Union Station. It’s a Jewish volunteer hot spot each Dec. 25 but probably not as much this year.

“For Jews who appreciate Shabbat, there’s a beautiful set of customs and rituals to keep you quite busy that day,” Diamond said. “I think it’s beautiful when Christmas and Shabbat coincide. I would gladly trade all the High Holiday crowds for equally impressive crowds each week on Shabbat.”

“The challenge is for many of us who like to do tikkun olam [heal the world] projects,” Diamond said. “It’s a challenge because it’s Shabbat. But before or after Shabbat, there are mitzvah opportunities, and you have 364 days to do that, as well.”

Diamond said that this year’s unusual December Dilemma should be seen as a time “to pause to reflect and observe the beauty of Shabbat, our special day, our holiest day. Jewish people are more comfortable with the rhythms of Jewish life — people like that tend not to feel lonely or bereft of a holiday when it comes to Christmas.”

While Conservative and Orthodox synagogues must eschew mitzvah volunteering on Shabbat, Reform shuls can honor their denomination’s Shabbat rules and engage in Christmas Day altruism.

Temple Israel of Hollywood is running an 8 a.m.-6 p.m. Christmas Day dinner project at nearby Hollywood United Methodist Church (the church on Highland Avenue is highly visible due to its large red AIDS ribbons). Temple Israel volunteers will feed about 1,700 poor and also distribute free health-care products and toys for children.

“We’ve been doing this for quite some time,” said Donna Sivan Bishri, the shul’s program director. “It’s a Temple Israel event. We serve a meal throughout the day. We get about 200 volunteers from the temple, and we get an additional 250 volunteers from elsewhere. People have just come to rely on it.”

Northridge’s Temple Ahavat Shalom will see some of its congregants take part in a Dec. 25 food drive and clean-up project in Pasadena, while Reform Rabbi Karen Deitsch will make reference to Christmas Eve in her Dec. 24 erev Shabbat sermon.

“You have to take into consideration what the greater society is doing that day,” Deitsch said. “We don’t live in a vacuum.”

For the less synagogue inclined, there will be Jewish singles social events around Christmas, such as Stu & Lew Productions’ annual Christmas Eve “Schmooz-a-Palooza” at the House of Blues. Further down the Sunset Strip, The Laugh Factory will have a free Christmas Day afternoon dinner.

Last Christmas, the Skirball Cultural Center saw about 1,000 people attend its Dec. 25 screening of the family film, “Babe.” This year’s Skirball Christmas Day afternoon film is “Back to the Future.” At 8 p.m. on Christmas Day, Skirball will host a concert starring Theodore Bikel, capping off Skirball’s weeklong Yiddish culture and language series.

On Shabbat/Christmas Eve, public TV station KCET will present a live, 3-9 p.m. holiday concert, partly hosted by two Jewish celebrities, actor-producer Henry Winkler and comedienne Elayne Boosler. The Music Center lineup includes the group, Hollywood Klezmer, and Israel’s Yuval Ron Ensemble.

Despite this year’s Shabbat/Christmas calendar clash, is there room on Dec. 25 for American Judaism’s tradition of Christmas Day Chinese food?

“Do Shabbat,” Diamond said, “and then if you would like to observe your typical Dec. 25 rituals, enjoy a kosher Chinese dinner in the evening, followed by a movie.”


Jewish Days of Wine and Roses

In Berlin, it is fashionable for young Germans to wear yarmulkes and yellow stars.

In Prague some years ago, the leading rock band called itself Shalom and throughout central Europe there is a fascination with Jewish icons.

In the United States, Ivy League colleges that wouldn’t hire Jewish professors in the 1940s are now headed by Jewish presidents. A recent study shows that Jews suffer less discrimination in the workplace than any other religious group — even Christians.

Do these phenomena mean that the Western world is experiencing a wave of philo-Semitism and loves all Jews?

Not exactly, says professor David N. Myers, a young historian and director of the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies.

The kippah-wearing Germans, he believes, are looking in part for a relatively painless way to acknowledge their grandparents’ guilt and to undergo a fairly easy national catharsis.

Young Czechs are in search of an authentic national culture preceding Communism, in which Jews in general, and writer Franz Kafka in particular, represented the kind of cosmopolitanism eagerly sought by Prague intellectuals.

In the United States, the story is different and of greater historical interest, says Myers.

In the short run, the country’s sustained economic well-being makes for greater general tolerance and social harmony, he says, noting that “the state of peaceful co-existence is greased by the current economic juggernaut.”

The downside is that many of those Americans left behind feel even more marginalized than before and are often attracted to the radical extremism of burgeoning hate groups.

But from a historical perspective, Myers believes that the present status of American Jewry represents the culmination of a long process of Jewish emancipation, the likes of which the world has not seen before.

“At no other time, not in Alexandria during the Second Temple period, not in 11th century Spain, not during the Weimar Republic in Germany, has Jewish emancipation and social integration reached the present stage in America,” Myers asserts.

What we are seeing, he adds, is not a unique period of philo-Semitism, but part of a long historical process in Jewish life in the Diaspora.

In this process, Jews have become part of the cultural mainstream of America and have infused it with their own humor and sensibility, from Seinfeld on TV to bagels at McDonald’s.

The price for the integration has been the dilution of Jewish particularism and distinctiveness. And, warns Myers, if America is ever wracked by economic turmoil in the future, hostility toward Jews will rise again.