Choose Life: Jews and Muslims working for peace together in Israel

While violence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has escalated in recent weeks, a small group is attempting to keep dialogue open between the disparate groups. 

Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger, 57, Rabbi Shaul Judelman, 35, and a growing number of Israeli West Bank settlers and Palestinians have, since February, been running a center for dialogue and nonviolence training, called Shorashim, based between Gush Etzion and Bethlehem on private Palestinian land. A core group of about 10 locals, including Schlesinger and Judelman, coordinates interfaith dialogue programming for families, schoolchildren, women and local leaders, including a summer camp, language learning and cultural exchanges.

In response to recent developments in the region — the kidnapping and killing of three Israeli teens and one Palestinian teen, military action in Gaza, rockets fired on both sides — the group held an interfaith break-fast on July 15. 

The initiative, called Choose Life, took advantage of a coincidence of the calendar: the Jewish fast of the 17th of Tammuz fell on the 18th day of Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, during which Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset. The event was billed by the organization as “a day of collective reflection for all who feel affected by the violence to join together.” The group asked participants, even those who would not normally fast, to fast as a hunger strike against the violence.

Schlesinger and Judelman, American expats living, respectively, in the Alon Shvut and Bat Ayin settlements, have each spent many years pursuing interfaith dialogue, working with Arabs and Israelis, Muslims, Christians and Jews. 

They gathered with more than 100 participants, first at an intersection in Gush Etzion and then at the farmhouse of Ali Abu Awaad, a local Palestinian resident who has been working alongside Schlesinger and Judelman at Shorashim. The group broke fast together over a kosher and halal dinner, to sounds of music and prayer, as the sun set. 

Schlesinger spoke to the group about being an Israeli and a Zionist who had once lived blissfully unaware of his Palestinian neighbors, until he realized that insularity is dangerous. 

Also speaking at the event was Hadassah Froman, widow of Rabbi Menachem Froman, an Orthodox rabbi known for promoting interfaith dialogue and coordinating discussions with Palestinian religious leaders during his lifetime. 

Judelman read psalms and played music as well. 

The event was promoted on Facebook, which spawned similar gatherings around the world on the same day; approximately 2,400 people RSVP’d on Facebook. Rabbis and imams from Israel, London, Paris, Montreal and across the United States reported back to Schlesinger about the success of their events, in which Jews and Muslims came together to eat, pray and share in conversation. Three churches in the U.S. participated as well: Oakbrook Church of Reston, Va.; More Church of Amarillo, Texas; and The Perfecting Church of Sewell, N.J.

The response to the events was overwhelmingly positive. 

Of an event held in front of the White House, attended by Jews and Muslims, Maharat Ruth Balinsky Friedman of Ohev Sholom: The National Synagogue in Washington, D.C., said, “Some of the Muslims who participated happened to have just been walking by and [saw] it, and a few were moved to tears by seeing people come together.”

Rabbi David Jaffe of Sharon, Mass., reported on an event held at the Islamic Center of New England, which about 50 people attended. “The best part is that a large group, evenly split between Muslims and Jews, wants to continue meeting to listen to each other’s perspectives and experiences with [the] Israel-Palestinian conflict and think about joint action,” he said. 

The flagship event in Gush Etzion generated similar responses. 

“This was the most hope-inspiring place I have been present at in recent times,” said Noa Ilay-Shilo of Jerusalem. 

“In a week filled with sirens, tragedies, rockets, bombardment and war, it was really uplifting to see something with so much promise and hope,” said Rabbi Jason Herman of the West Side Jewish Center in New York, who attended the event. 

“There was a lot of border crossing going on there in many unexpected ways. … There was a group of leftist peace activists who [said] this was the first time they ever came to an event run by settlers. They had done many dialogue groups with Palestinians before but had never wanted to engage settlers. Feeling they needed to support any effort that would get settlers to see the other side, they acknowledged that they, too, were now hearing someone on the other side,” Herman said.

Choose Life was a product of the general feeling of frustration in the community given recent events, according to Schlesinger. 

The kidnapping and murder of the three Israeli teens — Eyal Yifrach, Gilad Shaar and Naftali Frenkel — occurred just a little more than a mile from the Shorashim center, and news of the incident broke just 30 minutes after Judelman and Schlesinger had convened a gathering of families for one of their regular programs. 

The kidnappings “set off events, which … could lead us to horrible places again,” Judelman said. 

Judelman and a group from Shorashim paid a shivah call to Naftali Frenkel’s family on the morning of July 5, as the family mourned the death of their son. One of Judelman’s Palestinian partners at the organization had sent an anonymous letter of condolence on behalf of their group to the Frenkels, resulting in the Frenkels inviting Shorashim’s interfaith delegation to sit shivah. 

“It was very powerful to walk into the tent of over 100 visitors and sit, face to face, with the incredible parents, and see the courage and true strength of heart of both our Palestinian partners and the family,” Judelman said. “It is a glimmer of the painful hope that we hold onto here, and is at the heart of what we are trying to nurture and grow in the activities at Shorashim.” 

Schlesinger, who has been working intensively on interfaith dialogue for the last 12 years, came to Shorashim after returning full time to Gush Etzion in June 2013. He had lived in Alon Shvut from 1980 to 2013, and 12 years ago began opening his home to Evangelical Christians who felt a deep connection to Israel. He has also developed a seminar for the local yeshiva, in which Christians study religious texts alongside Jewish students. 

In 2005, Schlesinger was sent as an emissary of Yeshiva University to the Jewish community in Dallas, where he’d spend part of the year coordinating programs. For nine years, he made a point of reaching out to clergy of differing faiths in the area, which culminated in developing with a like-minded pastor a program called Faiths in Conversation, sponsored by the Dallas-based Memnosyne Institute.  

“I worked to create dialogue that was deep and meaningful. I insisted that dialogue focus not only on our commonality, but rather that we endeavor to learn from and to be enriched by each other’s theological uniqueness,” Schlesinger said. 

That same purpose drives Schlesinger’s efforts at Shorashim, where he hopes events such as Choose Life will keep the lines of communication open, generating some measure of understanding. 


Schmooze About Tammuz

We have now entered the period Jews call “The Three Weeks.” These are the weeks between two fast days: one is the 17th of Tammuz (the day the walls of Jerusalem were breached) and the other is Tisha B’av, the ninth of Av, the day the Romans destroyed our Temple.

Traditional Jews observe a period of mourning during this time. They don’t listen to live music or hold joyous celebrations, like weddings. During the nine days before Tisha B’Av, they don’t cut their hair or eat meat.

When in Rome…

1) If Romans didn’t like their children:

a. They locked them in their rooms.

b. They sold them as slaves.

c. They took away their games.

2) For toothpaste, Romans used:

a. Ground-up bones.

b. Soap.

c. Powdered mice brains.

Roman Arithmetic

Try some math using the following Roman numbers:

I = 1

V = 5

X = 10

L = 50

C = 100

D = 500

M = 1000

1) What would 2005 be in Roman numerals? Can you write the year you were born in Roman numerals?

2) Solve this equation:


The Name Game

Roman children played many of the same games you play. Fill in the correct letters to complete the names of the games:

1) __ __ __ __ A __ __ __ __ __ K

2) __ A __

3) H O __ __ __ O __ __ __

4) L __ __ P __ __ O __

5) __ A __ L

Kids Page

A Sad Time

This year, the 17th of Tammuz falls on Sunday, July 24. This is a fast day — no eating, no drinking. Why? Because on this day, thousands of years ago, the Romans breached the wall of Jerusalem. Three weeks later, the Temple was destroyed.

History Lesson

The 17th of Tammuz is a bad day all around for the Jewish people as many tragedies have befallen them on this day throughout the ages. Help tell the story by filling in the correct words:

ten, miscalculated, one, Torah, killed, Jewish, ghetto, Jerusalem, golden, broke.

The Israelites _____________ the return of Moses from the top of Mount Sinai by _____ day. When he returned, they had already built the ____________ calf.

Moses got so mad he threw the ______ commandments down and they _______ into 1,000 pieces.

In 3184 (586 BCE), after months of siege by the wicked Nebuchadnezzar’s army, the walls of ______________ were finally breached.

In the time of the Roman occupation, the captain of the Roman forces, publicly burned a ________ on that day.

In 1391, more than 4,000 Spanish Jews were ______________ in Toledo.

In 1559 the _________ Quarter of Prague was burned and looted.

In 1944, the entire population of the Kovno _______ was sent to the death camps.

Amazing Summer Contest!

Don’t forget to take pictures and write a great story about an amazing thing you did this summer and send it in. You have a few more weeks until the deadline.

The winners will be published in the paper and will receive a prize.


Kids Page

Day by Day

Even though it’s summer, you can still learn a thing or two. The first thing you need to know about the Jewish calendar is that it is a lunar calendar — following the phases of the moon. That means that each month has 29 or 30 days in it. The solar calendar (that’s the one whose first month is called January) has 28, 30 or 31 days.

How many days does the lunar calendar add up to?

a) 365

b) 354

c) 356

(Here’s a hint: It is 11 days shorter than the solar calendar)

Tammuz Time

We are now in the month of Tammuz. So what does Tammuz mean?

In the book of Ezekial, we are told that women are “weeping over [the death of] Tammuz.” Apparently, Tammuz was a Babylonian god of grain and fertility who died every year when spring turned into summer.

Why did the Jews use Babylonian names for their months?

a) because they worshipped the Babylonian gods

b) because they sounded a lot like Hebrew

c) because it was convenient to just lift the names off the Babylonian calendar.

By the Silvery Moon

Here’s one last question: If the Hebrew month follows the moon from beginning to end, then what does the moon look like in the middle of the month?

a) gibbous

b) full

c) crescent


For the Kids

The Good and the Bad

This year, the 17th of Tammuz coincidentally falls on the 17th of July. The 17th of Tammuz (the 10th Jewish month) is a fast day — no eating, no drinking. Why? Because on this day, a few thousand years ago, the Romans breached the walls of Jerusalem. Three weeks later, the Temple was destroyed.

The rabbis tell us something a bit curious about this day: it is associated with the word tov (good).

Here is a hint: It has to do with the gematria (numerical value) of the word (Remember: alef = 1, bet/vet = 2, gimel = 3, etc.). The rabbis say that what looks bad now can always be turned to good.

Shakespeare Festival/LA

Pershing Square (downtown Los Angeles) and South Coast Botanical Gardens (Palos Verdes).

July 15-20 and 22-26, downtown Los Angeles; July 31, Aug. 1-3 and 6-10, Palos Verdes . Featuring Shakespeare’s "The Merry Wives of Windsor." And if you bring canned food for the Food for Thought Project, you get free admission.

(213) 481-2273,

Ho’olaule’a 2003

Alondra Park (adjacent to El Camino Community College). July 19-20. All-day entertainment by performing groups representing Hawaii’s multicultural heritage. Enjoy highly diverse food that represents Hawaii and its people. A two-day event filled with Polynesian arts, crafts, music, dance and fun. (949) 458-0933,