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.
July 23, 2014

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. 

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