Day #4, Part II : Shilo

The second part of our day began with a half hour drive through rocky green hills to Shilo, an isolated Israeli settlement 28 miles north of Jerusalem.

Flanked by Israeli flags, our bus moved slowly up a hill, turning right at a brown welcome sign that read, “Ancient Shilo,” a historical site believed to be the resting place of the tabernacle before the establishment of the Jewish temple.

Today, the settlement lies adjacent to the ancient city, and is home to approximately 400 hundred Israeli families. It’s also part of what’s known as “Area C,” a section of the West Bank under Israeli security and civilian control.

After entering the settlement, we followed the green Hebrew road signs filled with biblical echoes, strode past an empty children’s playground and an array of bright yellow sunflowers to meet Rabbi Dov Berkowitz, a resident of Shilo. The gray-bearded rabbi, who has spent time in Manhattan near Columbia University, now calls this settlement his home.

He led us across the brown tile floors of his house, and we joined him in a circle across the living room.

As he spoke, noises from the nearby kitchen filtered across the room. The rabbi’s wife, Tzippi, swiftly chopped white onions, preparing food - from toasted granola, chickpeas, to vegetable soup - for the upcoming Purim celebrations. During Purim, it’s custom to give food to family and friends, Tzippi said. It’s something she often does here in Shilo, and even in Jerusalem.

Downstairs, the rabbi spoke candidly about his journey to the settlement. Stroking his beard, he recollected memories of his first visit, a Shabbat experience in the town. “We loved the people,” he said. It was not ideological – at first. But then, the Palestinian uprising known as the first Intifada happened 1987-1993.

He remembered Molotov cocktails damaging settler cars during the uprising. “Nothing like that had ever happened,” he said. The period took him through a moment of “re-organizing” his mindset, “Zionism is many things, but the bottom line of Zionism is the Jewish people came to Israel not to be killed.”

But in Shilo, settler motivations are mainly religious. “This is ground zero of the promised land,” said Ophir Yarden, referring to the historical Judea and Samaria promised to the Israelites in the Torah, the Jewish sacred text. And according to the Rabbi, more and more Israelis are looking to rent space in Shilo.

The rabbi was quick to acknowledge the sensitivity of the settlement issue.  “Settlements do not help the dialogue. Settlements do not bring peace,” he said. But without the Palestinian acceptance of “the state of Israel as a legitimate Jewish state,” he sees an impasse.

(Image of Shilo, public domain)


Day # 3, Part I: Nazareth

TABGHA — From the Church of the Multiplication in Tabgha to the White Mosque in Nazareth, the morning began and ended with song.

As we walked past groups of pilgrims from China and Spain, circling the stone cloisters arranged around an olive tree, a hymn began to ring out from the church. Standing before the altar and the underlying mosaic depicting the miracle of the loaves and fishes, Maria Safir chanted alone.

She sang “Aquí estoy señor,” a Spanish hymn, her voice echoing off of the simple wooden ceiling and the polished stone walls, as her fellow worshipers stood in silent meditation beside her. Outside the church two of our group’s members, Professor Greg Khalil and Radha Dhar, were approached by Chinese pilgrims from Shenzhen, who were eager to meet travelers from different countries. In just a few minutes, we had come face to face with pilgrims — both Christian and not — who had come to Tabgha, known in ancient Greek as Heptapegon, to commemorate this holy Christian site on the Sea of Galilee.

“You may find the pilgrims here as interesting as the church,” said Ophir Yarden, our resident expert, as we discussed the recent influx of Chinese tourists to Israel.

Framed by olive groves and rolling hills beyond Lake Tiberias, Tabgha is a place so quiet that we could barely hear our own voices over the sound of birdsong. In the property beside the church, Paul Nordhausen helps the Benedictine monks run an extensive recreation park for children with special needs.

Standing beside a newly built playground with a carousel equipped for wheelchairs, Paul pointed out that kids of many faiths and backgrounds come to play here together every summer. “From that gate on, it’s only humans coming in here, not Israeli, Palestinian, Christian, Muslim, or Jewish,” he said. “Only human.”

A few years ago, this tranquil peace was shattered by an arson attack on the church by a group of far-right Jewish extremists. While the church has since recovered and been rebuilt with the help of donations from devotees and assistance from the Israeli government, it was a scarring experience.

“I was here in the middle of the night and the church was burning,” said Paul. “It was very difficult, but luckily we had a lot of support.”

As we ended our visit, walking past one of the seven springs that gave Heptapegon its name, we stopped to contemplate what we had learned at the Dalmanutha, a place for prayer and meditation composed of several wooden logs arranged around a rock altar.

Our bus then wound its way above the Sea of Galilee and into the mountains surrounding Nazareth, passing by historic sites like the Megiddo Plain and the Horns of Hattin. As we entered Nazareth, the roadside signs quickly went from Hebrew to Arabic, and traffic choked the road ahead.

After a brief walk through the old city, we reached the Catholic Church of the Annunciation, its wide dome soaring above the narrow streets of central Nazareth. As we entered, I realized that I had forgotten that it was an important day in Christianity: the feast of St. Joseph.

In the cavernous upper basilica, I took a moment to kneel in prayer. In the course of our whirlwind tour of the Holy Land, I had neglected to consider my own connection to the sites we were visiting. Feeling the pull of the dozens of icons of the Virgin Mary, I said a few more Hail Mary prayers for good measure.

As I made the sign of the cross, a Portuguese song rose upwards from the lower basilica, where a group of Brazilian pilgrims was chanting hymns in a small chapel. Soon enough, however, my serenity was interrupted by an oncoming tour group behind me.

After leaving the church we walked to the iconic White Mosque, passing through the meandering lanes of old Nazareth and the city’s central market, where we would attend the midday duhur prayer.

Sheikh Sami Abu Anas welcomed us into the mosque’s courtyard, where we sat down to listen to his discussion of faith in the city of Nazareth. As the largest Arab-majority city in Israel, Nazareth is an important symbol of how several identities which we often consider to be mutually exclusive — Muslim, Palestinian, Israeli, Jewish, Christian — can coexist within a single person.

Worshipper performing his ablutions before prayer at the White Mosque (Photo courtesy of Eleonore Voisard)

Reciting a passage from the Quran, Sheikh Abu Anas stressed that there should be no compulsion in religion. “The solution is dialogue,” he said, recalling the surrender of Nazareth to Israeli forces in 1948. When the mayor of Nazareth, then also the imam of the White Mosque, decided to peacefully surrender, it marked what Abu Anas termed the “first Palestinian recognition of the two-state solution.”

“I don’t have two faces,” he said, looking toward his congregation, which was slowly gathering inside the mosque. “I say the same to my community in the mosque.”

As the call to prayer, or adhan, began to emanate from the speakers, the faithful shuffled into a room inside the mosque. After a brief sermon from Sheikh Abu Anas, all the men in attendance stood to hear the prayer. On each successive chant of allahu akbar, the worshipers bowed their heads, and then knelt on the floor to pray. Then they paused in prayer, their heads close to the ground, before rising to stand again. At the prayer’s conclusion, the rows of congregants slowly retrieved their shoes, exiting the mosque to resume their day.

Even in the relative noise of a city like Nazareth, we were struck by the beauty of the adhan. For the students Jonathan Harounoff, Natacha Larnaud, and Leah Feiger, this was a more personal moment. They all remembered being woken up by the song of the call to prayer in their childhoods in Morocco, Dubai, and Zanzibar. “I felt warmth,” said Leah.


Day #2, Part I : Haifa

HAIFA -- For a good stretch of Highway 4, wrapping around Israel's northwestern hook called Haifa, you can immediately spot two things: the vast expanse of bright blue ocean to your left and two tall white stone minarets peeking over the hills to your right. On the drive north, over the hump of the Mt. Karmel range, and you’ll find 19 concentric rings of luscious garden terraces tapering upwards consume the landscape. 

Baha'i World Center, Haifa.
(Photo Courtesy of Eleonore Voisard)

Despite the undeniable presence of these massive features in the Haifa metropolis, often neither of the religions associated with these structures is conjured in the minds of people when they think of the Holy Land. The Holy Land is often associated with “umbrella” religions like Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, but the nuanced voices of the minority diaspora are often glanced over as it falls into the “other” category of theology pie charts. 

The two towering spires of white granite belong to the Ahmadiyya community, a persecuted sect of Islam founded in 1889 by Mirza Ghulam Ahmad. The expansive and meticulously manicured Baha’i Gardens are the intentionally designed work of the Baha’i faith’s international community. While one faith spoke of its war for peace within, the other actively advocated peace in the community without.

The gardens were our first stop today. “The shrine in the center is like the gemstone in the ring, and the gardens around it are the adornments,” said the volunteer guide, Douglas Baker. “The windows of the shrine are like perfect mirrors, reflecting God’s light.” 

Each element of the 150-year-long construction of the gardens was intentional. “The symmetry reflects unity, yet the varying flora on each level of the gardens represent the simultaneous diversity,” said Anouchka Venkadee, another volunteer (one of about 600 that come each year to run the gardens). The garden was the physical manifestation of a core element of the Baha’i faith—actively creating an environment of peace. A tour of the Baha’i visitor’s center confirmed this as the group showed a short video capturing the religion’s presence across 200 countries. The very international community of five million gathers regularly to promote peacekeeping policies to actively better their outward environment. “It’s kind of like this,” said Carmel Irandoust, a volunteer who previously worked with Ban Ki Moon at the United Nations, “We all live in the same street. How can we work together to make this street better?”

As the Baha’is actively advocate for peace in the outside community, the Ahmadis in Kababir talk of their war for peace within. It was a just short drive from the gardens to the Ahmadi mosque. Imam Falah M. O’deh greeted us and, learning we were journalists, wanted to be sure we understood something about Islam.  “Jihad, in the Quran, never comes in connection to physical war,” he said. “We fight to translate the meaning of Islam. This is the real jihad.”

Imam Falah M. O’deh
( Photo Courtesy for Eleonore Voisard)

Day # 2, Part II : Acco

ACCO – It is quite unusual to see rabbis and imams hug as dear friends, but in the ancient city of Acco, the unlikely has become the ordinary.

Rabbi Yosef Yashar, the Chief Rabbi of Acco, and Imam Samir Assi, a retired Imam of the city's al-Jazzar Mosque, spent the afternoon telling us about their dear friendship and commitment to interfaith unity. When Assi walked in the door, Yashar rose from his chair to embrace and kiss the imam like a brother. “In Acco,” said Yashar, “we’re different from other places. We believe each person — no matter their lifestyle or religious background — has the right to live as she or he sees fit.”

Acco, a port city in northern Israel just a 30-minute drive from Haifa, is known for its gleaming white stone city walls and intricate mosaics. Though the physical beauty is noticeable, it’s the city’s tolerant population that makes it remarkable. “We hate only one thing in Acco,” said the rabbi. “Hatred. It sounds like a slogan, but we really mean it and live by it.”

Over the past 20 years, Yashar and Assi have formed a genuinely close relationship, which, they say, has bolstered the relationship between their respective faiths. They told stories of visiting each other’s houses of worship, speaking at religious schools, and attending holiday celebrations. For Eid al-Fitr, the holiday that marks the end of Ramadan, the rabbi has traditionally been the second speaker at the celebration in Assi’s al-Jazzar — the second largest mosque in Israel. In Acco, where one third of the population is Arab, peaceful coexistence is a necessity. “Before we have our religious identity,” said the imam, “we have our identity as human beings. That’s what we’re trying to show in Acco.”

In spite of its impressive religious leadership, the city still has its own tensions and difficulties. “We had problems 10 years ago where religious extremists tried to derail the relationship between Jews and Muslims, but we have worked hard to get through it together,” said Assi. Years later in 2014, Assi went to Jerusalem with an interfaith coalition after the terrorist attack on a synagogue in the city’s Har Nof neighborhood that left four dead. Upon returning to Acco, Assi found that vandals, apparently angry at his calls for tolerance, had thrown acid on his car. In 2016, Assi retired from his position at al-Jazzar, but his successor is much less committed to interfaith dialogues. “The new imam is no longer going to go to churches and synagogues to wish people happy holidays,” Assi said sadly.

But Assi and Yashar are undeterred. “Not everyone likes what we do, but we have to do it anyway,” said Assi. “It’s the only option.”

After the meeting concluded, we walked into Acco’s Old City to look at Assi’s mosque. The minaret glowed bright green, and children played football and danced on the street outside. It felt comfortable, even as the cold sea breeze swept over our sunburnt necks.

(Photo courtesy of Eleonore Voisard.)


In Tel Aviv, Jews join with Muslims in vigil mourning New Zealand dead

As published in Religion News Service (RNS)

TEL AVIV — Dozens gathered outside the New Zealand embassy in Tel Aviv Sunday night for a somber candlelight vigil to commemorate the victims of Friday’s (March 15) mass shootings at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.

“We are a small, bright light at the end of a dark tunnel,” Sheikh Abdallah Nimr Badr said of the event, which was organized by Tag Meir, an all-volunteer Jewish organization dedicated to ending extremist violence in Israel, in collaboration with local Muslim leaders and Israeli-Arab college students at Al-Qasemi Academy.

“We must eradicate this sort of behavior if we are going to live in peace. I hope one day we will be able to walk in the streets feeling safe and free of fear,” Sheikh Badr added.

Other local Muslim and Jewish leaders recited prayers of healing and solidarity in Hebrew and Arabic, while nine Muslim students from Al-Qasemi Academy in Haifa held placards in silence, letting photographs of the slain victims and messages reading “Stop Islamophobia” speak for themselves.

Men participate in a small vigil outside the New Zealand embassy in Tel Aviv, Israel, on March 17, 2019. Photo courtesy of Natacha Larnaud

The vigil was part of an overwhelming interfaith response to the attack during Friday prayers, which left at least 50 worshippers dead and dozens more injured. In New Zealand, several synagogues were closed on the Sabbath in solidarity with the Muslim community, and in Pittsburgh, the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh set up a fund for the victims of the mosque attacks, similar to last October’s crowdfunding campaign “Muslims Unite for Pittsburgh Synagogue,” which raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for families affected by the Tree of Life massacre.

In a meeting with Muslim community leaders in Wellington, New Zealand, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern confirmed that Friday’s attack was the deadliest in the country’s history, adding that investigators were racing to identify the victims of the shooting spree so that they can be buried as quickly as possible, in accordance with Muslim burial tradition.

“When fanatics make the most noise, our voice is silenced,” warned Rabbi Esteban Gottfried, director of the Beit Tefilah Israeli community in Tel Aviv. Midway through his televised speech, Gottfried encouraged the crowd to sing an altered version of the popular song, “Oseh Shalom,” (“A Prayer for Peace”), adding Ishmael, a reference to the biblical patriarch in Muslim tradition and first son of Abraham, to Hu Ya’aseh shalom aleynu v’al kol Israel v’Ishmael (he will make peace for us and for all Israel and Ishmael).