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Friday, November 6, 2015

"Why Travel to Come Home Again?" Reflections on an Interfaith Experience in the Middle East

Why travel to come home again?
As the Interfaith Center entered its second decade, the idea of an interfaith journey to the Middle East found its way back to our leadership table.  Put aside in prior years, this idea seemed to come of age along with us.  What did we need to experience from afar that would help us come back home and better serve the Greater Philadelphia region?
So 19 of us – Christian, Muslim and Jewish Philadelphians, including four Board members and myself – ventured on our first Dare to Understand trip to the Middle East this October.
Our extraordinary guide, Julian Resnick, an educator born in South Africa who has made his home in Israel, introduced and led our trip with this intention:
“Most of the important questions, conversations and dilemmas can be considered wherever we find ourselves in this world. We can talk about freedom in our living rooms, but talking about freedom in Birmingham, Alabama adds something. We can deal with genocide next to the dinner table, but in Auschwitz it is a different conversation.
I hope, and pray, that in Istanbul and in Jerusalem and in Ramallah, the interfaith dialogue will be different from what you have engaged in before and that in some small way it can be a contribution in difficult times.”
“Difficult times” turned out to be an understatement. Coinciding with the terror attack in Turkey’s capital and the wave of stabbing attacks in Israel, our brief ten days in the Mideast had the backdrop of uncertainty and turbulence, fear and despair.  Our meetings with journalists, religious leaders, peace activists, business/cultural leaders and elected officials were palpably emotional, real and took on existential meaning.  Recurring themes followed us and our exploration deepened in each context:  The struggle for democracy, the creative tension between Middle East and European/western identities, and questions of religious vs. secular identities.
From encounters with wait staff in hotels, to leadership meetings, to everyday citizens at the profound, beautiful holy and historic sites we visited… we were thanked for our presence in spite of the violence. We were thanked for the inspiration afforded by a multi-faith group from Philadelphia coming to stand with them, to listen with compassion to the complexities, and to dare to understand  the people of the region and the multiple narratives that co-exist. 
We traveled and came home, holding more questions than when we set out, and rewarded by the ability to hold difficult conversations in respectful ways.  We returned with new sensitivities, new dialogue experiences, new sources of spiritual enrichment, and a renewed sense of urgency to bring to our work here in Philadelphia.  Perhaps we did indeed make a small contribution in difficult times.
With prayers for understanding that brings peace,
Abby Stamelman Hocky, Executive Director

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Worship at St. George's Cathedral, Dialogue and Walking Tour in Tel Aviv

Sunday, October 18:  Our Last Day - Post by Christina

We began the day with worship at St. George's Cathedral, the seat of the diocese that covers Israel, the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, and Lebanon. The service was a combination of English and Arabic not one  service for each but all together.  The sermon was given in both, the hymns were English but we sang in Arabic as well which was given us to do phonetically. For the two most important prayers, the Lord's Prayer and the Nicene Creed we said them each in our own language, such a joyful noise to the Lord! Except the last few phrases of the Creed which were in English, so the effect was a wash of sound that coalesced into unity in reciting the end. So beautiful.

After the service we met with Dean Hosam Naoum,  (Judy's counterpart), the Rabbi Levi Kelman from Kol HaNeshama, the synagogue we attended Friday night, and the Kaddi, or head magistrate of the Islamic Legal Courts (Sharia court) in Jerusalem.  Let me say something about that, in Israel there are four systems...directly under the government are the Jewish courts, the Sharia courts, and the Druze courts, then there are the East Jerusalem Palestinians who can choose to use either the Israeli Sharia or Jordanian courts. The three men told their stories, each like Ali and Shaul our first day in Israel, coming on their own paths to a place of acceptance of "the other" and trying to walk that Middle Way we Episcopalians believe we walk.  I came away believing more strongly that we liberals/moderates/people of good will on all sides have a critical place in this conversation.  And I also recognize that all of us have fanatics in our camps who are at best useless in the conversation and at worst terribly destructive, who must be respected but controlled by those with a larger vision.

Then we drove to Tel Aviv past Abu Gosh where we started our adventure last Tuesday ... for lunch at a beach front restaurant. The last lovely surprise of the trip was time with Dr. Ruth Calderon, a former member of the Kenesset.  Her field of study is the Talmud and her passion is how by studying our holy books and finding the connections we will realize we are part of one big story not separate competing stories. She ran a class for us by reading from two versions of the Talmud's story of how Rabbi Akiba died and then talking about parallels with Jesus' death and the death of Billel in Islam. R. Akiba and Billel died breathing the word "echad" which she says means "one". All three died "not fighting" but resisting none the less. I jumped up to read the portion from Matthew in a very old version she had plus the version we had from Tom's phone... The honor of speaking those words aloud in Israel makes me choke up even now as I remember it. We did and saw many wonderful things this trip, but to finish with a study of the scriptures could not have been better.

Our time in Israel concluded with a walking tour of Tel Aviv, with Julian, our guide, giving us a picture of the modern, secular city with all of its paradoxes in the evolving Jewish identity of young Israelis and a young state.

We then had ANOTHER wonderful meal in a restaurant that brings in at risk kids to work there. Then off to the airport, conversations with security, a fabulous lounge (and I mean that) in Istanbul to await our transfer.  As I write now, we are about an hour from JFK. I am not sure yet all the things I will do differently after this trip but there are a few....yearly donations to St. George's, the YMCA, and Roots. Find out who is providing medical care in the West Bank and figure out how I can help. Definitely going off beef, chicken, and pork 🐮🐓🐷!!!!!! And hopefully finding a place to study the holy books together.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Day in Palestinian Cities: Bethlehem, Ramallah and Rawabi

Sat, Oct. 17:  Our day in the West Bank: Three Palestinian cities, Bethleham, Ramallah and Rawabi - Post by Christina.

Today is Shabbat and things are so very quiet. Whether you keep the Sabbath or not, everything slows down and you must alter your behavior. No paper, no cappuccino, different elevators....this is not a complaint, far from it, I wish there was a day with a slower pace in the US, a day when things are different.   No paper, no cappuccino, different elevators....this is not a complaint, far from it, I wish there was a day with a slower pace in the US, a day when things are different.

After a quiet breakfast we got on a different bus with a different driver and a new guide to take us to Bethlehem. They are East Jerusalem residents and the bus is not an Israeli Company. Riman, a Palestinian Muslim woman, was our guide for the day. She and the Palestinian driver Khalid were able to just drive us through the check point at the border of Israel and the West Bank. 

In Bethlehem, we walked to the Church of the Nativity, which is historically interesting and the restorations are moving along, much more extensively.  The Greek Orthodox and Armenian Orthodox sections are as they were, the Roman Catholic section is neat and clean and shiny with a well-fed Franciscan at the entrance.  I lit a candle  and reminded myself that any place where people find themselves closer to God is a good place.

I learned from our driver and guide what it means to be Palestinian living with the separation wall.  There are several hundred thousand and they live in a political limbo without passports (they have travel documents from Israel and Jordan.), they have more freedom of movement within Israel, Israeli healthcare and social support, but the area has been neglected in terms of infrastructure and schooling (though the current Palestinian administration is slightly better I am told). They have dual legal systems and can either use Jordanian courts or the Sharia courts in Israel.

We left the West Bank back to Israel to return again though a settlers checkpoint heading toward Ramallah. My geography at this point us a little sketchy but we met quite a few people including a young Palestinian Christianwoman (Katia), with several restaurant and catering businesses and Samir Huleileh, a Palestinian Muslim businessman, Director of Padico, a holding company for multiple businesses.  We joined them for lunch and dialogue at the Executive Club.

Our next destination was Rawabi, a new Palestinian city being built from the ground up. There we met with Amir Dajani, the project manager and the CFO for a huge planned city in the desert. 

Our long day ended back in Ramallah for a meeting with a high ranking Palestinian official, Nabil Shaath who was involved in negotiating the Oslo accords and others,

All of the Palestinian leaders were very articulate, none of them especially religious. We talked of the occupation and its effects on economics, travel, education, and the future.  The business people spoke of the difficulties they faced but clearly were doing things to have a positive effect.  And that point was not lost, but we were all astounded by the insistence on horrible things being done to  Al-Aqsa mosque, and a lack of understanding of how things really were on the other side of the wall. I was deeply moved by the pain in everyone's voices, but particularly theirs as they told a story of victimization and powerlessness.  They see only strength on the Israeli side and they do not accept as valid the deep sense of vulnerability on the Israeli side.  We often used the word "complex" on this trip, but I would offer up the word "deep".  In everyone's stories I hear deep generational sorrows, grieving and loss.  If these were to people instead of societies I would diagnose PTSD and unresolved grief,  yet how do you treat the psyche of a people?  And it is foolish to say, let's wait for the next generations since we know trauma of this depth echoes for many generations. My answer is clear but unacceptable to either side, I am sure, and that would be the approach of Desmond Tutu and his truth and reconciliation in South Africa.  There can be no righting of the wrongs that both side has suffered or has perpetrated on the other, there must be an acceptance of injustice and then a mutual agreement to turn together toward another path.

While I can share the details of the meetings and my profound gratefulness for those who arranged them, it is the images that remain, a project manager proud of his new buildings, a CFO trying to make a better place for his people and not lose money, an aging politician clinging to his dream despite the failure of many peace agreements.  And the clear affirmation, echoed by Palestinian and Israelis alike, that religion is NOT the issue here and that making this a religious struggle would make it worse.

Friday in Jerusalem: Life the Midst of Violence

Friday, Oct. 16:  Post by Christina

We started our day with a tour of the 1967 line. The Muslim Brotherhood has called for a day of rage so our drive is altered.

We had planned to go into East Jerusalem today and we are planning on the West Bank tomorrow, so we are making some changes. They have cancelled the home visits in East Jerusalem. We have now driven the Seam (road that divides East and West Jerusalem) and we head to the Museum of the Seam.

The Museum on the Seam is a fringe place, you see the logo they created "Coexist" everywhere. They were established 20 years ago with funding from the municipality and a private German family but that has changed and so they will close in 2 months after this last exhibit which opened when we walked in the door. It is in a building just next to the gate that existed in 1967 between Israel and Jordan, now East Jerusalem.  It is a space for artists to explore the difficulties of coexistence and most of the art is very disturbing. We have become enamored of Kadishman's sheep and the museum had one of the screaming heads from his installation in Berlin called "Fallen Leaves". Many of us bought Coexist t-shirts and are back on the bus headed to the fruit and vegetable market for a walk and lunch.

The market (Machne Yehuda) is the Jerusalem farm market writ large and with tremendous variety. The smells and the foods are glorious. Part of what makes the vendors kosher is giving a percentage of their profits to the poor.  We walked through to the area called the Iraqi Market to a restaurant that Julian's daughter used to work at, the food was tremendous. I posted a picture, but it doesn't begin to show the variety and complexity of the foods and flavors. On the way back I picked up three pieces of baklava🍥

After a quick stop at the hotel we were back on the bus for a talk and tour by Colonel Ron Schatzburg who explained the geography and demographics of the Jerusalem problem.  He was so intelligent and pragmatic, an interesting contrast to the dreamers we have seen the past few days. They are wonderful and necessary, he is trying to look not at what may be but what is. We went to look at the wall, which is 90% fence and only 10% wall.  Things I learned, women soldiers manage the observation posts because they are more patient, and women monitor the check points as volunteer observers because they are not threatening and do not escalate situations and everyone behaves better. The IDF uses Bedouin and Druze trackers to follow people who manage to get through the fence. The fence is not electric but sensing, so it sends a message to the watchers if it is cut or even stepped on.  The UN offices are on the hill of evil counsel. While we stood on overlooks we saw smoke at Rachel's Tomb and near French Hill, heard the alarms, and smelled some tear gas. Pray for Jerusalem.

In the evening we went to Shabbat Service at a synagogue that is very progressive and welcomed us, (Kol HaNeshama)  It was a lovely service and we all participated as we could. I have not been to a Shabbat Service and it was lovely, Tom cried.  Abby was kind enough to answer all my questions about the liturgy. I will go again to David Straus's synagogue (Main LIne Reform Temple in Wynnewood) and see how it feels in the US.  David, Lynn, and Julian were yet again so thoughtful of Chukri, Foza and Zakiya and sat enclosing them during worship.

Back again to the hotel for dinner and it was a joy to have Rabbi David say the blessings and tell a story about why the grape was chosen as the special fruit (to make the wine/grape juice) for Shabbat meal blessing, along with the braided bread (challah). Mayor DiBlasio is in town so he and his people were at a table nearby. 

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Blessings of Music and Dance from Udi, Hana and Teens at Abu Gosh

Morning at Yad Vashem: Holocaust Memorial

October 15th:  Post from Christina

Another beautiful day here, but our guide Julian has posed the question:

Is a place still beautiful when evil things have happened there, or are happening?

The answer for me is clear, God made this world a beautiful place and nothing humans do can take away the intrinsic beauty and holiness of a place.  Zakiya described it as a core of beauty with a crust of ugliness, break through the crust and the beauty is still there. So back to my point, despite the violence and the evil rhetoric and the stupidity, this was a beautiful day.

We spent the morning at Yad Vashem. This time I made it through. At our last visit I was unprepared. While I had known the numbers and many of the details, the profundity of the decimation of Poland, Jews, Christians, and Roma overwhelmed me when I saw it in picture after picture, clothing, shoes, books, letters, all attached to people who look like my family and Tom helped me walk through quickly and get out. 

The group started with thoughts, poems and prayers in the garden of righteous Gentiles, led by Rev. Judy. We pondered the question:   What made these extraordinary people stand up at great risk to themselves and their families? 

At the end our group gathered for a brief memorial service that Rabbi David had prepared.  Approaching this place not just as a tourist attraction or a lesson in history but with prayer and from a place of faith makes it even more meaningful to us.

Exploring Jerusalem's Old City

October 14th:  Post by Christina 
We went to the spot where everyone goes to take photos, and talk about the geography, the walls, the City of David, the water supply, the hills....and the recent bus shooting, which occurred on the road behind us.  We were accompanied by a security guard and he will be on all trips outside the hotel. He is not armed but he is an EMT and is our eyes and ears of caution as we focus on our activities. We spoke of the the meaning of Al-Aqsa Mosque, the Temple Mount, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. We shared our stories of Abraham, Isaac and Ishmael. We looked at the closeness of the Palestinian and Jewish neighborhoods and the place where there has been so much heartache and death, but also so many moments of transcendence and beauty. We could have stood talking for many hours but there was much more to see.

A short bus ride to the top of what turned out to be a pretty hard walk down to the entrance to the archaeological dig around the southwestern corner of the wall.  We discussed the politics of even a scientific effort.  The project certainly could have continued but they stopped digging when they got to the base of the wall of the second temple - a statement that the Jews were indeed there before and are not newcomers to the area.  I found a transcript of Abbas's speech to the United Nations two weeks ago where he spoke of the deep roots of Arabs and Christians in this place but not the Jews.  It is astonishing that, like people who deny the holocaust or evolution, anyone can deny that the Jews were here before the Christians or the Muslims.

Then we walked to the Western Wall.  We spoke of the fact that the Israelis gave over the Temple Mount (Harim Al-Sharif) , and this is the closest they can get to pray, that it is controlled by the Orthodox, divided men from women unevenly, and then.... Is a place intrinsically holy or does the spirit of the people who come there make it so.  I feel the power of so many coming there to be profoundly moving, Lynn, who is Jewish, had been there many times was going to stand back.  Then a miracle happened.  Julian our guide, thought it unwise to have our Muslim friend Foza go to the wall, but Lynn stepped up and said, she would go with her, so arm and arm the women went, and stood and prayed and cried and made the place holy.

At 5:30 we met with Yossi Klein Halevi, an author, former journalist, graduate of Megill, and a voice for understanding.  He spoke movingly of his reactions to the current problems which he called an intifada of neighbors - the Arab boys and young men who are doing the stabbing and shooting are not from the West Bank, they live, study and work on this side of the wall.  He decried the lies that make these children throw their lives away for nothing. He practically wept as he spoke of the hard-heartedness that keeps the sides from negotiation.
        I learned of the work that Julian our guide did to get Foza, Chukri, and Zakiya to               pray at Al-Aqsa and visit the Dome of the Rock and how warmly they were greeted             there. This is the first time that Julian has lead a three--faith group and it meant a           great deal to him to find them a safe way in. Their gratitude to him for what was a           high point in their lives was profound.  And then, a small thing, but at this fancy               hotel, the waitstaff is primarily Palestinian and the clientele mainly wealthy                     Christians and Jews. Muslims do not stay here. The waitstaff and the room cleaners           have been overjoyed, which is probably an understatement, to see and speak with            our Muslim group members. 

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Jerusalem: October 12-15

Our arrival in Jerusalem landed us in the midst of a very tense time in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, with spurts of violence breaking out.   This context has made our experiences palpably emotional and real. 

Day One:  Abu Gosh and Shorashim

Our first destination was Abu Gosh, an Arab village outside of Jerusalem,  where we enjoyed an abundant lunch of Middle Eastern foods.

At the Cultural Center in Abu Gosh, we greeted  Philadelphia musicians Udi Bar-David (Israeli cellist) and Hana Khoury (Palestinian violinist).  We were honored that they  opened their intercultural peace-making journey with us, offering moving pieces that put this region's questions, pain, challenges and hope to music.   We especially appreciated their choice of the piece Istanbul to help us transition to our new context.    

After reflecting with Udi and Hana on their "dialogue through music", we were treated to a surprise dance performance by a half dozen teenage boys from Abu Gosh's Cultural Center.

Diving right into the heart of Jerusalem's struggles, we met with Ali (Palestinian) and Shaoul, (Israeli from one of the settlements) who have formed an organization, Shorashim (Roots) to build bridges between their communities.  Please take a moment to visit the website for this remarkable effort, Shorashim (Roots) at

Ephesus: Last Day in Turkey

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Istanbul Day Three

We opened our day at Taksim Square and then
walked to St. Antuan Catholic Church for an English
language worship service.  

The multi-cultural church
included refugees from Eritrea and Somalia. 

We spent the afternoon touring and exploring the complicated
history and wonders of the Topkapi Palace...

Hagia Sophia ...

The Blue Mosque ....

.... and having our daily
feasts of wonderful foods, including baklava.

Istanbul Day Two

 Heading for a day of dialogue with journalists.

Sobering day, learning of bombing in Ankara, joining
in the country's days of mourning with our private thoughts and prayers.
As Julian, our guide quotes from a Jewish source,
"When there is no peace, one must bring peace."

Riding by boat along the Bosphorous River, dividing Asia and Europe,
we learn about  the history, architecture and culture of this ancient and modern city.

A visit to the Spice Market .... awakens all senses (and satisfies some shopping yens).

Our day ended with
experiences of generous (and delicious) home hospitality
and dialogue, thanks to two gracious 'Turkish families.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Arrival in Istanbul -- Day One

10/8/15 Departing from Philadelphia -- 19 of us ready for our Dare to Understand Adventure.
 10/9/15 Arrival in Istanbul -- our first glimpse of the Blue Mosque!
 Our leaders guide us in an opening reflection, overlooking Istanbul.
Chukri and Foza .... walking back to the Eresin Crown Hotel to 
prepare to go to Shabbat eve services at Aitz Chayim synagogue.

The hotel is behind the Sultanahmet (Blue Mosque) in the oldest part of the city. Very historic with a lobby filled with bits of history, chunks of columns, statues, and mosaics. It is not American style.  Oooh there is the evening call to prayer!

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Special Dialogue Through Music

On October 15, our group will participate in bringing
unique blessings of peace through music from Philly.
Tomorrow we depart for Istanbul, our first destination.   


One of the features of our time in Israel will be two concerts by Philadelphia's musical giants, Udi Bar-David and Hanna Khoury,  Israeli and Palestinian classical musicians who play for peace.  

This open concert at the YMCA in Jerusalem, with an Palestinian-Israeli youth chorus is free and open to the public.   Feel free to pass this along to anyone you know in Jerusalem. 

Monday, September 21, 2015

Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia Travels to the Middle East

Trip participants gather for orientation with our tour leaders.
The Interfaith Center, founded in 2004 to help Philadelphia be a model for inter-religious cooperation, is sponsoring a trip to the Mideast for prominent leaders of our region from October 8 -18, 2015.  Co-led by Rabbi David Straus, Co-Convener of the Religious Leaders Council of Greater Philadelphia, S.A. Ibrahim, C.E.O. of Radian, Inc. and The Very Reverend Judith Sullivan, Interfaith Center Board Chair, this customized boutique trip will take us to Turkey, Israel and the West Bank.  While there, we will meet with Christian, Jewish and Muslim religious leaders and other opinion molders.  We will visit the cultural and religious sites that ground critical sources of wisdom and heritage, roots of our common humanity.   A special feature of our trip will include “dialogue through music”, led by Philadelphia world class musicians, Udi Bar David and Hanna Khoury.

There is probably no region in the world where conflict based on real or perceived differences is as profound as in the Middle East.  Much of this conflict is a function of the nationalism that informs tensions and even violence throughout the world. But in the Middle East, the birthplace of Abrahamic faiths, religious difference is all too often the lens with which the world views the source of mistrust and fear. One cannot pick up our daily newspaper without reading headlines of violence that we hoped by now would be a thing of the past.

The urgency of our times is calling for new ways forward, compelling us to bring forth leadership from diverse sectors to prioritize this as an issue to be addressed here at home.  Here, in the birthplace of religious liberty we can make a new kind of investment in work to avert and remedy interreligious strife.  Participants in this Dare to Understand mission will become partners in the future of this work here in the Greater Philadelphia region.

Check back here throughout the autumn to hear more about this amazing trip as participants update the blog with their daily thoughts, news, and reflections!

Abby Stamelman Hocky

Executive Director, Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia