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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