I got involved in a dialogue project in Nablus. We were doing a dialogue project called "transformation of suffering," bringing 30 Israelis each month into Nablus to workshops to go through the suffering we were both experiencing. There was a Palestinian participant from Gaza who was an activist in Fatah Youth during the first intifada. He had a Peace and Friendship Center in Gaza and wanted to start a parallel project in Gaza. We started an Israeli-Palestinian Gaza City dialogue project. I used to bring groups of Israelis into Gaza and on our first trip at each dialogue an Israeli would tell their story to a Palestinian and a Palestinian would tell their story to an Israeli. Then in the larger group the Palestinian would tell the Israeli's story, and vice versa.
Who participated in that program?
Mostly people who were interested in meeting Palestinians were inclined to go. But I'll never forget there was one young man who had been a soldier on the streets of Gaza just a few months before. Because the intifada had just ended and the PLO was starting to move in, there was a window of opportunity. So we brought this Israeli soldier into Gaza City, and he was hosted by a young man who used to organize stone throwing against the soldiers. He was being led through the streets that he used to patrol as a soldier. He recognized those streets and he was overcoming his post-traumatic-stress-disorder by trying to go back there. I'll never forget when a Palestinian policeman who was sent to protect us took his beret off and put it on the head of the Israeli soldier and took his PLO button off and put it on his jacket.
This project was so successful that some of the young people said, "We don't want to just do dialogue, we want to do a project." Kibbutz Ketura has an environmental studies program [the Arava Institute], so we organized a big thing with PIES, the Palestinian-Israeli Environmental Secretariat, Kibbutz Ketura and our dialogue group. We had a Gaza Beach clean-up day, with 70 people, and we cleaned up a huge stretch of beach with Israeli and Palestinian and international youth. That was a huge success.
At the same time, I was at Yakar, a modern orthodox Jewish liberal think tank, learning and seminar center in Katamon in Jerusalem. Yakar hired me to help start a new teacher training project called the Jewish-Muslim Bet Midrash. I organized a project to bring Jewish and Muslim high school teachers together to study Islamic and Jewish texts together. The teachers were from East and West Jerusalem, Abu Ghosh, around Jerusalem. Most of the Jewish teachers were teachers of Arabic, so a lot of the classes were in Arabic. They didn't do the dialogue; they actually wanted to go straight to the real work. They didn't have to do the introductory stuff that most people have to do. We could go very deep very fast. It was a highly successful project and even after I left Yakar it went on for 3 or 4 years.
I also work closely with the Compassionate Listening Project and Leah Green. On a few of their tours I was their guide around the country. So I said, "You've been listening to too much suffering." You can imagine, there's so much suffering here on all sides, and you're just compassionately listening. So I brought them to the home of a Sufi sheik I knew in the West Bank, and he told them a story.
"Ten years ago during the time of the first intifada, the only Jews I knew were soldiers at road blocks. I went to go pray at the tomb of Nebi Musanear Jericho." He apparently had a vision of the prophet Moses, who spoke to him out of a body of light and said, "In the future many Jews and Christians are going to seek your wisdom and advice. Welcome them into your home as if they were members of your own family." But he thought it must be the deceiving voice of Allah, the Shatan, because he only knew soldiers. He thought, "How could this be, I must be going crazy or there's some devil." Fast-forward 10 years, as he's telling the story, now he has a group of Christians and Jews coming to seek his wisdom and advice. All of a sudden it dawned on him that the prophecy had come true, and he burst into tears. The whole Compassionate Listening tour group came up and gave him a big hug.
From that moment I became the sheikh's booking agent. I started to take him to all these festivals, Shantipi and Boombamela, to speak about Islam as a vision of peace. Shortly after I met him, Yossi Klein HaLevi was writing a book about Christian, Muslim and Jewish mystics. He grew up the son of Holocaust survivors and in the Jewish Defense League, and wanted to overcome his own reservations with the non-Jews he was raised to fear and hate. The sheikh introduced Yossi and me to a whole network of indigenous Palestinian Sufi sheikhs from the West Bank and Gaza. Our adventures among the Sufis became the subject of Yossi's book, At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden. Because I had studied Sufism and Islam those years before, I felt that I could speak the language of religious Muslims, and because of the fact that I studied in an orthodox yeshiva, I could speak the language of the Hasidim and the religious Jews, and do bridge building work.
Recently I have been working closely with Abdel Aziz Bukhari, who lives in the Old City and we have become very close friends. I bring people to visit him because he lived in America and he's very open. He is from a long line of Sufi sheikhs. One of the things we do together is organize prayer gatherings at shared holy places like Nebi Samuel, which is holy to Muslims and Jews. I often bring people to his home, which is like a second home to me.
In the last few years, a lot of what I've done is helped organize gatherings. We started a new tarika, called Tarikat Ibrahimi, the Tarika of Abraham, Derech Avraham. Rabbi Alberto Arbiv, a Conservative rabbi in Tel Aviv, and Avi Elkayam, a Jewish professor from Tel Aviv University, approached me because I knew the Sufis. We did a big meeting at Neve Shalom where we had rabbis and sheikhs praying together. We did zikr with Rabbi Fruman and Dov Maimon.
When the intifada started we started the Old City peace vigil above the Western Wall with people from different religions praying for peace. We met every single Friday consistently until about two or three months ago. We ran out of steam, it was hard to keep it going, so we're not still doing it. But for 3 1/2 years, every week was an interfaith gathering with Palestinian Muslims coming, soldiers coming by-sometimes soldiers would say, "It should only be that your prayers should succeed, I don't want to be here anymore."
I was also director of an organization called Peacemaker Community. The idea was to form a network linking and connecting a lot of disparate, spiritually oriented peace and interfaith projects. Each year the Peacemaker Community Poland branch organizes a bearing witness retreat in Auschwitz in Poland. I brought a Bedouin Muslim Imam with me to Auschwitz. They base themselves in what are called the three tenets: 1) not knowing, 2) bearing witness, and 3) loving action. Part of the problem in the Middle East is that everybody "knows," to such an extent that no one will listen to anyone else who also knows. Everybody is so certain. Rabbi David Hartman called Israel a "tyranny of certitudes." I think it's true.
When Peacemaker Community stopped I started working last year in a freelance capacity for different organizations. I help strengthen big gatherings. For example, with the organization
Middleway, which does monthly peace walks. This week they did a huge peace walk in the West Bank with 100 Arabs and Jews. They walk in a spiritual way, silently in a single file line for two to seven days at a time, handing out little flyers that say what the message is. It's not a protest, not a march, but a silent walk in mindful meditation with Arabs and Jews.
Two and a half years ago Gabi Meyer and I worked together to organize the first sulha. That was a Hanukah, Christmas, Ramadan celebration in the Galilee where we had a talking circle with an olive branch as a talking peace. Jews prepared the Ramadan meal for the Muslims, and Muslims and Christians lit Hanukah candles. That grew to 600 people the next summer, and last summer to 1500 people. We're hoping for over 2000 people this summer. So I'm involved in the sulha gatherings now. I work as a tour guide, Sufi, new-age groups come to meet religious peacemakers. I bring them all over the country, to the Galilee, the Negev, Jerusalem.
Another project I organized that morphed out of the Peacemaker Community was the Jerusalem Circle. Every Friday, activists from many different projects and organizations in the Jerusalem area gathered just to be together, to network. I know many people in many projects who don't know what each other are doing, so the idea was just to gather and sit and share some music and food. Almost inevitably some new idea came out of every meeting. A lot of what I do is as a matchmaker, to say, "You should know that person, you should get together with that person." A lot of new projects that are happening now, I'm not directly involved with, but I know I helped seed them. I asked Reb Zalman Schachter-Shlomi if there was any initiation, any bracha, any smicha, any hasmacha, any recognition in the Jewish tradition for Jewish peacemaking, Jewish peace activism, Jewish-inspired peace work-work that is not just political in nature but that integrates the very principles we study in the tradition, in an activist way. There is so much going on in the States, Michael Lerner and the Tikkun community, Brit Tzedek V'Shalom, and a lot of rabbis are doing great work. There's Rabbis for Human Rights here, but that's more like human rights work. What about peace work, bridge building work? So Reb Zalman Schachter-Shlomi developed a new initiation called "Rodef Shalom," Pursuer of Peace. I spent a day with him and he gave a personal blessing and put his hands on me like in a rabbinic ordination. He wrote up some official-looking documents in English, Hebrew and Arabic. But The powerful thing about this Rodef Shalom initiation is that Reb Zalman Schachter encouraged and empowered me to train others, so I'm actually developing a training program for Jewish peacemakers. I'm working on how to structure it - what would be the credentials, what can someone in North America do, would it be activism related to Israel, or would it be a Jewish person doing any tikkun olam work anywhere in the world? When I talked to Reb Zalman, right away he said they should have to study Arabic and spend some time working in a conflict region. Those were the first things he said, automatically. So that is sort of a personal thing I do in addition to other ongoing projects.