A visiting group of women from Central Synagogue, NYC led by Cantor Angela Buchdahl (who were in Israel for 8 days learning about Women and Minority Rights in Israel on a very special study tour organized by Da’at)), invited me to bring graduates of our Face to Face/Faith to Faith youth leadership program for discussion and dinner on Saturday night, April 24th, at the Olive and Fish restaurant in central Jerusalem. The purpose of the evening was to enable these women have a first-hand experience with Palestinian and Jewish young people who have undergone intensive dialogue and educational experiences through the Face to Face program, which is a partnership of ICCI and Auburn Theological Seminary in New York. This evening was initiated by two members of the group – Marianne Golieb and Emily Johnson – who are members of Central Synagogue and who have worked with Rev. Dr. Katharine Henderson, newly inaugurated president of Auburn and co-founder of the Face to Face program, with whom I have had the privilege of working closely during the past 8 years.

I brought 5 graduates of Face to Face to meet the 36 savvy and articulate women from New York. This led to an eye-opening event, with many of the Jewish women having their first opportunity to actually shmooz with a Palestinian person. The atmosphere was electric! There was real buzz in the room.

In the introductory session, before dinner, I asked each of the Face to Face grads to share with the group some of their experiences from their dialogue groups over the past few years. A young woman from Abu Ghosh, who was a 16-year-old teen when I first met her 3 years ago, is now a poised and self-confident 20 year old speaker. She was a participant in Face to Face in 2007 and a leader-in-training at the summer intensive in 2008, and will be studying philosophy and international law at Hebrew University next year. A Palestinian citizen of Israel, she told the group that the Face to Face program afforded her the opportunity to meet Palestinians from East Jerusalem for the first time in her life, which profoundly expanded her Palestinian identity. She also said that as a result of her participation in the international summer intensive in upstate New York, she has chosen the field of international law for her studies in order to be an activist professional in the field of coexistence education in Israel in the future.

Another Palestinian woman, who lives in East Jerusalem (and is not an Israeli citizen), also spoke about the international component of the program. In her experience at the summer intensive, she gained insight into other people’s conflicts which gave her the opportunity to put her own conflict in perspective. Meeting people from Northern Ireland and South Africa opened her heart and mind to the idea that long and difficult conflicts can and do actually end!

A third Palestinian, who lives in East Jerusalem and teaches Hebrew language to Palestinians in East Jerusalem, is a graduate of another ICCI college student program and served as a counselor at the Face to Face summer intensive in New York last summer (and will go again this summer). While relating his personal experiences in dialogue, particularly during last year’s Gaza War, he spoke about his motivation for remaining in the group, even during wartime. He saw himself as a representative of the Palestinian people and felt a personal imperative to share the Palestinian narrative with his Jewish friends.

In addition to the Palestinian students, two Jewish graduates of the program, both from Orthodox religious high schools, shared their experiences as well. The young man, a high school senior, talked about how hard it was to share his experiences with his friends when he went back to his school. Nevertheless, he persisted in sharing his positive experiences in genuine dialogue with Palestinians in Jerusalem and saw it as his personal obligation to lower the level of hatred on the part of his Jewish schoolmates. Another Jewish perspective was offered by a young woman, also a high school senior. She reported that it was impossible to bring any stories about her encounters in Face to Face to people in her religious high school because it simply would not be tolerated.

All of the perspectives shared by these remarkable young people gave the Jewish women from New York an insider’s view of the rewards and complexities of genuine interreligious dialogue in the exceedingly difficult environment of the ongoing conflict in Jerusalem.

‘Covering Religion’: Columbia Journalism Students Visit ICCI

A group of Columbia School of Journalism Graduate students toured Israel and the region as part of Prof. Ari Goldman’s ‘Covering religion’ class.  The tour, which was co-led by Prof. Goldman and ICCI’s director of Interreligious Encounters Abroad, Ophir Yarden, exposed the participants to the complexities of religion and interreligious encounters in the Holy Land.   They chronicled their experiences on their class website.  Here are some highlights:

Sanaz Meshkinpour, a native of Iran concentrating in Broadcast Journalism, writes about the group’s experience at an interfaith gathering in Kibbutz Hanaton in the Galilee:

[At Kibbutz Hanaton] we rabbis, imams, priests and ministers gathered for lunch, study and reflection as they do every few months.  We were invited to join the interfaith gathering and our guide, Ophir Yarden, made a point of dividing us among the tables so that we could talk to the participants over lunch. He made sure there was a Hebrew speaker at every table to help translate the conversation. Carolyn Phenicie sat at a table with a rabbi and two priests from the Eastern Catholic Church–a sect where non-monastic clergy can marry. While many of us are still struggling to learn the differences between each sect, Phenicie said, “It was really interesting to see that these leaders had basic questions too.”

Rabbi Ron Kronish, one of the organizers of the lunch [and director of ICCI], explained that things are very different in the Galilee than in hotspots like Jerusalem. “I feel the Galilee is the lab of what Israel would be like if we get it right,” he said.  It is a story that is rarely told but one that we got to see first-hand. After the lunch, the clergy gathered in the synagogue of the kibbutz to study religious texts together.

The students also met with Jewish and Palestinian alumni of ICCI’s Face to Face and JIYAF programs at T’Mol Shilshom Bookshop Café in downtown Jerusalem.  Omar Kasrawi, a dual-masters candidate at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism and School of International and Public Affairs, reports:

[We] ate dinner in the company of eight young adults who participated in two interreligious dialogue programs between Palestinian and Jewish students. Yonatan Gorenberg and Samah Qunbar, an Israeli and Palestinian participant respectively, spent the evening discussing the frustrations of both sides and what needs to be done to try and change things.

Yonatan spoke of how he brought tenth grade Israeli students to the West Bank village of Abu Dees to show them how the dividing wall built by the Israelis splits the town in two. Samah expressed her frustration about living in society where she doesn’t get treated equally because she doesn’t carry an Israeli passport.

“The dinner was the most informative session we had so far,” said Carolyn. “I found the students’ candor about the tenseness of the situation between Palestinians and Israelis refreshing,” she added.

For more information about the trip or to read the students’ daily dispatches, visit the class’s website, “Covering Religion.”  If you are interested in learning more about ICCI’s Center for Interreligious Encounter Abroad, email Ophir Yarden.