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.