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Category: Middle East

Multifaith Breakfast Salon on Friday, February 14th, 2014

Our breakfast is by invitation only.  Please let us know if you can join us—RSVP to Joan Hollenbach at or 215.576.0800 x 252 by Tuesday, February 4th, 2014.

For more information about the Pardes Center for Judaism and Conflict Resolution, please visit:


Dreams of Peace: Arabic for Interfaith Engagement

We are thrilled to announce an exciting new course this Spring at RRC for students and qualified community members. This Introduction to Arabic course will provide the tools needed to reach out to Muslim American dialogue partners and to Arabs in the Middle East.

We believe that learning a foreign language can be a powerful peace building practice.

The flyer below provides the details:

Arabic for Interfaith Engagement


To Bigotry No Sanction

This post was coauthored by Seth Kreimer, Kenneth W. Gemmill Professor, University of Pennsylvania School of Law.

This post was originally published on the HuffingtonPost - Religion page.  I would love to know what you think. Please post your comments on HuffPost.

Pamela Geller's "Support Israel, Defeat Jihad" ad campaign arrived in New York subway stations this month. The campaign strives to be as clever as it is malevolent. Geller claims it is simply a pro-Israel political statement. But the ad's text is a calculated echo of Ayn Rand'sslur that Israel's opponents, and indeed all Arabs, are "primitive…savages."

Not missing the point, the New York City transit authority first rejected the ad as demeaning, only to be forced by a Federal District judge to accept it because of the First Amendment right of free speech.

The issue of free speech is, however, a red herring. The campaign aims to distract and confuse Americans. Geller has played that game before. Concern for sensitivity to victims' families served as a cover for the anti-Muslim agenda in Geller's last major initiative, the controversy she helped create around what she misnamed the "mosque at Ground Zero."This time, Geller wants to link her ad campaign and its legal battles with free speech in America and backlash in the Middle East. She claims opponents of the ads are un-American. She is wrong. Opposition to bigotry is as much a core American value as freedom of speech. It is Geller's effort to set the two at odds that flies in the face of our ideals.

Geller's ads seek to provoke the behavior she claims to fear, and to provoke enough of it to create fear in others. Like Geller's other pet project, "Stop Islamization of America,"the campaign is designed to stoke anxiety that American Muslims do not understand and support America's freedoms. Geller posts provocative ads. She then reports on her blog---with great satisfaction---any examples of Muslim Americans reacting in ways that fail to appreciate the complex, messy business of freedom of speech in this country. At this, she cries, "The sharia-ization is beginning!"

Fanatics from my faith do not represent me!In fact, major Muslim American spokesmen responded to the ad altogether appropriately. CAIR national communications director Ibrahim Hooper said, "The First Amendment grants everybody rights, including to be a racist and a bigot."But you won't find that statement reported on Geller's blog. Nor will you find the pictureof an orthodox rabbi and a Muslim protesting the ad with a sign stating "Fanatics from my faith do not represent me!"

As Jews, we regularly expect Muslim and Christian friends to denounce anti-Semitism and terrorism within their own communities. In fairness, it is our duty to join others in stepping up when Jews are the ones promulgating hate. Geller knows well that apparent support for Israel is one way to package an anti-Muslim message that makes it tricky for Jewish leaders to offer unequivocal and unified denunciations. Her tactic, however, does not seem to be paying off across the board. Even Jews who do not usually agree on matters related to Israel are refusing to be distracted. The Anti-Defamation Leaguecarries on its website a condemnation of Geller, for "consistently vilifying the Islamic faith under the guise of fighting radical Islam." On September 21, the Jewish Voice for Peace, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice and Say No!issued a statement condemning Geller's ad .The same day, the Jewish Council for Public Affairsdecried Geller's ads as "Bigoted, Divisive and Unhelpful." Rabbi Rachel Troster of Rabbis for Human Rights North Americahas spoken out, as has the president of the Union of Reform Judaism, Rabbi Rick Jacobs.

In his famous letter to the first Jewish synagogue in America, George Washington wrote that the United States government grants "to bigotry no sanction."But because our government does grant to all its citizens freedom of speech, it will protect the right of Pamela Geller to post her bigotry, just as it allows over 900 hate groups, including anti-Semitic groups, to operate. In America, the work of giving bigotry no sanction devolves on citizens. We are the ones with the liberty---and the obligation---to speak our own truths in the face of hate mongering. And Geller isn't clever enough to stop us.


Shabbat Ha'Gadol: Setting the Table for Passover

passoverI recently posted a piece on Shabbat HaGadol for the Odyssey Network's new series of Torah commentaries on the HuffingtonPost. Here is the link on Odyssey Network and on HuffingtonPost.

The title sounds boring, but I promise you that it is not a conventional Passover message.

Please take a look and tell me what you think. I would appreciate it if you “liked,” tweeted and/or shared the post with others. You may also want to follow this weekly feature on Huffpost. There are some wonderful commentators lined up for the weeks to come.

With warm wishes for a sweet Pesach,

Nancy Fuchs Kreimer


Jerusalem Peacemakers Come to Philadelphia

Eliyahu McLean Ghassan ManasraDespite potentially hopeful developments in some societies in the Middle East this year, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict does not appear to be moving toward resolution any time soon. This reality does not daunt our guests, Eliyahu McLlean and Ghassan Manasra. On November 9th and 10th, RRC’s Department of Multifaith Studies and the Dialogue Institute at Temple University brought two Jerusalem Peacemakers to Philadelphia to share their wisdom. We wondered:  How do they maintain their spiritual focus in the face of a seemingly intractable situation?

“Give up attachment to results,” Eliyahu advises. (He has spent time learning with Tichh Nhat Hahn.) The child of an intermarried couple raised in Hawaii, Eliyahu first entered a synagogue at the age of 12. He now lives in an Orthodox moshav with his wife and baby. He has been an Israeli citizen for 13 years; all of them spent pursuing his vision of interreligious harmony in the most difficult of places, Jerusalem, Israel/Palestine. His friends include settlers on the west bank as well as Muslim and Christian religious leaders, a delegation of who blessed him under the huppah at his recent wedding.

Ghassan is the son of Sheikh Abdel Salaam Manasra, the head of the Qadiri Sufi order in the Holy Land. He is an ordained sheikh, a student of Sheikh Abdul Aziz Bukhari whose family came to Jerusalem 400 years ago. He founded the Jerusalem Peacemakers with Eliyahu in 2004. (Learn about the founding of the group from this video) Jerusalem Peacemakers organizes a variety of different events from grassroots encampments to conferences of religious leaders. They are not explicitly political. “I am not left wing or right wing,” says Eliyahu. “It takes two wings to fly.”

Both men are deeply religious. Their strong foundation in faith empowers them in their work. It also provides additional challenges. Eliyahu and Ghassan know well the fears and prejudices of their own neighbors and fellow observant Jews and Muslims. They believe that part of their calling is working within their own communities to change hearts and minds.

At the same time, they face the challenge of working with Jewish Israelis committed to co-existence from a secular perspective. Eliyahu and Ghassan patiently try to help everyone sort out their differences, inter and intra religious. “Food and modesty are our biggest challenges,” Eliyahu explains. “Planning meals can be tricky. You have to accommodate those who expect meat at a gathering during Ramadan, those who observe kashrut or hallal and those who are strict vegans.” Eliyahu explains that young Israelis can understand that they need to cover up to not offend the sensibilities of Muslim partners, but they resent having to do so for Orthodox Israelis.

Meanwhile, Ghassan and Eliyahu find their greatest sustenance in their own prayer lives.

This video captures Eliyahu McLean and a multifaith group engaging in the kind of action that the Jerusalem Peacemakers do best. The building in Hebron (the West Bank) that is said to be the burial place of Abraham holds both a synagogue and a mosque. In just under five minutes of footage one can watch an Israeli soldier stationed at the tomb gradually realize that this unlikely group has come to pray together. His smile near the end of the tape is worth waiting for. Our peacemakers rejoice when such transformations occur. But they are not attached.


Jewish “Heresies” Then and Now

This post was originally published on the HuffingtonPost - Religion page.  I would love to know what you you think. Please post your comments on HuffPost.

What is a rabbi to do?

My inbox this morning includes a petition from my local Jewish Community Relations Council opposing the Palestinian bid for statehood at the United Nations, a request from a Jewish lobby that supports a two state solution and a message from a colleague asking me to endorse a Jewish organization that promotes “democracy, equality and self determination” for both peoples. My husband suggests that I ignore all my emails and write about some topic other than Israel.

I am reminded of my earliest encounters within the Jewish world. In 1974, a year after the Yom Kippur War, I joined a newly founded group called Breira (Alternative). It was the first organization in the Jewish community to publicly criticize Israel’s continued occupation of land captured in the Six Day War—the first to question the claim that circumstances left Israel no alternative (“ain breira”). At a time when there were between 10,000 and 20,000 Jewish settlers living in the territories, Breira was committed to the safety and security of the Jewish state but also supported self-determination of the Palestinian people, talks with the Palestinian Liberation Organization and, later, a Palestinian state. Although I was just out of college at the time, I found myself serving on the first governing board.

In the beginning, a number of prominent Jewish leaders signed on to Breira’s larger “advisory board,” only to drop off within the next year or two. Some of the departing members feared for their jobs. Ira Eisenstein, then the president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, had other reasons for leaving. While he had joined to support a challenge to “Israel right or wrong” thinking, Rabbi Eisenstein had come to feel that Breira extended “greater sympathy to the Palestinians than to the Israelis,” as he explained in an editorial in the movement’s periodical in February 1977.

The next month, he followed up with another editorial, “Needed:  An Alternative to Breira.” If Israel did not want to talk to the PLO and America was prepared to support them, Eisenstein wrote, who were we as Diaspora Jews to disagree?

As an applicant to RRC, I read those editorials with some trepidation. Would my career be over before it began?

But while Rabbi Eisenstein opposed Breira’s positions, he defended its members’ right to hold them.  He saw the importance of level-headed discussion among those who wanted to “establish Zion with justice.” His second editorial deplored the attacks against the organization’s leaders, specifically Hillel directors whose jobs were threatened. He added that “punitive measures… are wrong, propelled by panic.”

Fortunately for me, the rabbinical school reflected its president’s principles: Just a few weeks after those editorials appeared, I was admitted. During my years at RRC, Rabbi Eisenstein and I continued to disagree strongly on that issue, among others, but always with respect. Other parts of the organized Jewish world were not so open minded, and Breira folded within five years of its founding.

Today, according to the petition from the JCRC, I should oppose the unilateral declaration of Palestinian statehood because the official position of the Jewish community is “two states based on negotiations”—the very position considered outside the pale by Breira’s opponents. But now there are close to half a million Jews living in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Rabbi Eisenstein’s hope for establishing “Zion with justice” looks increasingly shaky.

In retrospect, perhaps Breira’s position was sympathetic to both Palestinians and Israelis.

The current “heresy” involves questioning whether two states are still possible. Some Jews recall Zionist visions from the years before 1948 that included skepticism and even opposition to a Jewish state, positions advocated by leading Jewish thinkers such as Martin Buber and Rabbi Judah Magnes. Some who care deeply about being Jewish no longer define themselves as Zionist.

I can understand why Rabbi Eisenstein worried about Breira in 1977. But my experience reminds me that ideas considered unacceptable then look sensible, if not timid, now.  As I listen to Jews discuss which positions on Israel are now kosher or treif, I realize how quickly those borders can and do change, and I admire even more Rabbi Eisenstein’s visionary commitment to keep the conversation open.

Rabbi Eisenstein understood that the philosophical pragmatism at the base of his Reconstructionist approach to Judaism required humility. Writing about pragmatism, Louis Menand said, “Beliefs are just bets on the future… There is always the possibility that some other set of truths might be the case. In the end, we have to act on what we believe…but the moral justification for our actions comes from the tolerance we have shown for other ways of being in the world, other ways of considering the case.”

I am grateful to be part of a Jewish movement that values respectful and compassionate Jewish peoplehood, that understands beliefs as bets on the future, and that welcomes new voices, even those that make others uncomfortable, perhaps especially those.


40 Days and Nights in Jerusalem

Reverend Dr. Wil GafneyThe Reverend Dr. Wil Gafney is an Associate Professor of Hebrew and Old Testament at The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia. She is an ordained Episcopal priest, a member of the historic African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas in Philadelphia and also a member of a Reconstructionist minyan, Dorshei Derekh Minyan of the Germantown Jewish Centre. Wil is a good friend and partner to the Multifaith Studies Department at RRC. Twice in the last few years, Wil co-taught with Rabbi Melissa Heller our course, Hevruta:  Jewish-Christian Encounter through Text. Recently, she left Philadelphia to spend 40 days in Jerusalem, writing and thinking, and of course, blogging.

The curious reader who checks out Wil's blog will be rewarded, not only by the thoughtful observations and stunning photography, but also by the opportunity to see the Israel/Palestine conflict through a unique perspective. As Wil herself acknowledges in her first entry, she comes to this situation, like anyone, with "baggage." Here is Wil's description of her own:

Jerusalem is important to me as a Christian, as a woman who prays in synagogue, as a person committed to inter-religious dialogue, as a woman who seeks peace on the earth in my lifetime, and as an American voter who communicates my desire for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to my elected representatives.

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Yona Shem-Tov: A Young Leader to Watch

Yona Shem-TovYona Shem-Tov, the newly appointed executive director of Encounter Programs brings to this position a remarkable set of experiences as a multifaith educator and activist. Last night I learned more about Yona while attending a Gala to honor the outgoing director of Encounter, Rabbi Melissa Weintraub.

Yona was educated in Toronto in a Jewish day school, so she comes to this work with a strong grounding in her own identity and tradition. At the same time, Yona has always appreciated national and cultural diversity. Her mother survived the Holocaust as a child in Europe; her father was born in Iraq and was part of the first airlift of Jews from that country to Israel in 1951.

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