In Trust

Heather Grennan Gary, an Indiana based writer has an excellent piece on multifaith education in this month's In Trust magazine. It gives those outisde of the seminary world a better idea of the work that we do and the impact that it is having beyond New York. From the article:

This was particularly impressive for the Church of God group, which included several Latino students. "It was wonderful to have them go to a synagogue for the first time ever and meet a Latino rabbi," said Rabbi Daniel Brenner, director of Auburn Theological Seminary's Center for Multifaith Education in NewYork City, who helped organize the visit. "It broke so many stereotypes. They were really engaged and they felt very welcome."


Theater Review: Dai by Iris Bahr

Shrapnel in the front row

During the war between Hezbollah and Israel last summer, I called my cousin who lives in a small suburban town north of Tel Aviv. "It is surreal," she said. "The children are going back and forth from the bomb shelter to the pool."

Israel's paradox is well known — on the one hand, it is a war-scarred nation in a region increasingly populated by religious extremists who own explosives. On the other hand, it is a place with exceptionally good weather where kids play in the pool while their parents sip iced coffee and discuss Almodovar's latest. On a bad day, the two realities collide.

Collision is at the heart of Iris Bahr's masterful new theater work, "Dai" ("Enough"), at Culture Project in New York. Appropriately, "Dai" is staged in the same theater that gave birth to Sarah Jones' "Bridge and Tunnel," the solo piece that went on to a Tony Award-winning Broadway run.

Artistically and thematically the pieces are identical twins — a series of immigrant tales told through simple costume changes, dialect humor, and both gender and racial role-plays.
Both women talk fast, have talent to burn and know how to vacillate between humor and pathos before you realize that you've been taken for a ride. Like "Bridge and Tunnel," in "Dai" the personal becomes political, and you are sucked in by the energy, the stories, the language, and the performer.

But while Jones' work hung on a poorly constructed back-story regarding the police and a Pakistani family, Bahr's work is rooted in the visceral, explosive premise that all her characters are about to be obliterated in a suicide bombing. This device, in a lesser play, would seem like an easy way to draw loose ends to a resolution. But under Will Pomerantz's superb direction each thunderous death of a character is a minor revelation. Bahr creates and destroys an Israeli woman visiting home from her exile in Long Island, an Israeli kibbutznik father, a newly Israeli solider from Manhattan, an opinionated Orthodox woman with seven children, a shrewd Russian Israeli prostitute, and a spunky Israeli ecstasy dealer.

More interesting, though, are the non-Israeli characters she places in Tel Aviv. She plays a half-Syrian BBC reporter, a gay German furniture designer, a Latina actress, a divorced Palestinian college professor, and a Southern-twanged American Evangelical. Bahr, who has guest-starred on HBO's "Curb Your Enthusiasm," had the audience doubled over in laughter throughout the show.

Only the American Evangelical comes off as a caricature. (It is clear that Bahr wants him in the story, but is having a hard time finding a way to identify with him.) But all the other characters that populate the Tel Aviv coffee shop have depth and texture — you feel for them, you want to hear more from them.

So what does one take away from a show in which such a mix of characters spill their life stories? Bahr does not leave you with a political vision for the Middle East. But like all solo performers who successfully take on multiple roles, the implicit political message is that we can embody and understand one another.

Bahr, who served in the Israeli Army, understands Israel — Israel as the refugee camp and the high-tech hub, the promised land and the war-torn wilderness — and her artistic brilliance is that she can bring us into that understanding in the context of an 80-minute romp in a mythical café.


Judea Pearl

Last week I had dinner with a man whose son was beheaded by Islamic extremists. Judea Pearl, father of Daniel Pearl, is an Israeli scientist who loves to talk about artificial intelligence and world music but has, because of his son's brutal murder, found himself abandoning computers to speak to the hearts of people.

It has been almost four years, and the mourning process for Judea, for his wife, for his daughter-in-law, has been one in which they have tried with all their strength to turn anger and rage into kindness and compassion.

The foundation they set up in Daniel's name is symbolic of their attempt to remember Daniel and perpetuate his legacy: It helps journalists to understand different cultures, promotes peace through music education and performance, and fosters Muslim-Jewish dialogue. Judea himself has traveled across the United States with Akbar Ahmed, a Pakistani scholar, to help people to understand both the similarities and differences between Muslims and Jews. The foundation's work is deeply inspiring — and on a personal level, meeting Judea forces the question "Would I have the strength to work for peace if I were in his shoes?"

In synagogues around the world, we recently chanted the story of Noah and the great flood. Noah, we read, was "great in his generation." It sounds like a wonderful bit of praise, right? But the rabbinic commentators make the point that it was relatively easy to be righteous in such a generation — when everyone around you is murderous, virtue is simply keeping one's hands clean.

The great Jewish mystical text, the Zohar, takes this idea even further. The Zohar says: "When God said to Noah, 'The end of all flesh is come before Me,' Noah said: 'What will You do with me?' But he did not pray for mercy for the world, as Abraham would pray for the city of Sodom. This is why the Flood is called 'the waters of Noah' (Isaiah 54:9) — he is culpable for them, because he did not appeal for mercy on the world's behalf."

How can we understand this mystical teaching? In a world bloodied by terrorists — those who purposely kill the innocent to send a signal of their ruthlessness, we may have a tendency to be like Noah and simply worry about our own hides. Abraham calls us to ask, "What does this mean for humanity?" Abraham is not from Sodom. For him, the Sodomites are foreigners, strangers, other. Yet, he prays that they will be understood.

The more the world edges to the "end of all flesh," the more we must be like Abraham, pleading for mercy on behalf of humanity. Meeting Judea Pearl, I got a glimpse of someone who is doing just that. It gave new meaning to my daily prayer "Blessed is the Holy One, shield of Abraham."

For more of the pieces I've penned for UPI, click here.


Face to Face featured in Jewish Week

I spent the last couple of days with Avi and Saleh -- had a great time, even took them for falafel at Beyond Pita in Montclair before they flew out of Newark. They were amazing speakers - kudos to Carolyn Slutsky for telling their story.

‘Peace Has To Start Somewhere’ Israeli and Palestinian teens in dialogue program for youth of different faiths hit New York with hopeful message.

Carolyn Slutsky - Staff Writer

Avi Gordis had never been in a mosque and Saleh Alzajary had never been in a synagogue, but both teens, a Jew and a Muslim on opposite sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, had one thing in common: neither had ever been in a church before, either.This past weekend, the 17-year-olds visited two New York churches, along with three synagogues, in order to spread the word about Face to Face/Faith to Faith, a program the two participated in during the summer of 2005.“During prayers at my mosque we don’t talk or sing, so everything was different,” said Alzajary of his experience at St. James’ Church in Manhattan. In honor of All Saints Day the names of those who had died were read, and Saleh found himself moved. The two also visited Central Synagogue, Congregation Rodeph Sholom and Kehilath Jeshurun, speaking to congregants and observing the different religious traditions.Face to Face was started in 2000 to bring students from Israel, Northern Ireland and South Africa together in upstate New York for two weeks in the summer to discuss their conflicts and learn from each other. Students then return to their “homegroups” and continue the work of improving relations between them and helping their communities.Alzajary and Gordis were in New York recently to help the program find donors and supporters as it tries to expand its influence in the New York area, educating congregants and “spreading the word of how you make peace happen” as Rev. Dr. Katharine Henderson, a co-director of Face to Face, put it.“I hope eventually every community in New York City will be able to say ‘We’ve sent a teenager to Face to Face,’” said Rabbi Daniel Brenner, director of the Center for Multifaith Education at Auburn Theological Seminary, which runs the program. “Our mission is that small groups over time can make a big difference. That’s the ethos of the program.”Alzajary and Gordis live a mere five minutes away from each other in Jerusalem, but say they would never have met had it not been for Face to Face. Since returning from the program, the two, together with 10 others in their homegroup, have done volunteer work and created original programs to help their communities. In one such program, one Jewish and one Arab student paired up to take their families on tours of the security fence that separates Jews from Arabs in Jerusalem. “This started a new era where people get involved with each other,” said Alzajary of the families. “Now Israelis and Palestinians don’t mix, but by doing this tour they got a chance to talk to each other and talk about issues.” The families have also been meeting regularly, as have parents in the other conflicted countries when their children have brought the program home. “The parents’ dialogue group is changing the individual but also changing community systems through exposure to the other,” said Rev. Henderson.Back in Jerusalem, Alzajary also visited Gordis’ all-boys Orthodox school, though Gordis worried that his classmates would disrespect Alzajary and didn’t want to put his new friend in a bind.But despite Gordis’ misgivings, his peers were open to meeting Alzajary, and all the boys asked each other difficult questions about their respective places in Israeli society. “I believe Face to Face is the first step toward peace,” said Gordis. “Before [the program] I was afraid of every Palestinian, but after, I started to believe there is hope to end this conflict.”In New York last week, the two spoke to congregants in the various synagogues and churches they visited, talking about the program and its impact on their lives. At Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun, Rabbi Haskel Lookstein said of the encounter, “I think meeting people of good will with whom you do not agree is usually helpful because you see a human side to the other argument.” He said his community received the boys warmly, despite little previous exposure to those from the other side of the conflict. However, while he considers himself an optimist, he sees little hope for a resolution in the near future to the problems plaguing the Israelis and Palestinians.The experience overall, he said, was “good, and very sad.” Gilbert Kahn, a congregant at KJ who learned about Face to Face while working with Auburn Theological Seminary on issues such as divestment and brought the program to the attention of Rabbi Lookstein, said he thought Face to Face was useful and meaningful.“I don’t think anyone’s naïve about what’s going on in the region but [it’s good to] see motivated boys developing friendships,” he said, adding that no one was sweeping any tough issues under the rug in the quest to be friends. “One could become a doctor and one a rosh yeshiva,” he continued about Alzajary and Gordis, “but they’ve touched each other personally as well as substantively.”Rabbi Brenner, Rev. Henderson and others at Auburn hope to grow the program in New York in the coming years, and are recruiting Jewish, Christian and Muslim students from schools in the area. Brick Presbyterian, the other church the boys visited last week, has provided a grant for further interfaith dialogue, and Auburn plans to establish an interfaith youth leadership council soon with this funding. Rabbi Brenner spoke to the long history in Jewish tradition of relating to “the other.” “There are a lot of places within Jewish history that say ‘the Jewish community exists in a wider world and we need to develop an ethic about how we relate to [it],” Brenner said. “Right now … a lot of Jews who are in more traditional Jewish communities need to be given the opportunity to have an encounter with the religious other. I’m very much thinking about how more traditionally raised kids can have safe encounters in which they can articulate their Judaism to the other and listen to the life story of someone who is a Muslim or Christian.”As for the boys, who returned to Israel Tuesday, they know the program will stay with them long after they grow up. Gordis, who will enter the army next year, said, “Face to Face isn’t about having the same opinions and agreeing, but respecting opinions and learning to live with each other.”Alzajary, who will soon be a university student, agreed. “Our group is trying to work toward dialogue rather than demolishing the other side,” he said.And sounding more like the teenager he is, Gordis added, “Me and Saleh are big believers that peace has to start somewhere.”


A Response to "Stem Cells and the Sixth Day of Creation"

There is nothing more gratifying for a writer than to have a total stranger read a piece and respond with both a phone call and another piece of writing. A Texan, Alex Lukats, read my stem cell essay on UPI and called me in my office. Then he sent me a piece that he was inspired to write. He granted me permission to share it with you.

Here it is:

I am in the final stages of multiple sclerosis. What I have ahead of me is possible bladder removal, a feeding tube and a final stay in a nursing home. I have a family too. A wife who goes to work every day, loves me and helps dress me when she can; a mother who has unconditionally loved me from my first day on earth; a sister who is always there for me and a father that fought for me up until the final days of his life.

We have Christian values and believe that God is here to help us in bad times. Every sperm and every ovum do not produce a child. If one or two cells can be salvaged from a disposal and helps to create a modality that may save the little life I have left, there would be no sin committed.

If my own cells are used they may have a genetic defect and just propagate more of the same problems I already have.

Certain people have melded into the religious world and made us think they are our friends. The sad truth is that we are being used and subverted for political ends that have nothing to do with faith or charity. Some think leading is standing in the way and holding on to undeserved power. It is not! It could be a very cruel way of killing the ill and infirmed.

Insurance Companies don’t mind because they don’t have to pay the research, some drug companies don’t mind, some doctors don’t mind because they get to treat symptoms indefinitely and undertakers don’t mind because they will get the business in the end.

If you are lucky enough to have a healthy child think about that child suffering falling onto death in your hands. That is what my mother is doing.

When you go to vote, think about the true family values of that candidate and what they really want and what they have allowed this country to become and where they really want to take us.

Conservatism doesn’t include allowing innocents to die in nursing homes or on endless battlefields fighting endless battles for unwilling peoples.

Alex Lukats