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.”