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Photos: Beit HaGefen Arab-Jewish Cultural Center
People dance in the streets of the mostly Arab neighborhood of Wadi Nisnas in Haifa, Israel, for the 25th Holiday of Holidays festival, which celebrates religious diversity.

Most days, I find news about Israel completely depressing. Then along comes a story about an annual three-religion celebration there, and I’m reminded that not everyone associated with the 70-year-old nation and its neighbors is keen on in endless war.

Dina Kraft writes at the Christian Science Monitor. “In the port city of Haifa, two young art curators, one Jewish and one a Palestinian citizen of Israel, are dealing with something decidedly less fraught [than the daily news]: They are planning the logistics of an art installation that will include 88 pounds of white pepper, za’atar, sumac, and ginger.

“The piece is an exploration of what notions of ‘home’ mean, a loaded concept in a land claimed by two peoples. It is planned as a centerpiece of a new art exhibition for the Holiday of Holidays, the only event of its kind in Israel and a rare celebration of religious and cultural diversity in the fractious Middle East. The festival honors Christmas, Hanukkah, and Muslim traditions over three weekends in December in a gathering that is part block party, part intercultural artistic extravaganza. …

“Every year there is a different theme and this one is ‘the third dimension,’ an invitation to look at what happens when different cultures and identities influence each other to create something new – a hybrid space – as Yael Messer describes it. Ms. Messer is curator of the art gallery run by the Beit HaGefen Arab-Jewish Cultural Center. Messer, who is Jewish, is going over plans with Haneen Abed, her deputy, a Palestinian Israeli, in their shared office. The staff of the center is made up of both Arab and Jewish citizens of Israel.

“The story of the Holiday of Holidays is also the story of Haifa, Israel’s third-largest city. Haifa likes to bill itself – though not without criticism – as the country’s capital of coexistence, a place where Jewish and Arab residents live more integrated lives.

“Across the country, most Jews and Arabs live separately even in so-called mixed towns and cities, such as Haifa, where the two groups usually inhabit different neighborhoods. Social interaction is especially rare.

“But the festival brings together people from both sides of the demographic divide to dance to music performed on outdoor stages, on streets festooned with holiday lights. Arabs and Jews together follow the path of food and literary tours through the alleyways and streets of the mostly Arab neighborhood of Wadi Nisnas, eating local offerings like hummus and baklava at food stalls and attending concerts of liturgical music at churches. The massive undertaking is organized by Beit HaGefen and funded by the city of Haifa.

“Upstairs from Messer and Ms. Abed, their colleague Hila Goshen, the cultural director of Beit HaGefen, has her laptop open to a color-coded schedule of the festival’s events.

“ ‘It seems like every year there is some war, or military operation, or suicide bombing that happens [during the planning season] and we ask, “What are we doing, bringing people together to hear music and hear each other?” ‘ says Ms. Goshen. ‘And then the festival happens and this place looks like the most normal place on earth. The magic happens.’ …

“She says the example of the gathering, brief as it is, shows this concept of shared society, a place where Arabs and Jews can live together and lead equal lives.

“ ‘I know all our issues are not being solved in this festival,’ she says. ‘But even having this kind of exposure to thinking a little bit differently is a seed we have to plant.’

“Some critics believe this is gauzy naiveté. They argue that people really come to the festival for the food, not the message of unity. But [Asaf Ron, the director of Beit HaGefen,] disagrees.

“ ‘I don’t think people come for the hummus or the knafeh,’ he says. ‘I think they come for the hope.’ ”

More at the Christian Science Monitor, here. Check out past posts about the three religions interacting as the Daughters of Abraham, here, and in the pliable time of youth, here.

And for extra inspiration, click here to learn about the Parents Circle Family Forum, a beacon of light in Israel that brings together the bereaved on both sides of the conflict who understand that ending it can only come from the ground up.

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I was so happy to get this hopeful update on Kids4Peace Boston today.

“For a while last summer, as violence escalated in Israel/Palestine, the possibility of Israeli, Palestinian and US youth coming together for a Kids4Peace camp seemed pretty unlikely.

“But despite countless barriers and uncertainties, all 25 young leaders — Muslims, Christians and Jews from Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Boston — did make it to be together on that beautiful mountaintop in New Hampshire. …

“Being in the presence of one another and listening, really listening, to each other’s stories is the crucial first step in the Kids4Peace experience.

” ‘I came to Kids4Peace to try and understand the different viewpoints that each kid has. Some people don’t understand that someone with a different opinion than you can be right without making you wrong.’
~Participant from Boston

“In the midst of violence, in the midst of despair, there are people who turn towards each other rather than away. This summer 25 peace leaders and their families proved that they are the kind of people who choose to turn towards. These young leaders walked away from camp feeling empowered by and connected to others who believe, as they do, that together peace is possible.

” ‘To be a peacemaker is to hold our hands together, and to help each other not killing each other, to treat each other as humans.’ 
~Participant from Jerusalem”

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Last night I went to a jazz benefit for the nonprofit Kids4Peace Boston, which sponsors a summer camp and other events for children of three faiths — Christian, Muslim, and Jewish. The children are from both the United States and Jerusalem and are 11 to 12. Read more about the program here.

The fundraising event was held in the Grand Circle Gallery in Boston, which features magnificent travel posters and travel photography from the 1930s and 1940s. The entertainment was provided by Indian vocalist Annette Philip and her jazz quartet. Very impressive.

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A while back I blogged about the book groups called Daughters of Abraham, involving women from three related religions: Muslim, Jewish, Christian. I mentioned that I had met book group participant Heidi, who founded something similar for children, Kids4Peace.

Today I thought I would check back to see what Heidi’s organization has been up to, and I was led to a delightful blog on the first Kids4Peace summer camp. Here’s a taste.

“July 11, 2011 — This morning there was basketball before breakfast! The Christian children had prepared a Sunday morning service for us with the Reverend Josh Thomas, Executive Director of Kids4Peace USA, presiding. The Muslim and Jewish children had many questions after the service and the Christian children were able to answer many of them. In the afternoon, we had our choice of activities with other campers whom we hadn’t met before. Choices included archery, windsurfing, arts and crafts, drama, and woodworking.”

A different sort of project took the Kids4Peace folks to the Interfaith Youth Service Day at the Swedenborgian Church on the Hill (Beacon Hill, Boston). Heidi wrote me that Kids4Peace organized “a program geared towards children under 12 (the older kids did outdoor service projects). We created 40 toiletry kits, cards and scarves to be donated to a women and children’s shelter in Boston.” Read about it here.


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When my daughter-in-law was about to be a mom and present me with my first grandchild,

her sisters gave her a lovely baby shower.

A couple of the women I spoke to there told me about a book group they enjoyed called Daughters of Abraham, located in a number of towns. As the organization’s website says, they are “a group of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim women who want to deepen our knowledge of our own and one another’s faiths. By reading books that teach us about each other’s faith traditions and learning about the practice of our respective faiths, we hope to increase our respect for all the Abrahamic religions. We are committed to building relationships among us.” They find that reading books and sharing the perspectives and insights from their different backgrounds is rewarding and fun.

One of the women had gone on to found a nonprofit that does something similar for the children of the three traditions. “Kids 4 Peace Boston is an interfaith, nonpolitical organization of Jews, Christians, and Muslims that fosters friendship, understanding, and respect among children and families in the Boston area, and hosts children [of our three faiths from Jerusalem] in a summer program. … Kids4Peace Boston practices hospitality — a shared value of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  We strive to create a place where faith and friendship thrive.”

I have been trying to interest the religious education director at my church to bring in the woman I met at the baby shower to talk about the Kids 4 Peace program.

Please send comments to suzannesmom@lunaandstella.com. Suzanne is the founder of the birthstone jewelry company Luna & Stella. She asked me to do a blog and write about anything I felt like writing about, which is exactly what I have been doing. Thanks for visiting.

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