Journey to Jerusalem Reporting on the faiths of the holy land. Wed, 28 Jul 2010 18:50:08 +0000 en hourly 1 Coping with Guilt in the Promise Land Sun, 30 May 2010 16:45:03 +0000 Sanaz Meshkinpour

A man prays inside the dome of the rock (Sanaz Meshkinpour/Journey to Jerusalem)

Written and produced by Sanaz Meshkinpour

As heard on Uptown Radio on April 23, 2010

Guilt is a common thread that’s found in most parent-child relationships. Sanaz Meshkinpour traveled half way across the world to deal with the guilt she’s been living with for years.

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Learning from the Jewish Sabbath Fri, 21 May 2010 16:16:25 +0000 Mariana Cristancho-Ahn

Malchei Yisrael Street in Jerusalem (Mariana Cristancho-Ahn/Journey to Jerusalem)

Before going to Israel for the first time last spring I knew that the Sabbath was the day of rest for observant Jews and that it started at Friday sunset. As a Christian, I read descriptions of it in the Bible. I saw the Sabbath celebration portrayed in movies like “Fiddler on the Roof.” But I didn’t really have a deep personal understanding of what the Shabbat, as it is known in modern Hebrew, was all about.

That was until I had my first Shabbat experience … in Jerusalem and with an Orthodox Jewish roommate.

I spent Friday afternoon watching the rush involved in the Shabbat preparation on the vibrant Malchei Yisrael Street in the heart of a Hasidic neighborhood in Jerusalem.

It was about 2:00 p.m. on a Friday afternoon in the middle of March. The day was sunny, though a bit chilly. Men and women dressed in their distinctive outfits –black suits and hats for men; long sleeved-shirts and modest black skirts for women– seemed to be in a hurry around the shops in the area.

I had decided to dress in a way that would allow me to blend in as much as possible.

Attracted by the upbeat sound of Hebrew music and the smell of fresh bread, I entered a bakery to observe the lively interactions. I noticed that even though customers seemed to be in a rush to have their shopping done, they were very deliberate about looking for the right loaves of bread or selecting the nicest cookies and pastries. The music in the background –Hebrew lyrics I couldn’t understand– created a festive atmosphere.

Aby Bentata, a 32- year-old Orthodox Sephardic Jew from Venezuela, started to talk with me after identifying my Spanish accent in my interaction with the cashier. He asked me if I were Jewish and if I had moved to Israel. I told him that I wasn’t and that I was there as a student of journalism reporting about religion.

I was surprised that he started the conversation. I have heard that in religious Jewish neighborhoods, like the one I was visiting, informal chatting among unrelated men and women was rare. But he was very kind and I took advantage of the opportunity to continue the conversation and ask him about his life in Israel and the Shabbat preparations.

“Every Sabbath it happens like this,” he said. “Every Friday right before Sabbath people try to get the freshest food possible.”

Bentata made what Jews call “aliyah,” meaning he moved permanently to Israel, eight months ago from the U.S. He works as a portfolio manager in Tel Aviv, but he lives in Jerusalem, which he refers to as “a very special city.” He told me he had bought desert cookies for a Shabbat dinner he was going to have with Jewish friends from the U.S. who also made aliyah.

I understood the excitement and preparation on the outside streets but there was another type of preparation that I fund even more interesting. My roommate Yaffi Spodek explained that she was turning off her cell phone and computer for the Sabbath. She explained that she would not be turning lights on and off and that she would not be spending money.

Later in the afternoon our class was getting ready to share in our own Shabbat celebration. Like Yaffi, we left behind our reporting tools –notebooks, cameras, audio recorders– and turned off any electrical devices in observance of the Shabbat rules. At the beginning it felt strange not to be able to physically record in some fashion my memories. Yet, as it turned out, this was one of the evenings that I remember the most from our journey.

As we arrived to the Ades synagogue right before sunset I remember how beautiful it was to experience the quiet surroundings and see the pastel colors of the dusk reflected in the stonewall façades of the constructions around. I was also moved to see people warmly greeting each other in the streets. This scene reminded me of the cozy little towns in Colombia where I grew up.

After prayer time in the synagogue we went for a Kurdish Shabbat dinner at Barashi Synagogue. More than a dinner, this gathering was a feast! We enjoyed delicious Middle Eastern and Kurdish dishes accompanied with wine and even homemade liquors. I kept thinking about
all the preparation that went into having everything ready for our group.

Our Shabbat evening ended with a tisch, a celebration gathering in the home of a Hasidic family. I was deeply touched with the songs they sang that evening. Sometimes at my local church in New York people sing songs in Hebrew that sound very similar to the ones I heard that evening. Once again, despite the language barrier, I felt a strong connection to the melodies.

At the end of the gathering we walked back to the hotel.

Yaffi told me she was going to spend the day with friends in observance of the Sabbath.

What I found the most striking about the Shabbat celebration was that it is not only about the food and making sure the cooking and preparation is done before Friday’s sunset. It is about stepping aside from the demands of the regular workweek and setting aside time for rest and renewal. It is a time to share with family and dear friends, and a time to be closer to God. “We work the whole week to be able to enjoy the Shabbat which is the spiritual day,” Bentata told me.

I believe that in the busy world that we live in, we all –Jews and Gentiles–need this kind of time. I know that there was a time that we Christians were more rigorous in our Sabbath observance. Sunday was a day for church and family meals and not for work or shopping. Sunday is still my spiritual day, but sometimes, in fact most of the time, I find it hard not to sneak in work-related activities. Now that I have experienced the Jewish Sabbath, I think that it has something to teach Christians like me. Maybe I too will begin to give my cellphone and laptop a rest.

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Building Bridges from the Heart Thu, 13 May 2010 19:27:53 +0000 Mariana Cristancho-Ahn

Families at Shevet Achim. Michelle Bradburn, second from the left (Mariana Cristancho-Ahn/Journey to Jerusalem)

JERUSALEM – Um Parwa, the mother of six-year old Kurdish girl known as Parwa, was inconsolable. The mother, dressed in a tunic-style purple dress kept trying to contain herself by rubbing the tears from her eyes with both hands.

Mother and daughter had arrived in Israel in February for what the mother hoped would be life-saving heart surgery for Parwa’s heart. A month later, a delay in the procedure, as well as the separation anxiety from the rest of her children in northern Iraq, was making Um Parwa distressed. Next to her, two volunteers, Donna Taylor-West, 60, and Michelle Bradburn, 19, tried to comfort her. They reminded her that her sacrifice was the only hope to save her daughter’s life.

The opportunity to come to Israel for the surgery – and the support offered while waiting for the operation– was made possible by an organization called Shevet Achim, an Israeli-based Christian organization that helps bring children from Iraq and the Gaza Strip to Israeli hospitals for surgery.

Shevet Achim’s team of eight volunteers and three staff members make the necessary arrangements to bring the children and a parent and host them during the time of the treatment which could take from a couple of months to a year. The accompanying parent is usually the mother and she is so identified with her child that she inevitably becomes known as “um” or “mother of” her daughter rather than by her own name.

The surgeries are performed by Israeli doctors at the Wolfon Medical Center in Holon and at the Schneider Children Medical Center in Petach Tikvah, which hold down the costs to $5,000 to $7,000, a fraction of what they would otherwise cost. The funds are obtained through fundraising campaigns by the hospitals, Shevet Achim and NGOs.

According to the director, Jonathan Miles, 100 children have received heart surgeries and treatments since the organization was founded in 1994.

Taylor-West said that she was moved by the interfaith effort of Christians and Jews working together to save a Muslim life. “It gives me the opportunity to show them the love of Christ through strangers they always heard were their enemies,” she said.

By the middle of March 2010 four Kurdish and two Arab families – mother and child – were staying at Shevet Achim. In the cozy first floor living and dining room the families gather to eat and spend time together. Bradburn speaks some Kurdish and is able to hold basic conversations with them. She also helps translate. A seven-year-old boy named Barzan joined her in singing as the music of a Christian Kurdish song played in the background.

Up in the bedroom children were running amid the two rows of black metal-framed single size beds set side by side. Um Parwa had calmed down and was playing with her daughter. “Since I’ve been here God has given me a heart for the Kurdish people,” Bradburn said. She said she has witnessed amazing transformations.

“When they come here often times their fingers are blue and their lips are blue for having no oxygen,” said Bradburn. “And then you see them after the surgery, if all goes well, they are pink for the fist time, and they start playing.”

Located on Prophet Street, about 10 minutes away by car from Jerusalem’s Old City, Shevet Achim is based in the same historic building that once housed the first children’s hospital in Jerusalem. A plaque outside the stone-walled entrance states that this was the site of the Marienstift Children Hospital, which operated from 1872 to 1899.

Miles, 48, a former journalist and teacher from New York, founded Shevet Achim and moved it into the old hospital building. He took the name from the Hebrew words of Psalm 133, “Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity.”

“I though this passage spoke better about what we are really working at the end,” he said.

Miles, a Christian, has been involved in helping people in the region since 1991. By 1994 he started bringing children from Gaza to have heart surgeries at Israeli hospitals. He lived in the Gaza Strip with his family for five years. Now he lives in Amman where he makes the connections with Iraqi and Kurdish families to bring their children to Israel.

Taylor-West, Bradburn, Miles and other volunteers maintain blogs with updates of the children’s progress on Sheven Achim’s website. According to the blog about Barzan, he recovered and went back home to Iraq on March 26th. Parwa had a successful catheterization on April 7th and went back on April 16th. “I was surprised by the tears from both my coworkers and the traveling moms when it came time to say goodbye,” wrote Taylor-West in the Parwa’s blog under a picture that shows her, Um Parwa and Parwa smiling.

Bradburn says that she is motivated by her Christian faith to do what she does and, while not overtly trying to convert them to Christianity, she hopes the families could eventually get to experience the same understanding of God that she has.

“My greatest joy being here is to see them change physically and get healthier,” said Bradburn, “but most of all, to see them grow in hope, peace and knowledge that God is sovereign, and that he loves them.”

Um Parwa and her daughter (Mariana Cristancho-Ahn/Journey to Jerusalem)

Um Barzan and her son (Mariana Cristancho-Ahn/Journey to Jerusalem)

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Once Left for Dead, Conservative Kibbutz Now Thrives Mon, 10 May 2010 23:46:25 +0000 Josh Tapper

Yaniv Gliksman stands at the site of new housing project at Hanaton (Lim Wui Liang/Journey to Jerusalem)

Nazareth, Israel – Just four years after Kibbutz Hanaton’s population dwindled to 11 and the kibbutz faced bankruptcy, a most unexpected revival has occurred, symbolized by a small tractor clearing a verdant bluff overlooking the Lower Galilee for the construction of 34 houses.

Hanaton, Israel’s only Masorti kibbutz, is back from the brink and thriving, said Yaniv Gliksman, director of operations at Hanaton Educational Center, which offers programming and lodging to local Israelis and tourists. Spurred by the increase in recent years of likeminded native-born Masorti Jews and a shift away from the traditional socialist model, almost 20 new member families will relocate to Hanaton in the coming year.

More familiarly known as Conservative Judaism in North America, Masorti, which means “traditional” in Hebrew, was largely developed by American immigrants in the early 1960s. A pluralistic Jewish movement that emphasizes religious inclusion rather than difference, Masorti as of late has garnered popularity among a more homegrown crowd – at Hanaton, for example, around 75 percent of residents are native-born Israeli.

In a country divided by the religious Orthodox status quo and a vast secular population, the Masorti movement is a blip on a national religious grid that pushes non-Orthodox strains of Judaism to the margins. Even still, Masorti’s egalitarian brand of Judaism is alive and well at Hanaton, which began as an outpost for Conservative American Jews in 1983 and is currently becoming a so-called “renewed kibbutz” – meaning Hanaton is diverging from the kibbutz movement’s traditional economic model of collective subsistence toward a more privatized system.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Israel’s Kibbutz Movement tried and failed to keep Hanaton afloat under the collective model. By 2008, Masorti families began to buy into the kibbutz. Now, for example, Hanaton members own their homes and keep their salaries, but pay dues and collectively own public land and buildings. The kibbutz, once supported by raising sheep and a small rug business, now generates most income from its educational center.

Seventy people live at Hanaton, and while not all identify as Masorti, all alternative forms of Jewish practice are accepted. “When you build an institution like a Conservative kibbutz,” said Rabbi Jerome Epstein, chief Israel affairs officer for United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, “you help bring it away from the margins and into the center.” Mentioned in the Book of Joshua, Hanaton was one of the first cities encountered by the Israelites when they entered Canaan.

Gliksman moved his wife, a clothing designer, and two-year-old triplets to Hanaton from Jerusalem in June 2009. A brawny and deeply tanned 30 year old, Gliksman believes Hanaton can do its part to undermine what many progressive religious Jews consider to be Israel’s ongoing “Haredization” – basically defined as the shift toward stringent Orthodox religious doctrine.

“I think it’s the best place for a Masorti Jew in Israel,” Gliksman, who was born in Jerusalem, said of Hanaton in an email. “It’s important to have Conservative, Reform, and other ways of expressing Judaism, so this diversity will reach all the Jewish citizens of Israel.”

Unlike the United States, where the Conservative and Reform movements dominate the religious landscape, Israel’s rabbinical authority is dogmatically Orthodox. With little political or religious capital, the kibbutz, Epstein said, can be a place for Masorti Jews to foster their own identity.

“When I look at the more dynamic Conservative communities in North America,” he said, “I see communities where there is a nucleus of people living as Conservative Jews, and that nucleus is able to attract others. It’s the same concept with the kibbutz; it can serve as a nucleus that will draw other people in.”

After success throughout the 1980s, the kibbutz began to nosedive financially. With a dwindling population and unable to even sustain a daily minyan, the kibbutz was forced to outsource food production and lease out its fields. By 2006, Hanaton, bruised and broken, was home to only 11 members.

“About three years ago, a decision was made to try and revive it,” said Andrew Sacks, a Jewish Theological Seminary-ordained rabbi and director of the Rabbinical Assembly in Israel. In 2008, the United Kibbutz Movement “offered people the chance to buy homes on the kibbutz and become members for a low cost. All of a sudden, a bunch of committed Masorti Jews, who otherwise wouldn’t have enough money to buy beautiful homes, could try to create a Masorti community that won’t only serve our needs, but serve as a base. And that’s exactly what’s happening now.”

This year marks the 100th anniversary of Israel’s kibbutz movement, which historically was a bastion of secularism, and served as the linchpin of Israel’s early socialist-Zionist movement. Now, according to Haifa University’s Institute for the Research on the Kibbutz, Hanaton is one of 192 kibbutzim – of 256 – that have semi- or fully privatized; collectivized living is becoming a thing of the past.

While Hanaton might be a beacon for liberal-minded, progressive Israeli Jews, it likely won’t prove to be transformational. “I don’t think Hanaton will lead the movement anywhere,” said Sacks, who also writes a Jerusalem Post blog called “Masorti Matters,” “but I have little doubt it has the potential to become well known for its educational offerings and ritual offerings.”

Many in the Masorti movement, Sacks said, are “refugees” from the Orthodox world, meaning their openness is still informed by a strong sense of religious expression and identification. Epstein, on the other hand, suggested many Jews that join the Masorti movement aren’t religiously affiliated and want an experience less demanding than Orthodoxy.

“It is important to us to be accepting and open,” said Rabbi Haviva Ner-David, who moved to Hanaton with her family in July and defines herself as post-denominational, in an email. “We have people who come to shul each week and are very active in that aspect of the community, and we have those who come irregularly. We have people who drive on Shabbat, and people who don’t. Some couples use the mikveh [ritual bath] and some don’t. But everyone agrees on the egalitarian tefillot [prayers] and the open and accepting attitude.”

While the Hanaton closes its gates to traffic for the Sabbath, some residents park their cars outside the kibbutz; and while the kibbutz follows kashrut, not everyone keeps kosher. “It’s a mix,” Ner-David said. “This is a blessing and a challenge. Diversity is good in my opinion. But it does require more tolerance and flexibility on the part of the community members.”

While disparate forms of Jewish observance can co-exist at Hanaton, non-Orthodox strains have a tougher time in the national arena. For example, only 16 kibbutzim are officially considered religious. Hanaton isn’t one of them.

With roughly 50 Masorti congregations nationwide, opportunities for organized practice are few and far between. The Chief Rabbinate of Israel, which regulates aspects of Jewish life – marriage, burial, kashrut – and only recognizes Orthodox conversions and rabbinical ordinations, doesn’t allocate state funds for the Masorti movement. And with a budget that runs around a meager $3 million – most of which comes from the Jewish Agency and congregation dues – it’s difficult for consolidated Masorti communities to take root.

As a result, “it’s much more costly and much less convenient to be Conservative or Reform,” Epstein said. “You can associate with the Orthodox without any expense at all.”

Even still, that Israelis, not Americans, instigated Hanaton’s reincarnation encourages Gliksman. The 200-member strong Be’er Sheva congregation is 75 percent native-born, South American and Russian, according to Sacks, who believes the “overwhelming majority outside of Jerusalem is non-Anglo.” Sacks said he’s the only American-born individual working in the Rabbinical Assembly’s Israel offices.

As Hanaton gets ready to break ground to accommodate its new member families, there’s reason to hope the kibbutz augurs well for the Masorti movement at large. Participating with Yediot Aronoth, a national newspaper, the movement published a Masorti prayer book last December, which, after reaching number four on Israel’s nonfiction bestseller list, is in its second printing.

“I feel the future is bright,” Gliksman said. “The kids of the new immigrants that established the Masorti movement are adults; it’s easier because they are more accepted by Israeli society. It’s important when you hear someone on the news talking about the movement and he does not have an English accent. It may seem right.”

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Demonstrations Break The Silence of an East Jerusalem Neighborhood Thu, 06 May 2010 03:26:13 +0000 Covering Religion Staff By Maia Efrem and Mamta Badkar

Protestors gather outside Sheikh Jarrah, East Jerusalem to oppose the eviction of Palestinian families. (Mamta Badkar/Journey to Jerusalem)

JERUSALEM – On a nippy Friday afternoon early this spring, about 200 protesters gather, as they have every Friday since August 2009, to loudly voice their anger over the  Israeli government’s eviction of several Palestinian families from their homes in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem.

One demonstrator carries a sign that says “Stop the occupation” in green finger paint. Another sign reads: “Peace yes, Apartheid wall no.”

Nearby, a band of drummers and cymbalists lead a noisy song of protest over a gramophone while demonstrators pump their fists into the air, a physical echo of the music.

One protester has attended every protest since January and as a Jew, she is proud to participate in the protests every Friday. “This is a basic human injustice and it’s not just the Arabs that are against it, Israelis are against it too,” she said.

The group that gathers is predominantly secular and Jewish, although there are also a few Arabs and religious Jews, identified by their yarmulkes. The demonstrators include left-wing liberals and former ministers and members of the Knesset such as Avraham Burg, Yossi Sarid, Muhamad Bark’e and Uri Avneri.

Many local Arabs appreciate the support. “There are no problems with us and Jewish people,” said Nabil al-Kurd, 66, whose home in Sheikh Jarrah is the subject of dispute. “Jews come and protest outside. It’s the settlers. It’s not Jews against Muslims,” he said explaining where the conflict lies.

But the term “settler” has different connotations for Israelis and Arabs. For most Israelis, settlers are those who live in settlements in the occupied West Bank. But for Arabs, a settler is also an Israeli who lives in the parts of Jerusalem that were captured during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. The international community refuses to recognize Israel’s annexation of all of Jerusalem.

“There is no relationship between us and the settlers,” said al-Kurd.

For Arabs, settlers include those moving into the old Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood as well as those living in such new Jerusalem communities as Ramat Shlomo.

The recent announcement by the Israeli government that it was preparing to build 1,600 new units in Ramat Shlomo has put a strain on Israel’s relations with its long term ally, the United States. Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met the announcement with emphatic disapproval, both questioning the wisdom of such a move while the United States was trying to get peace talks going between Israelis and Palestinians.

The tensions in Sheikh Jarrah are another flash point that could derail the peace talks. The drama began in August 2009 when the Israeli high court cleared the way for the evacuation of 28 Palestinian homes in the neighborhood. Further court decrees forced 53 people from their homes in August, creating ripples that have escalated to weekly demonstrations outside the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood. Al-Kurd, surrendered the keys to the front section of his house, to the court on November 3, 2009. The Israeli courts gave the homes to Israelis who had competing claims to the properties.

Nabil al-Kurd has had to surrender the keys to the front section of his house to the Israeli High Court. He stands looking towards demonstrators that have gathered outside Sheikh Jarrah every Friday since August 2009. (Mamta Badkar/Journey to Jerusalem)

The eviction orders for the families in Sheikh Jarrah stem from the Sephardic Community Committee and Knesset Yisrael Association’s efforts to have the land registered to them by the Israel Lands Administration. They have since sold their claims to Nahalat Shimon International, a settler organization that plans on building 200 units for future Jewish settlers and park land on the grounds of Sheikh Jarrah.

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency, known as UNRWA, together with the Jordanian Ministry of Development gave Palestinian refugees these homes in 1956 with the proviso that they give up their refugee status and aid. The property rights to the land were to be transferred to the families at the end of three years, according to the UNWRA. The residents are still waiting.

According to the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, the Jordanian government resettled Arabs in Sheikh Jarrah after Jordan annexed East Jerusalem in 1950. Jewish groups have tried to acquire land in the area for settlers since the Six Day War of 1967 when Israel regained control of East Jerusalem.

Israel’s Central Bureau of statistics estimates that the settler population in 2008 excluding East Jerusalem grew at 4.7-percent compared to the general population which increased by 1.6-percent.

Those opposed to the evictions note that the Oslo Peace Accords of 1993 strictly prohibits both parties from engaging in action that might undermine future negotiations on Jerusalem. Furthermore, they note, the United Nations Security Council Resolution 446 forbids Israel from altering the Arab territories, including Jerusalem, and resettling its civilian population into territories that have been occupied since 1967. One Sheikh Jarrah resident, Suzanne Abid, 55, blames the Israeli government for expressly breaking the Oslo and U.N. conditions.

“We have four generations here. From 1973, they’ve said we have this land but they give houses to the settlers coming from outside of Israel,” she said striking her thigh repeatedly. “From the north to the south Palestine is Arab land. Not for Jewish people from Sweden, America, Poland and Germany. This is not their home.”

The hostilities between the Arab and Israeli residents of Sheikh Jarrah wax and wane. “They climbed on the roof and beat up my mother and children,” said al-Kurd of the settlers in his East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah. “She still can’t raise her arm properly,” he said mimicking his mother’s restricted movements, as his grandson ran over to tell him a settler had just spit on the boy’s grandmother.

According to the International Solidarity Movement, al-Kurd was arrested briefly on April 11, when settlers in the neighborhood tried to destroy the property. Both Al-Kurd and the settlers were eventually released without any charges.

The Jewish settlers in the conflicted area have also been privy to violent attacks by Arab residents and left-wing protesters. On April 5, a Jewish settler in Sheikh Jarrah was hurt after a Arab residents threw stones at haredi Jews near the tomb of Shimon Hatzadik. The attacks come a month after 250 protesters made up of both Arabs and Jews attempted to march to the settler homes, chanting anti-occupation slogans. Eight demonstraters were arrested in the clashes between police and the resisting mob of protesters.

Haren Veni and Paula Schwabel Jewish residents of Jerusalem come to Sheikh Jarrah to show their solidarity with the Palestinian families being evicted from their homes. (Mamta Badkar/Journey to Jerusalem)

Israelis in favor of the settlers moving into Sheikh Jarrah attest to their rights to return to Jewish homes which they say belonged to them before the 1948 war, when most Jewish residents fled the area. Those pushing for Jews to reclaim the land, argue that the very essense of zionism is the Jewish people’s assertion of land that has always belonged to them. The fear that other territories, neightborhoods, and even individual homes could face the same plight as Sheikh Jarrah is playing on the minds of protesters on both sides of the fence.

With the protests well under way, Haren Veni a Jewish resident of Jerusalem takes his place to the left of the singing protesters. Wearing a sweater stamped with “Free Sheikh Jarrah,” Veni, 48, leans against a parked car and crosses his arms nodding his head in the direction of the main checkpoint. “Injustice is carried out here. There is no way to justify taking innocent people out their home,” he said, voice raised over the drumming protesters. “We cannot accept this situation of one-sided hate.”

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From the Grave: Pictures from Mamilla Cemetery Tue, 04 May 2010 18:18:35 +0000 Covering Religion Staff By Omar Kasrawi & Sommer Saadi

Read the full Covering Religion article on Mamilla here.

This slideshow shows pictures taken during a recent Al Quds University tour of Mamilla Cemetery.

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Reinterpreting the Crusades Tue, 04 May 2010 16:13:46 +0000 Jose Leyva

Nine centuries ago, the Knights of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem defended the place where Jesus Christ was crucified and buried, fighting the Muslims with their swords, sometimes dying in the battle. Today, however, the order is engaged in a very different kind of effort: fighting to stem the flow of Christians out of Israel.

In the last two years, the society of the knights in New York City raised more than $15 million to support the few remaining Christian communities in the Holy Land. The money goes to monastic orders in Jerusalem such as the Franciscans or the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word, as well as housing and schools for the Christian population in Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian territories.

“Some people envision that some day there will be no followers of Christ in the Holy Land,” said Joseph Spinnato, who is part of the Grand Magisterium, the highest governing body of the order in Rome, directly supervised by the Pope. “That is something that we just don’t want to see”.

The order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem was founded in the 12th Century during the Crusades to protect the Christian presence in Jerusalem, against Muslim attacks. The knights wore a uniform comprised of a white, woolen full cape and a black velvet hat while on duty. The cape had the Jerusalem cross –the group’s insignia– attached to the left breast, below the shoulder. Currently, the membership of the group has expanded to women and members only wear their uniforms during the investiture ceremony.

Every year, around 100 new members join the order in the New York region.

The Roman Catholic order, consisting of 10,000 knights and ladies worldwide, has been trying to reinterpret the ideals of the Crusades from which it originated. The group’s original mission of preserving the faith in the Middle East and defending the Catholic Church in the Holy Land remains the same, but they have changed their approach. Now, even Muslim communities are benefiting from their actions.

“It is very difficult for the Christians to live, to work in Israel.” said Spinnato in an interview in the headquarters of the Hotel Association of New York, where he serves as chief executive officer and president. “The young people leave, the old people stay. And you have families disrupted and separated.”

According to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, Christians constitute 2 percent of the population in the country, and over the past decade their communities have been slowly shrinking. Arab Christians have been migrating to Europe or the United States, plus they tend to have smaller families than other minorities.

On average, 3.5 persons compose Christian households. A Jewish household contains 3.1 people and the Muslim 5.2, according the Central Bureau of Statistics.

“Christian communities are getting smaller, specially the Catholic communities because most of them go to the west and don’t come back.” said Jacob Salami, the director of the Department of Non-Jewish Affairs at the Ministry of the Interior of Israel. “They get married later and don’t have a lot of children.”

Through fundraising events, pilgrimages, and a yearly $400 annual fee, the 1,200 knights and ladies of the Holy Sepulchre in the Eastern Lieutenancy (which includes New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Connecticut) bought a plot of land for 400 Catholic families that were relocating to a small town near Amman, Jordan’s capital.

The order also helped refurbishing the School of the Latin Convent, in Jaffa Nazareth, one of the 44 Catholic schools in Israel, located in a historically Christian enclave, but now predominantly populated by Muslims.

The School of the Latin Convent is about 8 miles from the Basilica of the Annunciation, in Nazareth, northern Israel. Nazareth is one of the holiest sites in the Roman Catholic tradition; Catholics believe that in this city the angel Gabriel told Mary that she would miraculously conceive Jesus, the Son of God.

“We speak the same language, we share the same past and the same future. We are the same people.” said Father Louis Hazboun, the director of the school, during an interview in his office, just across the main hallway of the Latin Convent.

The school has 620 Arab students from kindergarten through junior high school. Two thirds of the children are Muslims, and the rest are Protestant, Greek-Orthodox or Catholic.

“We live together, so we have to include them in our activities, and they also include us in theirs.” said Hazboun, who is also an active member of several interfaith dialogue groups in Israel.

A concrete soccer field serves as the school’s main plaza, separating the classrooms from the school’s church and a smaller chapel. The sounds of the church bells sometimes mix with the Muslim call of prayer while the kids eat lunch, run or play soccer in the main plaza during the noon break. It is impossible to differentiate the kids’ religions. Nevertheless, a crucifix hanging above every classroom’s blackboard, nuns in habits and priests wearing white neck shirts along the hallways and in the administrative offices are a reminder of the school’s origin.

“We know who is Muslim, who is Latin, who is Greek, but it doesn’t matter, we are together all the time, inside the school and outside the school also,” said Jonas, a 12- year-old Catholic student, living just a few blocks from the Latin Convent.

Although the students share most of the curricula, Christians only take the religion class, while the Muslims go to the library, which has a small collection of books and videos of Christian, Muslim and Jewish faiths.

For the Christian celebrations, such as Christmas and Eastern, the Muslims are invited, but not required, to attend the events.

“A lot of the kids participate with us. But the majority prefer to stay in the library or play soccer while we pray.” said Hazboun.

Spinnato and Hazboun agree that running a Catholic school where the majority of the students are Muslims will help to strengthen the ties between two communities, fostering interfaith dialogue and creating better living environment for Christians in Israel.

“It’s a good idea to take Muslim and Christian students together, because they live together,” said Salami, from the Ministry of Interior. “They build their cities, so this is a step of creating more inclusive communities.”

For Spinnato, being part of the order of the Holy Sepulchre gives the members an opportunity to strengthen their faith by being part of an organization with a specific mission, important for the Catholic Church and with clear impact in the Holy Land.

“We just don’t go parading around in fancy robes.” said Spinnato.

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Reflection: Trouble on the Mount Tue, 04 May 2010 04:09:44 +0000 Tammy Mutasa JERICHO – The majestic monastery that stands balanced on the cliffs of the Mount of Temptation overlooking Jericho is one of the Holy Land’s most tempting tourist sites. It is not only the place where an important part of the Christian story was played out; it is also a destination for peoples of many faiths. But not everyone had the same access to the Mount of Temptation on a day when my friend Josh and I visited in the early spring.

A stern monk guarding the Greek Orthodox monastery atop the mountain wagged his finger as we approached the heavy metal door of the monastery and said, “Only Orthodox.”

This was how we were greeted after we had just finished riding a rickety old cable car which I was certain would plunge us hundreds of feet to our death when it became windy on our way up the mountain. After the cable car deposited us near the top of the mountain, we staggered another 20 minutes after up the bare, rocky and steep slopes to the monastery. We were tired; panting for air; and sweaty from the sun beating down on us. Only now to be rejected at the door?

There was no way in hell we were going to let the skinny aging monk stand in the way. For many of us, there was no other time to ever return. Not in the foreseeable future.

The sacred mount is the place Christians believe, as told in Matthew 4:1-4, that the Devil tried to tempt Jesus as he fasted for 40 days and 40 nights before beginning his ministry.

The monastery, with its commanding view of Jericho, sits atop of the actual cave where the temptation happened, according to Christian belief. It was in this spot that the Devil said to Jesus:

“If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But Jesus answered, “It is written, one shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”

This incident is symbolic for me as a Christian because like other places we visited on this trip—the Sea of Galilee, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the Mount of Beatitudes—the Mount of Temptation symbolized a direct and tangible connection to my Christian faith. It is faith manifested. So, to forbid me, as a Christian, to see this holy site is to forbid me from seeing a significant memory of Jesus. It would be ludicrous.

We had to get in.

After the monk ushered in a group of Russian Orthodox Christians staying at the monastery, the rest of us plopped down in front of the metal door and thought:

“Let’s wait it out, the monk will come back.”

At least 30 minutes went by and some of the other Christians grew weary so they thought of another plan: banging on the doors repeatedly. It worked. The cranky monk came to the door—even more irate than before!

Then we begged. One Dutch woman pleaded with the monk—almost kneeling to the ground—“We just want to pray.” I suppose the one thing Orthodox Christians had in common with, “other” Christians, was the deep and inexplicable yearning to pray to the same savior we believed, especially at holy sites. In some way it made us feel closer to our faith.

For a split second—and I mean only a split second—the monk’s heart melted. Finally, he obliged.

With one catch: “Yes Christians, No Arabs.”

As a student of religion, I knew that it was an absurd distinction. While most Arabs are Muslim, many Arabs are Christians and, in fact, many are Greek Orthodox, like the monk. That he wouldn’t let Arabs in was clearly unjust.

Several Arab teenagers had come up the mountain with us and I saw that they were crestfallen. My heart sank. We all stood there confused. Why? We’re all here for the same reason: to see the sacred cave. As Christians, we are supposed to welcome everyone to the house of the Lord, let alone any sacred place Jesus went. I wanted everyone who wanted to physically experience the place of the temptation —whether Christian, Arab or Jew—to see it too. I am Christian yet I had the opportunity to visit Mosques, Synagogues, shrines and holy sites for various religions. Its part of the religious understanding and appreciation I was aching for when I came into the religion class. So for this monk to reject these teens was utterly mortifying.

I was livid. As I stood in the entryway, part of me—the rebellious side of me— wanted to protest that if the Arabs could not go in, I would not either. I looked at Josh, begging him to be rebellious with me, but we both knew better. Was this really the time to barter with a power-hungry cranky monk after everything we had done just to get to the top of the mount?

I thought of the rickety old cable car.

The choice was difficult but clear.

A fleeting moment of guilt overcame me as the monk slammed the thick door with a bang in the faces of the Arab teenagers.

But I was able to put my guilty feelings on hold as I stepped into the cave. It was dimly lit with the flickering glow of candles. Gold, blue and red icons of Jesus decorated the compact, eerie space.

The cave in its natural and pure form brought to life another journey and a sacrifice Jesus made. The temptation of Jesus by the Devil became a part of his legend in Christianity. It was a far cry from mine. It being Lent, I was fasting from chocolate and sweets for 40 days and 40 nights—and was quite unsuccessful when it came to resisting Baklava. Yet Jesus ate no food, prayed in this tiny dark, damp cave for 40 days and 40 nights; defying Satan.

A sense of overwhelming gratitude fell over me. Not even my family, my friends or my relatives dead and alive were lucky enough to see this. Not even my mother who always taught us the Biblical versus surrounding the temptation of Jesus. None of them had been here.

Then I thought of my new friend Josh whom I was sharing the moment with —a Jew who was just as over-zealous as I to see Jericho and this cave. Then my mind turned to the Arab teenagers who had sacrificed their day and their aching legs. They trekked up the mountain with the same hopes that we had. The world is so divided, so bigoted, so broken, I thought. And I cried.

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Breaking the ice with JMI students Tue, 04 May 2010 03:12:40 +0000 Mariana Cristancho-Ahn

JMI and Columbia students at King Hussein Mosque in Jordan (Mariana Cristancho-Ahn/Journey to Jerusalem)

AMMAN – We heard a great deal about the Jordan Media Institute before we left New York for Amman. We knew that it was the newest journalism school in Jordan, that it had the support of the Royal Family and that it was popularly known as JMI. What I didn’t know was the most appropriate way to greet the students. I figured that it was best just to nod politely to the men, but what about the women?

Our first encounter came on a bright sunny day in Amman, the morning after our arrival in the city. We were outside the majestic King Hussein Mosque, and the other women of the class and I had just put on the white outfits –long skirts and veils– that we were given as a gift from JMI so we could dress modestly during our visit to the mosque.

We were waiting for our Muslim classmates, the only ones from our group allowed to stay inside the mosque during the prayer time. One of them, Sommer, came back and introduced us to a group of six women from JMI. I didn’t know whether to give each of them a handshake, a kiss on the cheek, a hug, or just acknowledge them by bowing my head with a smile. Not knowing what to do, I opted for the last option.

As we informally introduced ourselves and started talking about our experiences as journalism students, I felt an immediate connection. One of the students named Saba Abufarha kindly fixed my veil making sure my hair didn’t show on my forehead. She and the other JMI women were wearing hijabs, the traditional Muslim headscarves.

After a few minutes, we were summoned into the mosque for a presentation. Since there were no prayers at this time, men and women were allowed to be in the same room. We were taking notes and pictures of the event. Saba and I sat together on the carpeted floor. During the lecture, when someone asked a question in Arabic and no one translated, Saba helped me with the translation. At the end of the presentation when water and dates were passed around – a traditional Muslim gesture to guests– Saba made sure that I took some. Her small but thoughtful gestures made me feel welcome.

Later in the day, as our class departed for a reporting walk in the streets of Amman, the JMI students escorted us and became our personal tour guides. We had less than two hours before having to catch the bus back to the hotel. It was a privilege being with people who knew the city so well.

I met with Saba again and, as I start walking with her, I felt I was in the company of a good old friend. As we passed through shops she showed me the traditional Jordanian outfits for women consisting of one-piece black dresses with intricate embroidery. She took me to a music store and introduced me to the songs of Egyptian singer Mohamed Abdel Wahab, a musician she and the store clerk said was the most popular in the Arab world. Saba bought a couple of CDs for me. I was touched by her kindness.

In the rush of trying to make the most of the time we had, Saba took me to visit the oldest town house in Jordan which is now a museum and cultural center. A mosaic painting of former King Hussein of Jordan adorned the main room. We had tea in the balcony of the museum overlooking a bookshop with a big poster showing Queen Rania visiting the bookstore and a similar one of King Abdullah.

Since it was getting late for me to meet with the rest of my class Saba suggested I make arrangements for her friends to take me back to the hotel. I agreed as long as my class was informed. She made a couple of phone calls and said I was fine.

As we left the museum and rushed to meet with her friends, Saba indicated to me to grab her upper arm as we crossed the busy streets. Earlier I had been alerted about the lack of pedestrian crossings in the streets of Amman. Crossing them with Saba and seeing how she sometimes urged the cars to stop by raising her hand was both impressive and scary.

Jordan Media Institute students. Saba Abufarha on the far left (Courtesy JMI/Journey to Jerusalem)

The Columbia and JMI students dined together that night at our hotel. As we ate from a tasty Jordanian style buffet, we talked about many different things. Among those at my table were Saba, Basima Tantour and Abeer Al-Kalouti. Abeer was interested in knowing about how it would be for a Muslim woman to study in the U.S. I told her about the Muslim students I have met at the school including a female Jordanian journalism student.

Saba and our teaching assistant, Cynthia Bernstein, found a subject of common interest: human rights. As they were talking about the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, Saba expressed her deep disappointment with Israeli policies, and said that she’d never visit Israel or talk to a Jewish person about it. Nonetheless, such a conversation was just taking place.

As an observant Jew, Cynthia shared with Saba her views about Israel and its importance for her, her family and the Jewish people. She also agreed with Saba regarding the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, and how she thinks not all Israeli policies have been perfect. The discussion was educational for those at the table. Without realizing it we were conducting some type of interfaith dialogue.

At the end of the evening we took some pictures and exchanged our contact information.
I said good-bye to the JMI women at my table, but this time in a very Jordanian fashion: with a hug and kiss on the cheek for each of them.

JMI Program Manager Rania Barakat (Mariana Cristancho-Ahn/Journey to Jerusalem)

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Mamilla Cemetery: The price of tolerance Mon, 03 May 2010 04:45:30 +0000 Covering Religion Staff Story by Omar Kasrawi and Sommer Saadi

An Accompanying slide show of Mamilla Cemetery can be found here.

Rawan Dajani outside her ancestor's mausoleum in Mamilla. (Omar Kasrawi/Journey to Jerusalem)

JERUSALEM — Standing outside a mausoleum in Jerusalem’s Mamilla cemetery, Rawan Dajani bows her head and cups her hands upwards. Silently she mouths the words of the Quran’s first chapter, “In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful. Praise be to Allah, Lord of the worlds.” The prayer is for her ancestor Sheikh Ahmed Dajani, who was buried in Mamilla, the oldest Muslim burial ground in Jerusalem, nearly half a millennia ago.

Approximately 200 meters away, a fenced off construction zone marks the future site of the California-based Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Center for Human Dignity–Museum of Tolerance. In 2002 the City of Jerusalem allotted the Center land that is considered part of the cemetery, according to a 1936 governmental survey map. The Center will focus on “issues of global anti-Semitism, extremism and human dignity,” according to the Museum’s website.

The Center broke ground in 2004, and construction has displaced hundreds of Muslim graves dating as far back as the 7th century. The human remains were discovered during an archeological dig, referred to as a “salvage excavation,” before building began. Salvage excavations are conducted by the Israel Antiquities Authority to document and rescue antiquities prior to construction operations.

The controversy surrounding Mamilla cemetery is not unique in Israel. Protests have been held against many construction plans because of concerns that gravesites will be desecrated. Ultra-Orthodox Jewish groups have especially taken up this cause, like in the recent case of the Barzalai Medical Center in Ashkelon, where groups have protested the construction of an emergency ward on top of a Jewish cemetery.

Sometimes building plans are halted and diverted and sometimes they go ahead despite the protests, like in the case of Ashkelon. In a recent decision, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reversed plans to have the ward relocated, citing security and economic concerns.

What is unusual about Mamilla, however, is that because the controversy involves a Jewish organization and a Muslim gravesite in Jerusalem, it’s more an issue of foreign policy than domestic policy.

The Wiesenthal project is the latest among several that have encroached upon the Mamilla cemetery. It has provoked petitions from Palestinian descendants of the buried, as well as such groups as Rabbis for Human Rights and the Center for Jewish Pluralism. Dajani, whose family’s name is prominent in Palestine, is one of those petitioners.

“I feel like I have lots of energy to do something” about the construction, said Dajani, 26, who works at Al-Quds University. “But at the end I understand that this is very difficult. The Israelis will not let us do anything easily.”

Protest efforts include restoring headstones and circulating petitions designed to pressure the Israeli government and the Wiesenthal Center into halting construction. One such petition, sponsored by the Campaign to Preserve Mamilla Jerusalem Cemetery, has reached the United Nations Human Rights Council.

The council passed a resolution on March 24 that “expresses its grave concern at the excavation of ancient tombs” and “calls upon the government of Israel to immediately desist from such illegal activities.” The resolution passed 31 to 10 with six abstentions, and among the 10 naysayers were the U.S. and several European nations.

“This is a small victory, but it’s important to get this language on the books,” said Dima Khalidi, legal counsel for the families who signed the petition. “This shows that it’s a human rights violation not an isolated denial of Palestinian rights.”

However, Wiesenthal Center leaders believe that the UN Human Rights Council decision holds no legitimacy.

“The council is just a template for Israel bashing,” said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean at the Simon Wiesenthal Center. “You have pretty much the kangaroo court. Israel is the only nation on the planet that is exclusively singled out by that august body.”

The cemetery’s controversial history can be traced to the building of the Palace Hotel in 1929. The Mufti of Jerusalem, who commissioned the hotel, kept secret the discovery of graves during construction, according to Israeli historian Tom Segev in his book One Palestine, Complete. Petitioners argue, however, that the Palace hotel was never within the cemetery boundaries defined during Ottoman rule in the 1860s.

Despite its designation as an antiquities site in 1944 by the British Mandate, several projects have continued to encroach upon the cemetery grounds located in western Jerusalem. These include Independence Park built in the 1960s, a parking lot built in 1964, the building of access roads and the laying of electric cables.

The fact that there have been other things built in the area is part of the Weisenthal Center’s rationale for building the Museum of Tolerance. Supporters of the center argue that Muslims in both Palestinian territories and the Arab world have built roads, commercial centers and public buildings on their own cemeteries.

“It is preposterous to hold the Center for Human Dignity to a higher standard than the Muslims adhere to themselves,” reads the Wiesenthal website.

The Wiesenthal Center also cites several additional factors in support of its construction plan: a lack of protests against the previous construction, the failure to file proper objections at city council meetings and the 1964 declaration by a Muslim judge that the cemetery was no longer sanctified. Additionally, the Center argues that the museum is not even being built on the cemetery, but rather on the adjacent municipal car park. Last December, the Israeli Supreme Court upheld the ruling that construction could continue.

In response, Palestinians say there have been protests since the 1960s. They also say that the Muslim judge’s ruling was invalid because evidence from recent excavations proves there were still bones under the parking lot, a conclusion supported by the Shariaa High Court of Appeals, which filed a letter outlining that defense to the Israel-Palestine Center for Research and Information sometime after February 2006.

Gideon Sulimani, chief archaeologist in charge of excavating the museum site, discovered more than 200 bodies during the dig in 2005. Sulimani was appointed by the Israel Antiquities Authority, a governmental body tasked with preserving the integrity of historical sites. Sulimani says they only excavated 10 percent of the area and estimates up to 1,000 bodies may remain buried. He recommended the site not be released for construction because of the discovery of those bodies. Regardless, he says in his affidavit, the Antiquities Authorities informed the Supreme Court “almost the entire area of excavation had been cleared for construction because it contains no further scientific data.”

“It’s part of the conflict about who owns the land,” Sulimani said. “It’s not archaeology. It’s not science. They want to move away the Muslim memory of the area to make it Jewish. So it’s totally politics.”

According to its website, the Israel Antiquities Authority could require a construction site to move, depending on an excavation’s findings, but that such a change is “quite rare.” In most cases “the IAA will permit work to continue, with the exception of the section destined for rebuilding, which will be completely excavated, documented and finds removed from the site prior to its destruction.”

The Antiquities Authority did not respond to repeated attempts for a comment specific to the Mamilla case.

Protest leaders say the cemetery is a clear example of the deep Palestinian roots in Jerusalem, and that construction on top of the cemetery is an attempt by the Israeli government to minimize the Palestinian identity. Jerusalemite families have been buried in the cemetery for the past 1,000 years, and archeological evidence supports the claim that the remains of soldiers and officials of the Muslim ruler Saladin are among the buried.

Some of the Palestinians involved believe that the planned construction cannot be stopped but are hopeful that even as the new museum rises, their efforts will bring some acknowledgment to the Muslim burial ground that once stood on the site. According to Diyala Husseini Dajani, an active protestor with family ties to Mamilla, nearly $18,000 was raised to support a memorial wall that will display the names of everyone buried in the cemetery.  At the very least, she maintains that such a wall will restore the Palestinian presence to the area.

“It’s not that I’m concerned about the graves as much as I’m concerned about the fact that we don’t exist” to the Israelis, Husseini said. “We are maybe just souls–like those in the graveyard.”

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