Daily Dispatch: March 17, 2010

By Sanaz Meshkinpour

A gardener trims the bushes at the Baha'i Shrine in Acco. (Mamta Badkar/Journey to Jerusalem)

JERUSALEM — Ever since we arrived in the north of Israel on Monday, the news from Jerusalem was grim. Palestinians angry over the building of new Jewish homes and over the re-opening of an old synagogue were clashing violently with Israeli police. Jerusalem was our destination on Wednesday and we approached it with a combination of fear and excitement.

But before we got to Jerusalem, we had a meeting at Kibbutz Hanaton in the rolling hills of the Galilee where we witnessed a religious encounter of a very different kind. Here, rabbis, imams, priests and ministers gathered for lunch, study and reflection as they do every few months.

We were invited to join the interfaith gathering and our guide, Ophir Yarden, made a point of dividing us among the tables so that we could talk to the participants over lunch. He made sure there was a Hebrew speaker at every table to help translate the conversation. Carolyn Phenicie sat at a table with a rabbi and two priests from the Eastern Catholic Church–a sect where non-monastic clergy can marry. While many of us are still struggling to learn the differences between each sect, Phenicie said, “it was really interesting to see that these leaders had basic questions too.”

Rabbi Ron Kronish, one of the organizers of the lunch, explained that things are very different in the Galile than in hotspots like Jerusalem. “I feel the Galilee is the lab of what Israel would be like if we get it right,” he said.

It is a story that is rarely told but one that we got to see first hand. After the lunch, the clergy gathered in the synagogue of the kibbutz to study religious texts together and we had an opportunity to learn about the kibbutz community.

Yaniv Gliksman, the director of the Hanaton Educational Center, told us that the kibbutz, which identifies with the Conservative movement in Judaism, has been struggling to expand beyond its core group of 25 families. He said he regularly meets with new families interested in joining the kibbutz and hopes to more than double the size in the next few years.

Kibbutz Hanaton was actually our third stop of the day.

The day began with an early wake-up call in our rooms at Kibbutz Lavi Guest House in Tiberias. From there, we drove toward the port city of Acco, stopping first at the gardens and shrine of the Baha’i prophet, Bahaullah.

Bahaullah is the most important prophet for the Baha’i, and his shrine is the holiest place in the faith. When all around the world the Baha’i pray, they pray toward this shrine in Acco.

Bahaullah was born in Tehran, Iran, in 1817. He was a follower of the message of the Bab–announcing the imminent arrival of a new prophet to follow in the footsteps of Moses, Buddha, Jesus and Mohammed. He endured long periods of imprisonment, torture and exile. While in prison in 1863, he announced that he was the prophet promised by the Bab. Bahuallah was eventually exiled to the penal colony of Acco.

Although there is no Baha’i community within Israel, nearly 600 volunteers maintain the faith’s holy sites in the country, the one here and another in Haifa. After walking through the elaborate gardens that surround the shrine, we met the caretaker, Rustam, who was introduced to us by his first name. Rustam, 69, asked us to leave our shoes at the door, and walk into the building in silence. Ten years ago, he left a career as an orthopedic surgeon in London, to live on the grounds and welcome guests.

“Being in a very spiritual place, we know and we feel the power of the spirit of the prophet all around us,” Rustam said. “All the time that we are here, one feels overwhelmed.”

Liang, who covered the Baha’i faith in New York, was struck by the sprawling gardens surrounding the shrine. “To be honest, the beauty of the gardens has more of an impact on me,” he said.

Rob Weinberg of Bahai International said the gardens were meant to portray a tranquil image of what the world could be if mankind could work together toward peace.

Our next stop was the Al-Jazar Mosque in the Old City of Acco where we met the senior imam, Sheikh Samir Assi. Assi described both successes and failures at promoting interfaith dialogue. Assi quoted a passage from the Quran about Cain and Abel. “If you extend your hand to kill me, I am not extending my hand to kill you. For I revere God, Lord of the universe [5:28].”

He pointed out that Islam has plenty of examples of peace and nonviolence. And he went on to tell a story about a neighbor who never responded to Assi’s daily and persistent greetings. One night, Assi said, he helped the neighbor open a jammed front door, and the two have been friends ever since.

Throughout the trip, a number of students have expressed frustration about not always being able to connect the dots between theology and every day practice. For Sommer, who also interviewed Assi following the group meeting, this conversation resonated with her because Assi used concrete examples.

“Tell me how you practice these ideas in your everyday life,” she said. “I appreciated the Cain and Abel story, but the real message was that he helped his neighbor.”

It wasn’t until late Wednesday, as night began to fall, that we arrived in Jerusalem. The bus took us to the Mount of Olives where we could see the setting sun reflect off of the Dome of the Rock—or Haram a-Sharif—and create a golden hue over the old city.

From our vantage point above the city, we could see most of the places that we have been reading about both in our textbooks and in the newspapers: the Dome of the Rock, Al Aqsa Mosque, the Western Wall and the Hurva Synagogue.

“I always wondered why people fight so much over such a tiny space,” Mamta said. “But when we got here, it made sense. Everything we have been reading and studying about was right in front of me. I understand why it’s so real to people here.”

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