Thanks to our TY member and Cohen School teacher, David Wasser, I had the pleasure and challenge of speaking at the Moses Brown TEDx event last night. My mission: to sum up some aspect of my journey to Israel with Imam Farid Ansari and Reverend Dr. Donald Anderson . . . in 12 minutes! This is my TEDx talk . . . an apt topic, indeed, for this week's Torah portion as we contemplate the significance of Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, and their offspring for our own lives.
A rabbi, an imam and a minister get on an airplane: sounds a bit like a joke . . . mostly we three companions have been on a journey of exploration and bridge-building and assumption blasting that has literally taken us places we never expected to go . . . . together. So, not a joke, but a lot of laughing has been involved.
The imam is Imam Farid Ansari a six-foot-something American born black guy who is an ex New York City cop and now serves as the spiritual leader of the Muslim-American Dawah Center of Providence and is the head of the Rhode Island Council for Muslim Advancement.
The minister is the Reverend Dr. Donald Anderson, a few inches short of six foot American white guy from a family of Swedish immigrants who is a born and bred Rhody, an American Baptist Minister and is the Executive Minister of the Rhode Island State Council of Churches.
I am Amy Levin, a nice, short, middle-aged Jewish lady from New Jersey.
We three learn from each other all the time . . . we meet for diner breakfasts and scheme together and debate with each other and inch by inch have edged away from assumptions and caution to trust. Through the friendship and integrity of these two men have taught me that it’s ok to question my long-standing assumptions and to step out of my safe space.
My first ten years of life, my family lived in a mixed catholic and black neighborhood of East Orange, New Jersey. On my way home from elementary school, the Catholic kids from the parochial school that lay between my public school and our garden apartment, used to chase me into the neighborhood alleys calling me "dirty Jew" and scaring the bejabbers out of me. Christmas and Easter were not happy associations for me, they were, instead, reminders of my "different-ness."
My husband, baby daughter and I moved to Israel in September 1981. The first week we were there, I walked past the main department store in downtown Jerusalem. The window display declared in huge letters and lots of sparkle: Shanah Tovah! Happy New Year! Referring to the impending holy day of Rosh Hashanah . . . . Not the secular calendar date of January 1st. I wasn't in Kansas anymore. I wasn't in suburban New Jersey anymore. I was part of the majority culture for the first time on my life! I relaxed in a way I never had back in the States. Now the people around me were going to be celebrating my holidays, school vacations were going to coincide with my festivals, restaurants were going to be kosher wherever I went . . .
Being not-the-minority was a revelation. Through the twenty years of living in Israel, which included lots of economic and social challenges, I never lost the sense that I was where I belonged, I was in my place and the people around me were my people.
. . . . For the most part . . . I was living in a rather siloed culture, in the middle of western Jerusalem. But I did have a few encounters with my Arab neighbors ... Before the first intifada (which began in 1987), my daughter and I would encounter Arab moms and kids from the Arab village across the road at the playground that lay between a Jewish and an Arab neighborhood. The kids played together. One day, a young Arab mom offered me a fresh almond from a little bag she brought to the playground. But encounters like that disappeared . . . a fence was built alongside the Arab side of the playground . . . when the intifada began.
After the intifada began . . . our apartment building was at the edge of our Jewish neighborhood. Across the street was a bare hill and in the valley over that hill was an Arab village. And one evening, coming home late from work, I got out of my car and a rock came sailing over the hill at me. And another one. It took me a minute to realize what was happening . . . and then I ducked behind my car and yelled (in Hebrew) “I didn’t do anything to you!”
So, my inclination was to stick to my Jerusalem: the part of the Jerusalem that speaks Hebrews and closes school for Hanukah and empties the bread shelves during Passover. For the girl that used to be chased home being called “dirty Jew,” it was a whole new experience being surrounded and protected by “my own.”
And then a dozen or so years after leaving Israel, I’m sitting at a Providence diner with a minister and an imam . . . not my natural comfort zone people. We began with the premise that all three of our faith communities are co-existing in Rhode Island and we should try to deepen the interfaith conversation since we’re all here anyway.
Our diner conversations led to join press conferences where we have stood together for mutual respect between our communities, compassion and peace in the Middle East. We brought an exhibit about the history of Islam in the United States to Rhode Island.
And then we we were invited to speak at a symposium in Jerusalem about green and sustainable pilgrimage. We were billed as the “collaborating clergy” . . . as we planned our presentation we began to realize how far we’d come, how much trust had grown between us and how odd it seemed that our collaboration was such an extraordinary thing that we had to be imported to Jerusalem from Rhode Island to explain how we do it.
Rhode Island, with Roger Williams’ legacy of religious liberty, is a very conducive place to build bridges between religious leaders and religious communities like those that Don and Farid and I have built.
The first place we visited was a baptismal site on the western bank of the Jordan River . . . As we followed the slope down toward the river we came to a wooden boardwalk on which several groups of Christian pilgrims from Africa and Asia and Latin America and Europe were each gathered, readying themselves for immersion in the Jordan. As an Israeli living in Jerusalem, I would note the turn from winter to spring by the sudden spurt of tour busses on the streets . . . including those carrying Christian groups . . . but I’d never witnessed the reverence of Christians for the Holy Land that I had only experienced as my Jewish Holy Land.
We then moved on to the mosque of Nebi Musa . . . which is Arabic for mosque of the Prophet Moses . . . which should sound a bit like the Hebrew the Navi Moshe . . . . and Don and I watched as Farid reverently bathed his feet and disappeared inside the mosque to pray. Farid emerged from the mosque, and we returned to Jerusalem.
Even though I am the one with the Israeli ID card, each of my travel buddies had connected to places in my land to which I could only be a visitor. I had been so focused on our role at the symposium, our travel arrangements and accommodations, that I really hadn’t thought that much about what the experience of moving through Israel with a faithful Muslim and a faithful Christian would be like. That first day, I gained an appreciation for the significance of this land in the faith traditions of my friends . . . but I still held on to a sense of ownership, I felt as though I was offering the gifts of unique experiences to my friends.
Over the next few days, as we engaged with the participants of the symposium, I became the humble tourist: Don and Farid were embraced and welcomed by the Christian and Muslim communities of Jerusalem’s Old City and villages on the West Bank of the Jordan River . . . they went to places I could not go and they came back with beautiful stories about warm welcomes and meals at family tables. I wasn’t the only one welcoming them to Israel and showing them around any more . . . I was sharing the privilege and watching their spiritual enrichment from the sidelines.
Don and Farid showed me facets of my own country that I had totally missed because of politics and wariness and my own enjoyment of being part of the majority for a change.
Abraham, the biblical Abraham. His name, translated from the Hebrew means “father of many peoples.” We keep forgetting that. I was trying to own Abraham in a rather exclusive deal until I travelled to the land of Abraham with two other of Abraham’s children: there is so much more truth in the expanded family of Abraham’s children, of Jews and Christians and Muslims. The Torah recounts the moment of God’s blessing to Abraham: the original Hebrew is: vnivr’chu b’cha kol goyei ha’aretz . . . all the nations of the land will be blessed through you. All the nations of the land . . .
It’s more than ok to let go of the assumptions that you may think are providing you with a sense of security and a sense of place. Find yourself some out of the box true friends and give yourself the gift of a new perspective and a new humility.
Rabbi Amy Levin
has been Torat Yisrael's rabbi since the summer of 2004 and serves as President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.