I am honored to be a part of an incredible forum of interfaith religious leaders in my wider community – the Ramle-Lod area. At the initiative of Israel’s Ministry of the Interior and Beit Morasha, imams, priests and Jewish leaders meet regularly and share challenges and successes we all have with our congregations and students. We share the vision and guiding principles of our religions. We talk about making Israel even better and increasing respect between different religious and ethnic groups.
I have learnt a lot about the important roles that Israel plays in the Muslim and Christian communities, and am continually impressed. One of the responsibilities of the Ministry of the Interior’s Division of Non-Jewish Affairs is to fund many of the mosques and imams and to provide reference material for imams’ sermons. One example was a recent tragedy, a car accident that killed several members of the same Arab family. The tragedy was widely reported in the Israeli press. By Friday, in time for prayers and the weekly discourses, the imams received sermon points from the Division of Non-Jewish Affairs relating to traffic safety. While I don’t know the quote from the Koran of the religious guidelines for safeguarding lives – as I do those presented in Deuteronomy – I do know that the imams received it from the Ministry of the Interior. Of course the imams know their sacred texts, as do priests and Jewish leaders, but when the Ministry of the Interior provides a weekly theme that is relevant and coordinated nationwide, the imams can speak in one voice and have a much greater impact on their respective communities.
One of the goals of the forum is for the religious leaders to coalesce as a “task force” with a preexisting infrastructure to face and contain religious incidents that could turn into a crisis in our mixed communities. Furthermore, by building a solid foundation of trust between the faith leaders on the personal level and having it known in the community, we are also creating a mechanism to prevent such incidents from taking place even before they occur.
The Forum of Interfaith Leaders has contributed so much to each of us in so many different areas. There are no politicians at our meetings, even though at times different political views are raised. While the Arab narrative (if one oversimplifies it for this article) is something I am very familiar with, hearing it first hand in a respectfully presented manner is important, even if sometimes very difficult to hear. It is important to note we do not hesitate to talk about “hot-button” subjects, but our forum is not defined by conflict but rather by cohesiveness. Furthermore, to hear the challenges of living as a minority, getting into the head space of the other and empathizing with colleagues, while remaining steadfast in my Zionist beliefs, has contributed to and reinforced my nuanced and proud view of Israel. Every time I return home from one of the meetings I feel more optimistic about our shared future. My family calls the members of the forum my new friends and that is precisely what was supposed to happen on the human level. I share this with my community and believe, through the ripple effect, they too have benefited from this forum. In speaking with my friends on the forum, I know we all feel the same way.
From the very first meeting I remember how impressed I was with Prof. Benny Ish-Shalom from Beit Morasha, Mr. Yosef Samah from Israel’s Ministry of the Interior and all the members of the forum. One of the highlights for me has been when at our meetings of the Forum we split up into breakout groups and hear more about our new friends on the personal level. Furthermore, I have learnt much about Israel’s contribution to the Christian and Muslim communities in Israel and their challenges. The job of any community leader is challenging. There is even a special blessing said on Shabbat for leaders, and those in the Muslim and Christian communities need the blessings no less than those in the Jewish community.
Due to the corona virus we have had to transform our face-to-face meetings into virtual meetings through ZOOM, and our WhatsApp group has become even more active. We recently shared encouragement and blessings to each other in honor of Pesach, Ramadan and Easter. It was very moving to share and receive these blessings from such a special group of leaders. I know that we will continue to do God’s work and continue to be a source of light and inspiration for each other and our communities.
In the name of everyone in the forum, we wish everyone good health and send greetings and blessings to you on your holiday.