I’m just wrapping up six days in Orlando, Florida. It’s a land of so much make believe, none of which I saw. My time in Orlando began with three days of study and reflection with Rabbinic colleagues who have participated in the Shalom Hartman Institute’s Rabbinic Leadership Initiative. The theme of our learning was “Jewish Values and the Encounter With the Other: Muslims, Christians and Jews in the 21st Century.” Through hevruta text study and enlightening teaching from our Hartman scholars, Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer, Susannah Heschel and Yossi Klein Halevi, our eyes, minds and souls were opened to new ways to view our engagement with our Christian and Muslim neighbors. One highlight of our retreat was learning about the Hartman Institute’s Muslim Leadership Initiative (MLI). As one of key drivers of this Initiative, Yossi shared the vision, challenges and rewards of the work. He also brought one of the MLI participants to meet with us and share his own journey to participation in this courageous and important venture. Through the MLI, Hartman invites North American Muslim scholars and leaders to come to its campus in Jerusalem for two extended retreats and to engage in several months of online learning. One goal of MLI is to help participants learn about Judaism and the place of Israel in our Jewish history and narrative. (You can learn more here: http://www.timesofisrael.com/the-partnership-how-a-bold-american-imam-and-his-skeptical-israeli-host-bridged-the-muslim-jewish-chasm/)
Participants in MLI are not asked to check their own history, nor their narrative at the gates of the Hartman campus. The learning and exchanges are challenging. For some, participation has led to death threats. For others suspicions of their place in their own community is questioned. For Muslims, attending a program in a Zionist-oriented, pro-Israel institute is a risk. However, there is also risk for the Jewish teachers and leaders who boldly shaped and now lead this program. A cornerstone of the program is the hope that Jews and Muslims might be better prepared to learn with one another and work together in building a just and better world as we live our lives in the North American communities we call home.
Especially against the backdrop of last year’s war with Hamas in Gaza, and this Fall’s wave of terror attacks in Israel, the conversation and relationships are constantly being tested. Yet the trust and appreciation the participants have built in the MLI experience allows for open and frank expression in the context of relationship.
Just before my departure from Biennial I sat with a small group of rabbis who participated in the Hartman retreat earlier this week, as we gathered with one of the MLI participants who’d come to Orlando to speak at the URJ Biennial. Maggie, a Muslim leader from Washington, DC, wanted to meet some Hartman rabbis and we were eager to meet her. She shared her story with us, along with some of what she feels she has learned through participating in the MLI. We had many questions. It was quite a lively conversation, one which I was reluctant to leave early. Alas, I had a plane to catch. My dear friend, Rabbi Arnie Gluck, explained to Maggie that in our Torah portion this Shabbat, we read of Abraham’s sons, Ishmael and Isaac reuniting to bury their father together: “This was the total span of Abraham’s life: one hundred and seventy-five years. And Abraham breathed his last, dying at a good ripe age, old and contented; and he was gathered to his kin. His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah, in the field of Ephron son of Zohar the Hittite, facing Mamre, the field that Abraham had bought from the Hittites; there Abraham was buried, and Sarah his wife.” (Genesis 25:7-10) Arnie expressed the hope that perhaps by working together, along with our teachers at the Hartman Institute, we might bring the children Abraham together. As I got up to go, I added, “Before we bury too many more of the children of Ishmael and Isaac.”