England Iftar with A’laa and His Family

Blogs From the May 2018 UK Peacemaking Tour

England Iftar with A’laa and His Family
May 20, 2018

Tonight Ghassan and I have invited A’laa and his family to celebrate Iftar with us.

For those of you who have read my blogs in the past you will know that two years ago when Ghassan, and I first came to England for an Abrahamic Reunion tour, we gave a presentation at the New North London Synagogue and afterwards Rabbi Wittenberg (who is the head Rabbi there) invited us to his home for an interfaith Iftar celebration he was offering for members of his congregation and the Syrian Refugee community that had newly settled in their neighborhood in North London.

Rabbi Wittenberg was anxious for Ghassan and I to attend so Ghassan could help translate for the Syrian refugees. At that Iftar Ghassan and I made a connection with a young Syrian father named A’laa, who expressed a desire to start an Abrahamic Reunion text study group. A’laa saw Abrahamic Reunion text study sessions as a perfect way to help his family practice their English, learn about the new culture they had found themselves thrown into, and also help his new English, Jewish neighbors, and his multi faith class mates at college get to know one another more deeply.

However, before A’laa could start his text study group, tragedy struck, and he contracted intestinal cancer.

Ghassan and I continued to visit A’laa and his family. During our visits A’laa’s wife explained how grateful she was for the opportunity to practice her English with us. It is a skill she desperately needs to develop so she can support her young family in this new land.

On our last visit Ghassan and I introduced A’laa and his family to Judith, an elderly Jewish woman we had met at a dinner party for the Abrahamic Reunion here in London. Judith had grown up in Jerusalem prior to 1948, when Israel became a state. Although Judith was Jewish, like her other Jewish neighbors in Jerusalem at that time, she grew up speaking Arabic and most of her siblings had Arabic names. As a child she played freely with her Muslim and Christian, Palestinian neighbors in the streets of Jerusalem. But as a young woman Judith married and moved to England. She became involved with her synagogue here, and her Arabic faded. She also became a psychotherapist, specializing in healing childhood trauma, and she began making trips to the Holy Land to help families who had lost family members to the conflict there. Judith had recently retired from this work, and was looking for something. When I met Judith and told her about the work we were doing for the Abrahamic Reunion in the Holy Land, she wistfully expressed that she wished she could remember how to speak Arabic.

It seemed like a perfect idea to introduce her to A’laa and his family, so during our last visit to London in November 2017, Ghassan and I brought Judith to A’laa’s home and introduced her to him and his wife, Tahgrid and their daughter, and to A’laa’s brother Bahaa and his wife Raada (who also happens to be Tahgrid’s sister) and their two children. Since then Judith has visited A’laa’s family almost weekly, and on each visit they spend an hour speaking English, and an hour speaking Arabic.

I am delighted when we meet A’laa’s family at the restaurant and the women are able to converse with me in English as a result. I tell them that I had tried to call Judith to invite her as well, and I am shocked when they tell me that Judith’s own daughter recently died unexpectedly of cancer only 3 weeks after being diagnosed. They say they have been helping her, but that she often doesn’t see her phone messages, and they will let her know that I had tried to invite her.

We learn that A’laa’s cancer treatments have been successful, and as of a few weeks ago he has been able to discontinue chemotherapy. He will go back for a check up in six months to be evaluated to see if he will need any follow up treatment.

In the meantime A’laa is going to college, but he has decided to switch majors, and study media so he can become a film editor. He says now that he has had cancer, he will no longer to be able to stand on his feet all day as a pharmacist as he did in Syria and Jordon. But he assures us that he loves his new career choice, and is doing well in school.

The children are also doing well in school and speak English fluently. If one did not know their background one would think they were born here and grew up speaking English as their mother tongue. Bahaa has been able to get a part time job as a bookkeeper, and he continues to go to school to earn a Master’s degree in English accounting so he can return to his former profession in his new country. Tagrid and Radaa are excellent cooks and get some catering work from people in their new community. They are settling in, and they see the possibility of being able to work full time in a few years.

They invite us to their home for an Iftar on Friday night and say they will also invite Judith. The adults say that as they adjust to life in England they have been able to remain in touch with their families who still live in Damascus, which is still relatively safe. Although they have been unable to start a text study program for the Abrahamic Reunion, we feel that we have been able to help them and Judith form a cross faith support system that has served them both. And we hold this family dear to our hearts.

Listen to the Whispers of Your Soul Concert

Blogs From the May 2018 UK Peacemaking Tour

Listen to the Whispers of Your Soul Concert

May 14, 2018

Last night the quartet The Garden of the Spirit performed an exquisite concert and offered a poetry-reading event called Listen to the Whispers of Your Soul as a fund-raiser for the Abrahamic Reunion.

Together pianist Azima Melita Kolin and her nephew cellist Sebastian Kolin performed duets by Bach, Schubert, Schuman, and Beethoven.

Between each musical interlude Ann Marie Terry, Anne Louise Wirgman, and Azima read poetry by Rumi, Hafiz, Rilke, and Machado.

The effect was absolutely mesmerizing and transportive.

After the concert we held a meet and greet so people could learn more about the Abrahamic Reunion and our activities in England, and in the Holy Land.

The Centre for Counseling and Psychotherapy Education provided the venue for the event.

Shavuot at Rabbi Wittenbergs

Dear Friends. This is a blog about celebrating Shavuot at Rabbi Wittenberg’s. ❤ Anna

At 12:30 AM Ghassan and I arrive at Rabbi Wittenberg’s home to participate in an all night text study group commemorating the Jewish holiday of Shavuot.

It is a holiday that has evolved and changed a lot over the centuries and for this reason it is a holiday that is celebrated in different ways by Jewish people in different parts of the world.

In ancient times Shavuot was a mid-summer harvest holiday celebrated locally by different tribes on communal threshing grounds where wheat was being separated from chaff.

Then sometime around the 7th or 8th century BCE, the Jerusalem monarchy and priesthood consolidated their power, and brought these separate local tribes together under their rule. As part of trying to consolidate their power they co-opted these local celebrations and replaced them with unified rites that could only be performed at the Temple in Jerusalem.

This not only brought together these separate tribes and gave them a sense of people-hood, it also was a way of enriching the temple.

The word Shavuot, which means “weeks”, comes 7 weeks and 1 day, (50 days) after the 2nd day of Passover.

Bread is an important part of both Passover and Shavuot. For Passover, unleavened bread (motzo) made from the first crop of barley is the main food, and for Shavuot, leavened bread made out of the first crop of wheat is the major food.

On Shavuot, traditionally, farmers would present two loaves of leavened bread to the temple priests while chanting Hebrew texts about loyalty to God, and the common history of the tribes.

The priests then “Waved” the loaves of bread “Before The Lord” together with wine, and a complicated array of animal sacrifices, (seven lambs, two rams and two goats) much like those sacrificed on Passover.

After the destruction of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 CE, Shavuot had to be adapted to the new realities that faced the Jewish People.

With no temple to make a pilgrimage to, and with no place make sacrifices in, Shavuot had to be reshaped under the guidance of the rabbis.

From the 2nd century on, Shavuot began to be associated with the appearance of God, and the presentation of the Torah, to Moses on Mount Sinai.

For various reasons as Shavuot continued to evolve through out the centuries, it also came to be associated with eating dairy products.

The custom of staying up all night to study texts on Shavuot, began in Thessaloniki Greece in 1533 when Joseph Caro, the famous authority on Jewish Religious law (Halaka), and his friend the Kabbalist, and poet, Shlomo Halevi Alkabetz, and their colleagues stayed up all night on Shavuot to study religious texts.

Many scholars believe this innovation was due to the influence of Islamic and Sufi practitioners who stayed up all night studying the Quran on the Night of Power (Lailat al Qadr) during the festival of Ramadan, to commemorate the giving of the Quran to Mohammed.

The practice of staying up all night studying Torah on Shavuot came to be known as Tikkun Leil Shavuot. (The concept of tikkun means repairing the world, and refers to performing acts that repair the world.)

There is also an interesting connection between the Jewish celebration of Shavuot and the Christian celebration of Pentecost.

The word “Pentecost comes from the Greek word “pentekostos”, which means 50. For Christians Pentecost comes 50 days after Easter, and it commemorates the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the followers of Jesus while they were gathered in Jerusalem for the celebration of Shavuot.

Just as Shavuot was evolving to commemorate God giving Moses the Torah, which imparted divine knowledge to his followers, Pentecost is celebrated to memorialize the imparting of divine knowledge to the followers of Jesus.

It is in this spirit that Rabbi Wittenberg has invited Ghassan and I to his home to join about 30 of his students and friends to study texts together for Shavuot.

Ghassan will be the guest scholar and together with Rabbi Wittenberg will be leading the Tikkun Leil Shavuot.

When we arrive a large buffet with many dairy dishes, bread, pastries, fruits, nuts and sweets is laid out in the kitchen.

After we have eaten, we assemble around a series of tables that extends through the dining room, parlor and living room. Texts are distributed and we begin to analyze their contents.

The first set of texts has to do with opening the eyes and seeing. These texts acknowledge the stages that the act of seeing goes through, and just as the texts describe, each of us around the table have the experience of first reading the text and thinking we understand it, then as we read it more carefully, the act of seeing these texts leads us to a deeper meaning and experience, and as we read the texts again and discuss them further another veil is lifted and we experience an even deeper meaning.

Rabbi Wittenberg describes how as a young student he was exposed to the story of King Lear, and how he became obsessed by Shakespeare’s description of Lear’s decent into madness after he was tricked by two of his daughters into giving them his kingdom. Jonathon admitted that even today, more than forty-five years later, he still reflects on these passages, which he has committed to memory, and how he continues to experience insight into their meaning.

Ghassan describes how the Sufis ascribe 3 stages to the act of seeing and taking in information. The first stage is the rational stage, and in this stage he says we absorb information with our rational mind.

Then there is a second stage, and in the second stage we absorb information with our feelings.

Then Ghassan describes the third stage, and he says in this third stage we absorb the experience as a taste.

Ghassan goes on to describe the Isra and Mi’raj of the prophet Mohammed and says in the first phase of Mohammed’s night journey he encounters the angel Jibreel (Gabriel) in Mecca, and Jibreel presents Mohammed with the winged steed, Buraq and invites him on the night journey. In this phase Mohammed experiences the encounter with Jibreel and Buraq with his rational mind, but as his journey progresses, and Mohammed flies on Buraq’s back to Jerusalem, and he begins his ascent into heaven, he enters into the feeling phase of his journey.

Then in the final phase of his journey after meeting the prophets in each level of heaven, Mohammed leaves Jibreel behind, and encounters God alone. It is in this encounter with God that Mohammed experiences the third stage of absorbing his experience, and Mohammed can only experience this encounter with God, as a taste.

On one of our breaks several participants approach Ghassan and I and express awe and joy at the discovery that Ghassan’s Sufi teachings can offer such deep and insightful interpretations of the Jewish teachings. They suggest that Ghassan and Rabbi Wittenberg offer a seminar together for their congregation in December when we return to England for our next Abrahamic Reunion tour.

Our text study session resumes and continues throughout the night. Each time someone shares a new insight offering a deeper interpretation of the teachings, the entire group experiences an inner exaltation.

Finally as the sun is rising, and as I call an Uber so we can go home and sleep, Rabbi Wittenberg hugs Ghassan and shares that although he has had the opportunity to participate in interfaith text study groups in the past, it is rare that he has been able to experience the depth that he has experienced with Ghassan tonight.

Personal Transformation Seminar

Blogs from the May 2018 UK Tour

The Abrahamic Reunion UK recently received its verification as a Charitable Trust. AR UK’s directors, Amanda and Michael Vakil Kenton, organized a series of peacebuilding programs running from May 7th-25th, to address tensions in the UK. Rev. Dr. Anna Less (International Executive Director) and Sheikh Ghassan Manasra (International Director and Ambassador) are joining them on this tour.

Personal Transformation Seminar
May 13, 2018

Beloved Friends,

Today the Abrahamic Reunion spent an amazing time at the Centre for Counseling and Psychotherapy Education: a large charitable organization where over 100 counselors and psychotherapists provide counseling and psychotherapy here in London. The CCPE also serves as the home for the London Sufi Center.

During the day, Abrahamic Reunion International Director, Ghassan Manasra presented a seminar with Nigel Hamilton*, and Rabbi Danny Newman**.

The topic of the seminar was “Personal Transformation from a Muslim and a Jewish Perspective.”

In the seminar Rabbi Danny Newman, who is a Rabbi at the Finchley Reform Synagogue, which has over 2,000 members, led our group in a Jewish Mindfulness Meditation practice taught by Rabbi Kalonymus Kalmish Shapira (1189 – 1943).

Every person in the room succeeded in following the simple three-step process of quieting the mind, concentrating on a sacred phrase, and then using personal prayer to enter a deeply meditative state. All of us who thought these techniques were unique to Buddhist meditative practice were astonished to realize that Eastern European Jewish mystics were doing these practices in the early part of the 20th century. It was a real home-coming experience for everyone in the room.

Sheikh Ghassan Manasra, who besides being the International Director of the Abrahamic Reunion, is also the lineage holder of the Qadiri Sufi Order in the Holy Land, spoke about the effect of color on the body, mind, and spirit, the symbology of color, and the role color can play in restoring harmony and well being.

Nigel, who is the founder of CCPE and the London Sufi Centre expanded on these teachings to demonstrated how dream analysis and the role of color in dreams can be used for conflict resolution.

The seminar’s participants came from all over the world, but were primarily from Muslim, Jewish, and Christian backgrounds. Each one brought an open mind and a willingness to experience the esoteric teachings offered by these three wonderful teachers.

When the seminar was over, many participants, who earlier in the day had shared that they had experienced disillusionment and disappointment because their childhood religions had imposed on them a sense of exclusivity, or superiority, eagerly sought out the teachers, who had openly demonstrated a willingness to be open to the other.

The seminar was a real demonstration of how the Abrahamic Reunion could bring together teachers from different traditions to share and experience one another’s sacred and esoteric teachings, and how that experience can generate trust, love, joy and healing among the participants.

As Rabbi Danny and I said good-bye he said to me, “I don’t know how you came up with the concept of doing this, but it is so important, and so needed in the world.”

Thank you, wishing you Peace, Salaam, and Shalom.

Ghassan and I speak to the Shi’a Ithna – Asheri Community of Middlesex

Last Night Ghassan and I were invited to the Husayni Madrasah and the Mahfil Ali Mosque to do a presentation for the Shi’a Ithna – Asheri Community of Middlesex (Sicm).

Most of the members of this community were originally from India, but their ancestors immigrated to East Africa in the middle of the 19th century, and for the past 50 years they have been emigrating from East Africa to Middlesex, where they have prospered.

Currently their busy center occupies 2 buildings in down town Middlesex and they offer all sorts of programs ranging from yoga, and children’s programs, to Quran study, and Muslim prayers for the entire Middlesex community.

They are in the midst of constructing a huge community center called the Salam Center that will occupy an entire city block, and offer services such gymnasiums, and hair salons, a children’s center, yoga rooms, a mosque, and a madrassa etc. to the entire region.

Ghassan and I arrived at the Mosque early to meet Abrahamic Reunion UK directors Michael and Amanda Kenton and Sicm representative Ammar to get set up for our program.

Members of the mosque tell us that although normally men and women pray together in one room, because it is Ramadan attendance at the mosque is very high, so tonight the women will be meeting in one building and the men will be meeting in another building. Children will be in both places. Audio video screens mounted around the rooms in the 2 separate buildings will link the two groups.

Ghassan and Michael stay with the men, and Amanda and I are escorted to the rooms occupied by the women and their children.

Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar and is observed by Muslims worldwide as a month of fasting. Ramadan commemorates the first revelation of the Quran to Muhammad.

Each Ramadan Muslims refrain from consuming food, drinking liquids, smoking, and engaging in sexual relations from dawn until sunset. Muslims are also instructed to refrain from other behaviors that can negate the positive effects of fasting such as false speech (insulting, or malicious speaking, sarcasm, gossiping, cursing, lying, etc.), and fighting except in self-defense. The meals before dawn are referred to as Suhoor, while the feasts that take place after sunset are called Iftar.

As Amanda and I join the women and their children we are acutely aware that they have had nothing to eat or drink since about 1:30 AM in the morning and they will be unable to eat or drink any thing until 9:10 tonight.

In spite of the hard ship of fasting they patiently play with their children and give them snacks and drinks, they help older children with homework. They quietly chat with one another and listen to the Quran recitations being broadcast into the room. Screens mounted on the walls project the recitations in Arabic, and in English.

After an hour and a half of Quranic recitations there is break and I give my presentation and Ghassan speaks about the Abrahamic Reunion’s work.

We explain how the Abrahamic Reunion seeks to deepen understanding and cultivate connections between diverse religious communities by bringing people to one another’s places of worship and giving them the opportunity to ask questions and study one another’s scriptures. We talk about how we bring people together to eat together and experience one another’s religious holidays. We talk about our work in Israel and in Palestine, the USA, Germany and the UK.
We share that we do this work, with men, women and children, families, refugees and prisoners so they can gain understanding and empathy for the other, and how hopefully by doing this we are contributing to a more loving and peaceful world.

After our presentation turbah and dates are passed out to everyone.

Turbah are small clay tablets that Shia Muslims put on the floor to place their foreheads on while they pray. They do this to be in compliance with the Hadith (sayings of the prophet) that mention the many benefits of prostrating and placing one’s forehead on the earth.

After the prayers each person eats a date to break their fast.

Paper is rolled out on the floor and abundant plates of food are brought out for the evening Iftar. Tea and water are served.

As people eat people ask about the Abrahamic Reunion’s work. A number of people approach me and ask for information and congratulate us. Some come forward and skeptically ask me if I realize that over 60 Palestinians have been killed this week on the Gaza border. I explain that is exactly why we are doing this work, and they relax just a little and dare to hope.

Studying Texts with Rabbi Wittenberg and his Students

Studying Texts with Rabbi Wittenberg and his Students

Rabbi Wittenberg graciously invites us to join his students, a group of men who have been meeting in the same coffee shop, once a month, for over 10 years to study and discuss mystical rabbinical texts.

Rabbi Wittenberg passes out copies the text, and we begin to study.

The teaching describes the event when Moses encounters the burning bush, and is commanded to remove his shoes, and how Moses hides his face, and when Moses hides his face, God reveals himself to Moses and tells him to lead his people out of Egypt, how Moses objects and God reiterates his command, until Moses surrenders.

The text analyzes the stages that enable Moses to have this divine encounter, and describes Moses hiding his face, as a metaphor for minimizing the ego so that Moses can experience the “Face of God”.

Rabbi Wittenberg asks the group if they have any comments or questions.

The young father next to me expresses some doubt about the text’s advice to minimize the ego in order to experience God and he wonders why, since the ego itself is a creation of God, it is necessary to minimize it.

Ghassan begins speaking in Hebrew and translating himself into English for those who do not understand.

He compares Moses’s experience with the burning bush to Mohammed’s experience on Laylat al Qadr (the Night of Power), when Mohammed hides himself in a cave to escape the heat and bustle of the city, and how when he was hidden in that cave, a light reveals itself to him, and how that light begins speaking to him, and becomes the angel Jibril (Gabriel) who hands Mohammed a scroll and commands him to read, and how Mohammed objects, saying he can not read, and how Jibril over rides Mohammed’s resistance and commands him again to read, and this was how the Quran, was revealed to Mohammed. Ghassan goes on to analyse and compare the stages that Moses and Mohammed each go through during their divine experiences.

Jaws drop, and eyes widen as Ghassan continues to compare the teachings. Rabbi Wittenberg becomes animated and takes over translating, and light appears on everyone’s faces. Perhaps for the first time they are experiencing the connection between the symbolical teachings in Islam and Judaism. Questions and comparison’s about esoteric symbology, history, rabbinical texts and Sufi teachings begin pouring out as more and more realizations take place within our group.

Rabbi Wittenberg explains to everyone how Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting, which is about to begin in a few days, commemorates the events Ghassan has been describing.

As the study session ends Rabbi Wittenberg turns to us and tells us how much he has enjoyed this experience, and he invites us to celebrate Shavout with him and his congregation at his synagogue, and in his home on Saturday night.

Shavout is the Jewish festival that commemorates when the Torah was revealed to Moses on Mount Sanai. And during the festival Jewish people stay up all night studying and discussing sacred texts together.

We eagerly accept and realize we are about to spend the weekend celebrating both Shavout and Ramadan.