“Meeting the Peacemakers” – Blog from a Spring Hill Prisoner

The following blog was written by one of the prisoners at Spring Hill Prison after the Abrahamic Reunion’s two programs there in May 2018. International Directors Anna Less and Ghassan Manasra, UK Directors Michael and Amanda Kenton, and Rabbi Gluck OBE led the programs. The prisoner has asked to remain anonymous.

For more information about the Abrahamic Reunion’s visits to Spring Hill Prison in May, you can read Anna Less’s blogs about the trip here. The relevant blogs are titled “Our Day at Spring Hill Prison with Rabbi Gluck and Ghassan” and “England Spring Hill Prison.”

Meeting the Peacemakers

I first heard about the Abrahamic Reunion from a Quaker chaplain in Grendon prison. After hearing about the work that they do I was intrigued to meet the people who were willing to speak out for peace and reconciliation. In a world full of conflict and fear of what is different it was a breath of fresh air knowing that people like that existed.

An event was organised for the Abrahamic Reunion to attend Grendon which was attended by around 80-90 residents. People were eager to hear what the organisation had to say. Ghassan Manasra, David Less, Anna Less alongside the main organisers Michael and Amanda Kenton presented the presentation. They spoke of the work that they had undertaken in the Middle East and how they helped communities to get to know each other by visiting each other’s places of worship and showing solidarity through common values when conflict grew between communities.

This was a real eye-opener for people because all we have been hearing, through the media, was that there was conflict around the world and no one is doing anything about it. But hearing from the Abrahamic Reunion gave me a sense of hope and conviction that all is not doom and gloom.

I met the Abrahamic Reunion again a year later when they were invited to Springhill prison to do a workshop on ‘Resolving Differences’. This was a fantastic event which continued over to the following week. My experience of the two-day event was pleasant and very moving. The passion shown by the speakers and guests was infectious and everyone joined in and participated. I particularly liked the fact that we could be so open about how we truly feel about what we want in life. As I shared my goals and aspirations with others I listened attentively to what others had to say. What I found from this experience that we as human beings are not so different.; we all want the same things. All it takes is for us to talk and truly empathise with each other.

There was an exercise led by Ghassan Manasra which I found really helpful. Ghassan came up with an idea that would help the group feel more connected with each other. He instructed the group to take turns in saying something positive and meaningful from the heart to another person in the group. Everyone took turns and when it came to me to say something I turned to a good friend of mine and said how much I respected him as a friend. I shared with him the fact that I thought that he was good father to his baby girl and husband to his wife and I admired that about him. The look on his face said it all. I don’t think he was expecting that in such an open forum, but I could see that it meant a lot to him.

Michael and Amanda Kenton had some very nice things to say about me which I found deeply moving. Sometimes in prison you can go for days without hearing a positive word from anyone, but when it does happen, especially towards oneself you sometimes don’t know what to do. Although I come from a different background from Amanda and Michael, what mattered was the connection and mutual respect we had for one another. I felt a sense of closeness with everyone in the room, and still do.

The work conducted by the Abrahamic Reunion is an important one. I have lived in a world of conflict most of my life and found that all it does is create division. In a world of conflict, we look at each other with contempt, suspicion and fear. But the ideals presented by the Abrahamic Reunion give us a sense of direction that humanity should consider. Although we are different we all share the same values and by working together we can bring about a true change in a way that guides us on positive path.

I would like to thank the organisers and guest speakers for opening my eyes and seeing the world in a different perspective. I am extremely glad that organisations like the Abrahamic Reunion are doing the work that is so needed in these times. I want to wish them many blessings and hope that they continue to bring peace to this world and help to bring communities together.

Thank you.

For Anna Less’s perspective on the visits to Spring Hill Prison in May, you can read her blogs about the trip here. The relevant blogs are titled “Our Day at Spring Hill Prison with Rabbi Gluck and Ghassan” and “England Spring Hill Prison.”

Dr. Anna Less’s Blogs From the Holy Land: August 2018

Blog 1: Sacred Text Study in Jericho

We pile into the car in Nazareth, Israel and head across the border for Jericho, to participate in a multifaith text study group organized by the Abrahamic Reunion’s Palestinian Director, Mohamad Jamous.

Abed, the Abrahamic Reunion’s Israeli Project Manager is driving; Ghassan, the Abrahamic Reunion’s International Director, is at his side. I am sitting in the back with Abed’s wife Su Su and their young baby. As we make the two-hour drive, we pass groves of Medjool date trees. Mesh bags protect massive bunches of the nearly ripe dates growing on row after row of towering, perfectly matched trees. Ghassan explains that Israel is the producer of some of the best quality dates in the world.

Rows of Israeli date trees

Grown on annexed Palestinian land in the West Bank, Israel is one of the biggest exporters of dates to the wealthy Gulf States.  On the other side of the road, opposite the Israeli groves, are the struggling Palestinian date groves. The fruit on the stunted and mismatched trees is uncovered, and many of the trees seem barren.  Ghassan winces at the contrast and explains that the Palestinians lack the resources and infrastructure to produce dates for export.  He says their dates will be sold in local markets for a fraction of the price.

Abed and I traveled this same road just two months ago when we headed to Jericho to celebrate the Abrahamic Reunion’s multi-faith Iftar event.  As we drive along today we see a number of new building sights being leveled for the construction of Israeli settlements.

Abed explains, “A lot has changed since our last trip together to Jericho. Since the new law has passed, our work has become much harder as fear, tension and frustration among the Arabs has grown. “

Abed is referring to the new “Basic Law” passed by the Israeli Knesset in July.  It is Israel’s 14th “Basic Law”, which for the first time in Israel’s 70 year history, enshrines Israel as “the national homeland of the Jewish people.”

Although 20% of Israeli citizens are Arab, the new legislation makes no reference to equality for all Israeli citizens like the one made in Israel’s Declaration of Independence — which pledged that the state of Israel would “ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.” A full translation of the new law can be read here.

Finally, we arrive at the restaurant where our meeting will be held. I recognize several of the priests and Imams who have lined up in front of the restaurant to shake hands and greet the participants as they arrive.

At the restaurant

I am not sure what to expect when we enter the private room where the Abrahamic Reunion is hosting its text study session, but I am delighted to realize that 40 people have come, and surprisingly this time Christian participants outnumber the Muslim participants. It is a big achievement for our event organizer, Abrahamic Reunion Palestinian Director, Mohamad Jamous.

Because it is easier for Christians to immigrate to the West, many have left the region and now less than 2 % of the Palestinians in the West Bank are Christians.  Mohamad Jamous had to really reach beyond his familiarity with his own Muslim community to cultivate these relationships.

One by one the presenters and religious leaders introduce themselves and begin to speak. These speakers are:

  • Father Firas Diab – The Melkite Catholic Priest from The Melkite Catholic Church of Zababdeh, Palestine
  • Father Tuameh Dawood – The Greek Orthodox Priest from The Greek Orthodox Church of Zababdeh, Palestine
  • Amad Abu Shelbay – The Imam from Zababdeh, Palestine
  • Sheikh Ghaleb Awatleh – The Mufti on the Palestinian Religious Authority
  • Jeres Awad – Artist for the Anglican Church of Palestine
  • Sheikh Imad Abu El Shalabya- the Imam of Masjid Al Zababdeh in Zababdeh, Palestine
  • Sheikh Mohammed A-Saeed Salah – The Mufti of the Palestinian National Security Forces
  • Sheikh Ghassan Manasra- Sheikh of the Qadiri Sufi Order in Israel and International Director of the Abrahamic Reunion
  • Mohamad Jamous – The Palestinian Director of the Abrahamic Reunion
  • Sheikh Abed Manasra – Project Manager for the Abrahamic Reunion in the Holy Land

They each speak with a loving depth that cuts through the current political atmosphere and causes people to re-experience and affirm their core human values of love for one another.

Shiekh Mohammed A-Saeed Salah

The eminent Sheikh Mohammed A-Saeed Salah is the Mufti of the Palestinian National Security Forces. A Mufti is a Muslim legal expert empowered to give rulings on religious matters. After welcoming everyone, he thanks me as the sole American participant for the financial support that Americans have given to enable this multi-faith event to happen.  In a world where Palestinians feel unseen and unheard, coming together and experiencing being seen by each other is particularly life affirming and eases their sense of isolation.

Ghassan translates the Mufti’s talk for me:

“It is very important to have these meetings so we can express our unity and our connection. We don’t need to say that we are Christians or we are Muslims—we need to recognize that we are all Palestinians.   It is important that we touch one another, and feel one another, and know one another and understand one another.”

He goes on to share many stories of Muslim and Christian co-existence and cooperation in Palestine.

He also tells a personal story about how a Christian boy in his neighborhood started a fight with his daughter over their religious differences. He describes how the fight escalated to include more young relatives and neighbors until more and more people in the neighborhood were becoming involved. Then he explained that the mother of the Christian boy, because she trusted the spiritual wisdom of the Mufti, and trusted him to be a fair mediator, ultimately sent her son to the Mufti to resolve the issue. The Mufti described how he brought together the neighboring Christian and Muslim youth, who had been fighting with one another, and told them:

Never say “because I am a Muslim,” or “because you are a Christian.” You must say instead, “because we are Palestinians… “ Do this and it will be the last time you will have a problem between you, because long ago we used to live together peacefully.

The topic of today’s text study is the “Holiness of Life.”

Discussing the texts

After reading the texts aloud, the Christian and Muslim clergy join tables of participants who have broken into multi-faith groups to discuss the texts more deeply. The clergy each sit at the different tables to answer questions and serve as references. People introduce themselves. A Palestinian man from Bethlehem tells me he has lived in Canada for the last 18 years, but he has moved back to Bethlehem to take care of his ailing mother.  He has become very involved with the youth at his Baptist church and explains that their congregation helps support their Muslim neighbors so they can participate in the Hajj. He says that because Palestinians have no airport, it is not easy for the Muslims to pass through all of the check points to leave the country so they can go to Saudi Arabia on Hajj. So the Christians in their congregation volunteer to drive their Muslim neighbors through the check points to Jordan and Iraq and even to Syria, so that they can board planes to Saudi Arabia.  The Christian drivers bring the youth from their churches with them so they can talk to their Muslim passengers and learn about Islam. They feel it is their duty as Christians to support their Muslim neighbors, and also to teach their own youth to be accepting of people who believe in their same God, but who worship that God in a different way.

The Muslim woman next me introduces me to her Christian companion and says they are best friends, and explains she has heard about this text study program from her Christian friend.

Father Firas Diab

It is amazing to hear both Christians and Muslims using Arabic to discuss their texts.  Arabic is a language that most Westerners associate only with Islam, so hearing Christians using phrases like “Allah Ho Akbar” and “Alhamdulillah” shatters many cultural stereotypes and causes one to experience the message of God liberated from culture, and religion, and even from language.

On the break between the text study program and the shared meal, Father Firas, the Melkite Catholic priest who often participates in Abrahamic Reunion events, tells me he travels around the world speaking to different congregations about the Palestinian people. He hopes to dispel the erroneous perception that Palestinians are violent religious fanatics, and he tries to let the world see that they are loving people who have the capacity to love all people, including their Jewish neighbors. I ask him if he speaks to Jewish congregations, and if they are open to his message. He says, “No, so far the organizers of my speaking tours in various Western countries have not thought that would work out.” But he says he is hopeful that some day he will have an opportunity to visit a synagogue and speak there.  I admired this man and his commitment to the path of love.

Think Peace

How can we bring peace to our minds? It is something that many of us have wondered after being burdened with the seemingly endless stresses of modern life. Depending on the kind of person you are, you may have taken a scientific approach to achieve a calm and quiet mind – perhaps trying to get the correct amount of sleep in order to wake feeling refreshed and restored or choosing endorphin-rich foods and exercise.

Meanwhile, others look to spiritual practices, using meditation and candle-lit baths to shake off the mental weight of the day. Recently, however, neuroscience has been connecting the links between the two disciplines and finding that Buddhists may well have a point.

Save the World

“It is inner stillness that will save the world” Eckhart Tolle. He teaches that happiness is dependent on outside circumstances but inner peace is not. Could it be that if we can obtain more inner peace we will not over consume the world’s resources?

Feed the Mind with Positivity

Ever heard of the Mind and Life Institute? A collaboration between the Dalai Lama himself and a team of scientists, the group was set up in the late 80s. Together, they have shown that mind training is a very real tool and that we can all use it to our benefit.

So, if you have ever stood in front of your mirror repeating positive affirmations to yourself, you have been working to train your brain. Whether you felt silly, or not, repeating this process on a regular basis will have had a great benefit to your mind, leaving you feeling more confident and happier in the long run. Meditation is also proven to help bring peace to the mind, as the brain is emptied of negative thoughts. With several types of meditation, the focus is on the breath, which, by releasing physical tension, also measurably reduces stress and anxiety.

Back in 2013, Barbara Fredrickson from the University of North Carolina, a positive psychology researcher, published a landmark paper that provides fascinating insights about positive thinking and how it effects our life skills. Her work is among the most respected in her field and it is surprisingly useful in everyday life.

She took groups of people and showed them different films. Some groups saw positive images while others saw negative images of fear and anger. Then each group had to come out and write about their experience and how they would react in a similar situation.

The groups who saw images of fear and anger wrote down the fewest responses as they saw less options. Meanwhile, the participants who saw images of joy and contentment wrote down a significantly higher number of actions that they would take. So positive emotions broaden our sense of possibility and open your mind up to more options in life.

She discovered that those who meditated daily had more positive thoughts than others who did not but that was just the tip of the iceberg. With her team of scientists, she found that people who experienced joy had useful side effects to their feelings that lasted far beyond the event.

In other words, when you are experiencing positive emotions like joy, contentment and love, you will see more possibilities in your life. These findings were among the first that suggested positive emotions broaden your sense of possibility and open your mind up to more options.

Fredrickson believes this is due to the happy emotions enabling you to see all the possibilities surrounding you. The more you feed your positive thoughts, the better you become at reading situations and taking advantage of what life has to offer. Noticing all the options available to you at any time enables you to build new skills and flourish through life, even if you are not having the best day, because you have trained your mind to see the positives whenever possible.

Indeed, this research only confirms what wise teachers have always known. Buddha began the Dhammapada with the words: “We are what we think” and science has since proven that our thoughts are creative and essential for creating peptides that become part of new cells in the brain, with positive thoughts creating more positive peptides and negative thoughts creating negative ones. So, the more you practice being positive and peaceful, the more natural it will eventually become.


Give the Gift of Peace

At Peace Gifts Shop, we want to help you train your brain for the better, which is why many of our products feature a quote about peace and how you can achieve it, while others feature a beautiful image to remind us of peace. We sell t-shirts, mugs, and posters, amongst other items, with phrases from well-known teachers, authors and poets from various religions, traditions and cultures around the world. Every time you have a cup of tea or put on your favourite outfit, you will be reminded of the phrase or peaceful image and it will become further ingrained in your memory.

Of course, once we have discovered peace for ourselves, it is natural to want to share the joy. Our products make fantastic gifts for your good friends and all members of the family. Despite our reasonable prices, these gifts will become priceless to the recipient, helping them to think positively and feel at ease with the world.

Even better, every penny we make from the sale of our items is put towards our charity which provides education, inspiration and action to promote inter-religious harmony in our multi-faith society and in the Holy Land. So, help us to spread the love, since a world full of peaceful people is all we could ever hope for.

Blog by rabbi Nagen

The Best Food in Ramadan

“Both read the Bible day and night, but thou read black where I read white.” These words of William Blake are apropos to the observance of Ramadan, a holiday which inspires both acts of violence as well as conciliation and generosity. Although the press often focuses on the isolated incidents of the former which are the exceptions, I will focus on the latter which are the rule.

In the context of Ramadan, the Koran stresses the connection between the human and the divine stating, “One who is unable to fast can instead give charity” (Sura 2, Verse 184).The holiday’s traditional greeting “Ramdan Kareem” literally means Ramadan Generosity.

The meal at the end of each day’s fast, the Iftar, provides an excellent opportunity for an Islamic-Jewish encounter. I once attended an Iftar in which elders from Hebron hosted Jewish residents of the region. The topic of the evening was Ramadan customs that are unique to Hebron. The Arabic name for Hebron “Al Khalil” means Friend, referring to Abraham, friend of God. Central to Ramadan in Hebron is the meal of Abraham – thousands of plates are made for the poor in ancient brass pots. We also learned that it is customary for the women of Hebron to briefly leave the kitchen while the food cooks to allow the matriarch Sarah to enter and stir the dishes. We were told this is why Hebron has the best food during Ramadan. Granting this role to Sarah shows an ability to overcome tensions in the family, as Sarah the biblical mother of Isaac had a stormy relationship with Hagar the mother of Ishmael.

A year ago, I attended a most memorable Iftar hosted by the Abrahamic Reunion on a date on which Jews also fast, the 17th of the lunar month of Tamuz.  Muslims end their fast at sundown whereas Jews wait until the stars are visible about 20 minutes later. Upon realizing this discrepancy, Sheik Abed Salem Manasra of Nazareth announced in the name of the Muslim participants, “We will all wait for the Jews to finish their fast before eating, so that we may all eat together.” This was a very powerful gesture of respect and understanding.

Later that week I was able to return the gesture. A Jewish woman Rebecca Abramson arranged an Iftar in Jerusalem at the house of a leading Rabbi of Israel’s ultra-orthodox community, Rabbi Yoel Schwartz. The guest of honor was a close friend of mine, a prominent Sheik from Ramallah. I was about to begin the afternoon prayer which must be said before sundown when the Sheik called me. He had arrived and was waiting on the corner for me to pick him up and take him to the meal. I made a quick calculation: if I pray now, I won’t bring him on time to the beginning of the Iftar. Every minute of my prayer elongates his fast. Using a Talmudic dispensation that one can pray even while riding a donkey if by stopping he won’t be able to concentrate out of concern about the delay, I recited the prayers while driving to pick him up. At the meeting, Rabbi Schwartz asked the participants to disregard their separate identity labels and to meet as brothers and sisters in loving and serving God. The discourse was so moving that Rachel Shofar, a translator who has devoted her life to Jewish-Muslim reconciliation, broke out in tears, “we have come to this, we have come to this”.


The Tears of Abraham

After the Iftar  in Jersualem I drove Rachel back to Hebron, and we began speaking about a mutual friend in Hebron. She then told me a story that moved me especially deeply.

Our shared friend is a sort of a Godfather in his hamula (clan). One day, he asked me to write a letter on his behalf to Yariv Ben Ezra, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) commander responsible for security in the Jewish part of Hebron. That same day my son, Hillel, was sworn into the IDF in a ceremony at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.  Earlier we were told that his battalion, Tzabar, of the Givati infantry brigade, would be serving in Hebron.

I wrote to Yariv telling him that my son would soon be serving under him, and that each Shabbat when he comes home from the army that I bless him to return in peace and return with the peace. “You are in charge of the peace in Hebron and responsible to insure the security of all. Know that we have partners who to seeks to live in peace.” I then listed different acquaintances  for him in Hebron one by one.  I didn’t think my Arab friend could read Hebrew, but I sent him a copy of the letter anyway. I was moved when he called to tell me that he and the other sheikhs pray for Hillel and for all to return from Hebron in peace.

On the drive back, Rachel told me that she happened to be with our Arab friend when he received the letter. “He told me that he wanted to understand each word so he asked me to translate. The way I cried tonight is the way he cried when I read the letter.”



Blog about the Iftar in Israel

Last night the Abrahamic Reunion had its annual multifaith Iftar dinner in Israel.

This year the Iftar was hosted in Daliat El Carmel, the largest and southernmost Druze town in Israel.

We invited 175 people, but approximately 265 people came, filling every chair and table to capacity.

All four major faiths in Israel participated in nearly equal numbers.

Prior to eating a number of speakers spoke in Hebrew and in Arabic about the brotherhood of humanity in this region.

Some of the eminent speakers included:

Sheikh Muwaffak Tarīf – The head of the Druze community in Israel

Rafik Halabi – The Head of the Municipality of Daliat El Carmel

Ron Shapiro – Haifa District Court Judge

Imam Samir Assi – the Imam of the Al-Jazaar Mosque in Akko

Rabbi Dahlia Shaham – the Ohel Avraham congregation and Leo Baeck education center in Haifa

Siham Halibi – who together with Sheikh Abed Manasra organized this event on behalf of the Abrahamic Reunion

Ghassan Manasra – the International Director of the Abrahamic Reunion

Sheikh Helmi Hamad – of the Qadiri Order provided the Adhaan for the Magrib Prayer

During the meal itself one could see at each table Jews, Muslims, Druze and Christians eating, sharing, laughing and discussing together.

During these troubled times in Israel, people took great comfort and reassurance in coming together and affirming their commitment to mutual understanding, and a peaceful co-existence.

The Abrahamic Reunion extends a special thank you to Siham Halibi, Sheikh Abed Manasra and the Druze community for organizing and hosting this event.

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.