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.

Letter of Hope from David Less

Dear friends of peace and understanding,

I am in Israel and Palestine along with Anna, Ghassan, Chris, and Katie, for the next two weeks to bring people of different religions and different cultures together to find our common areas of connections and to promote understanding. This work is quite difficult now because of the violent and heartbreaking situation in Syria. The level of tension is far greater than in the past, and the possibility that violence will spread creates a cloud of fear here, which is palpable and ever-present.

I am requesting that all who can please pray for us in whatever way is natural to you. So much of this work must be done by the collective prayer and visioning of those who desire peace and understanding as our world evolves to become a global community rather than an unharmonious collection of super egos.

If you wish, certainly you can support this work by contributing financially as well. We have spent all of our resources to create powerful events in the coming two weeks. Some of the most hopeful events here will be a family forum day, a women’s program day, and a day of educating and training Israeli and Palestinian youth in the ways of peace. We most importantly will listen to the sorrows and fears of many, we will be a living example of the harmonious unity of diverse religions and cultures, as well as a voice of hope for the future. All this will culminate in a Peace Summit, where 150 prominent Holy Land religious leaders of the major faiths here will come together for a day of creating a living presence for peace, visioning for the future, and affirming our unity in our diversity.

As we accomplish one bit of our program, we discover so many new areas where our work can be done. Whatever we have will never be enough, but we must persevere until the word peace is firmly present in all hearts.

1 Week until Healing the Heart of the Holy Land!

Healing the Heart of the Holy Land Begins in 1 Week!
April 13th – 25th: HHHL Peace Journey
April 16th – 23rd: HHHL Events Across the Holy Land
April 26th: A very special HHHL Praying Together in Jerusalem

Dear Supporters of Peace Around the World,

Healing the Heart of the Holy Land (HHHL) is a week away! Right now as you read this email, Executive Director Dr. Anna Less and International Director and Representative Sheikh Ghassan Manasra are in the Holy Land, meeting with peacemakers, peacebuilders, and allies to organize the events of HHHL: the single largest undertaking the AR has ever attempted. Stay tuned for event announcements, reports, photos, live blogs, updates via Facebook, and more!

Tune in for Video Updates on Facebook Live

We’re excited to let you know we’ll be offering regular live broadcasts, interviews, and video sessions with the AR’s dedicated core of peacemakers! We’ll bring you right into the action, so you can share in prayer and spread the word about the positive things that are not only possible, but already happening on the ground in the middle of this extremely tense time in the Holy Land.

AR Documentaries

Thank you again to all those who supported HHHL, both monetarily and in prayer. We have contracted a fabulous duo from a Dutch videography company who will be producing two mini-documentaries about HHHL and the frontline peacebuilding of the Abrahamic Reunion. More soon.

Crowdfunding Campaign Update

Dear supporters of HHHL, your perks are in the works! Here’s a preview of the sticker and window-cling design. If you didn’t get one of these hot items and want to, you can still show your support on our crowdfunding website today by clicking here. It’s not to late to support the Abrahamic Reunion in bringing healing to the Holy Land!

An Eye to the Future

We have spent a considerable amount of time, energy, and resources preparing for the events of HHHL which look to launch the AR into a new chapter of peacebuilding in the Holy Land. Upcoming, we will have the annual Multifaith Holy Land Iftar Peace Dinner for 200+ participants this May 31st, and follow-up programs through the summer to continue the momentum built in HHHL.

This good energy is needed more than ever right now, when the tensions are rising.

Women of Faith Standing Together

UK Speaking Tour, November 2017

Sheikh Ghassan Manasra and Rev. Cherag Anna Less Phd travel to London and the UK for a late-autumn speaking tour which also includes National Interfaith Week in the UK. They are joined by Sheikh Ghassan’s daughter and AR young adult leader Zeynab Manasra, Rabbi Mordechai Zeller (trustee to AR UK and Rabbi in residence at Cambridge University), and Michael & Amanda Kenton, co-founders of AR UK.

Women of Faith Stand Together
November 12, 2017

Today Abrahamic Reunion Youth Leader Zaynab Manasra and I, Reverend Anna Less PhD, The Abrahamic Reunion’s Executive Director, and Amanda Kenton, the Abrahamic Reunion’s UK Founder and Director, travelled to the Baitan Amul Mosque in Uxbridge, England to be guest presenters at an all-women’s event called ‘Women of Faith Standing Together.’ We, together with Rabbi Naomi Goldman from the Kol Chai Synagogue in Middlesex, England, are the guests of honor.

Rabbi Naomi is the newly appointed Rabbi at Kol Chai Synagogue, the spiritual home for about 300 Reform Jewish families. Reform Judaism is a major Jewish denomination that recognizes the evolving nature of Judaism, and emphasizes Judaism’s ethical aspects rather than its ceremonial ones. Considered to be a liberal strand of Judaism, Reform Judaism was formulated by Rabbi Abraham Geiger and his associates in 19th-century Germany.

In the audience there were approximately 80 Muslim women and about 25 Jewish women; the Ahmadiyya Muslim Women’s Association of Middlesex, a subgroup from the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community in England, hosted the event.

The Ahmadiyya, whose motto is “Love for all. Hatred for none,” regard themselves as a moderate sect of Islam. Persecuted in their native homes of India and Pakistan, they have a large population in England and in the USA. Part of their belief is to understand other religions and to counteract extremism.

Established in the UK since 1913, The Ahmadiyya community built London’s first mosque, The London Mosque in Putney, in 1926. The Ahmadiyya Muslim community now has one hundred branches across Britain, and have opened a number of mosques, including the landmark Baitul Futuh mosque in south London, which holds 10,000 worshippers, and is the largest mosque in western Europe.

One of the 72 sects of Islam the Ahmadiyya are often persecuted for their beliefs by other Muslims primarily because the Ahmadi believe that their founder Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (1835 –1908) is the messiah and successor of the prophet of Muhammad.

Rabbi Naomi presents first, and she reads passages from the Jewish tradition that emphasize Judaism’s commitment to friendship, and support for other religions.

First she tells the Talmudic story that is often attributed to Hillel the Elder (c. 110 BC – 10 AD) in the following teaching Hillel, who is asked by a prospective convert to Judaism, to teach him the whole Torah while he stands on one leg, replies:

“Don’t do unto others what you would not want done to you – that is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary”

Rabbi Naomi also promises Jewish friendship and support for the Muslim community, and reads the following Jewish teaching regarding how Jewish people are required to treat foreigners.

Love foreigners as you love yourselves, because you were foreigners one time in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.”

Leviticus 19:34

After Rabbi Naomi’s presentation, I give the Abrahamic Reunion’s Power Point Presentation, which describes how we put the AR’s founding precepts into action through various projects.

After the AR’s presentation, a number of women from the Ahmadiyya community speak, explaining their teachings and ideals

Then there is a question and answer period, and members of the audience who were clearly inspired by the AR’s simple, yet innovative interfaith projects ask many questions about the practicalities of adapting these methods to expand their own interfaith efforts.

They are particularly interested when Zaynab describes a project she participated in that was initiated by the Abrahamic Reunion when she was a young teenager. Zaynab described how in Israel, where she grew up, communities are often isolated by religion, and therefore most schools are home to students of only one religion. In this environment a young Zaynab had developed an attitude that her religion was the “best religion” and the only “true religion.” But then she participated in a three-day Abrahamic Reunion project that brought students from the Muslim, Christian, Jewish and Druze faiths, to live together for three days under the supervision of their teachers. These students spent these three days eating together, sleeping together, and discussing open-ended questions, and participating in activities designed to transform their preconceived attitudes about “the other.”

Zaynab described the project as completely life altering, it was a 3 day experience that forever opened her heart and changed her attitude about other religions.

en years later, Zaynab remains in touch with students from this project; she says now a number of those students have children of their own and as young parents they dream of repeating the project with their own children in a few years.

We tell the members of the Ahmadiyya community, and the Jewish community that if they are interested in becoming trained as an interfaith project developer that the AR is available to mentor them or simply answer questions and offer support.

After watching our slide show and asking questions, women in the audience become inspired, begin to brainstorm and spontaneously discuss innovative interfaith project ideas of their own.

I ride home with Mrs Lubna (Navida) Ahmad, the Regional Secretary for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Women’s Association Middlesex, and it feels like the AR has found a friend in a community dedicated to the same ideals for peace and interfaith.

The Zohar, Ibn Arabi, and Interreligious Text Study at Cambridge University

UK Speaking Tour, November 2017

Sheikh Ghassan Manasra and Rev. Cherag Anna Less Phd travel to London and the UK for a late-autumn speaking tour which also includes National Interfaith Week in the UK. They are joined by Sheikh Ghassan’s daughter and AR young adult leader Zeynab Manasra, Rabbi Mordechai Zeller (trustee to AR UK and Rabbi in residence at Cambridge University), and Michael & Amanda Kenton, co-founders of AR UK.

The Zohar, Interreligious Text Study at Cambridge University with Rabbi Mordechai Zeller, and Ibn Arabi
Today we traveled to Cambridge to meet with Abrahamic Reunion Peacemaker Rabbi Mordechai Zellar who is currently the Jewish Chaplain at Cambridge University. It is interfaith week in England, and Mordechai has invited the Abrahamic Reunion, and the Cambridge University Islamic Society (ISOC) to his weekly Zohar study group.

The word Zohar means “splendor” or “radiance” and it is considered to be the core text of Jewish mystical thought known as Kabbalah, which offers a mystical interpretation of the Bible.

Composed by kabbalist Rav Shimon bar Yochai, the Zohar is a set of twenty-three books that provide a commentary on biblical and spiritual matters in the form of conversations among spiritual masters. On the one hand it is a vast, comprehensive commentary on biblical matters, and on the other hand it is intended to be a guidebook for the lost divine nature of our souls, and the Zohar describes all of the spiritual states that the sole experiences as it evolves. At the end of this process, the soul achieves what Kabbalah refers to as “the end of correction,” the highest level of spiritual wholeness.

Often written as a cipher, the codes, metaphors, and cryptic language of the Zohar are designed to provide channels for spiritual energy.

Hidden for 900 years between the 2nd and 11th centuries, the Zohar began to be shared in the 16th century when The Holy Ari, Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534-1572) stated that from his time onward, the wisdom of Kabbalah was ready to be opened to everyone.

The topic of today’s interfaith study group will be the relationship between Abraham and his nephew Lot from the perspective of Judaism, and Islam.

Mordechai, Ghassan and I have had a few conference calls to prepare for this evening. When Ghassan mentions to Mordechai that he would like to use Ibn Arabi’s book “The Bezels of Wisdom” as his source for speaking about Abraham, Mordechai not only runs out to get Ghassan a current copy of the book from the store, he makes arrangements for us to visit Cambridge University’s research library to study some of the earliest known copies of this precious book.

Called by Muslims “the greatest master,” Ibn Arabi was a Sufi born in twelfth-century Spain. At the end of his life, while in Damascus Ibn Arabi had a vision that prompted him to write this book. He describes the experience in his preface.

“I saw the Apostle of God in a visitation…He had in his hand a book, and he said to me, “This is the book, “The Bezels of Wisdom”, take it and bring it to men that they might benefit from it.”

A “Bezel” is a setting on a ring, and in Arab culture this “Bezel” would have been set with a gem and engraved with the wearer’s name, to make the ring into a seal.

The “setting” that holds Ibn Arabi’s gem of spiritual wisdom, describes the author’s mystical insights through the lives of each of the prophets, and Ghassan wants to share with our group Ibn Arabi’s esoteric commentaries on the life of Abraham.

As we walk on cobblestone streets, through Cambridge’s medieval neighborhoods, we feel as though we have already begun a journey back in time.

Outside the Cambridge Library Itai Kagen, the son of Rabbi Ruth Kagen and Michael Kagan, who have participated in many Abrahamic Reunion events in Israel, comes running up to us to embrace Ghassan. Visiting from Hebrew University, Itai is living in London to do Biblical research. He has heard that Ghassan will be teaching with Mordechai in Cambridge, and has traveled with his wife 2 hours by train to attend Mordechai’s Zohar class so he can hear Mordechai and Ghassan teach together. While we use the library’s research room to study Ibn Al’ Arabi, he will be here to study an ancient Hebrew manuscript found in Egypt.

We enter the library bearing 2 forms of ID. Security is tighter here than at the prison we had entered together two days earlier.

We are escorted through a series of locked doors that require pass codes, to a room containing Cambridge University’s most valuable and precious books. Photos are forbidden as two ancient volumes are offered to us on pillows. Only one person, Estara, the research specialist has permission to touch the books, and turn the pages, which have been mounted on special paper to preserve them. One book was composed in the 14 century, and the other one was written in the 16 century. Several different scribes hand wrote each volume, as Estara points out where the script of each different scribe changes. We hover around Estara, as she turns the pages, and Ghassan begins to read out loud when he comes to the section on Abraham. Certain pages contain blank symbols in the midst of the hand written script. Ghassan explains these esoteric symbols are ciphers and amulets used to transmit realization and messages to the reader. The margins of the pages contain hand written notes in Arabic, Hebrew, and other ancient languages, the work of long ago scholars deciphering the esoteric contents for their own research.

Ghassan reads aloud to us and translates as he goes along. The whole experience has a mystical quality so different than reading on the Internet, or from a modern mass-produced book. And we are mesmerized by the experience.

We also take time to visit Itai at the table behind us, as he carefully sifts through the fragments of an ancient Hebrew manuscript that have been suspended between large sheets of plastic. He and Mordechai and Ghassan read it together and Itai explains that he can speak at least eleven ancient biblical languages, and he is here to do research for his professors at Hebrew University. He says he and Estara will meet us later at Mordchai’s Zohar class.

As we gather for our meeting about 25 people enter the room. As they introduce themselves I am quick to realize that this text study group is not going to be like any text study group I have attended before. This will be a meeting of biblical scholars. Although many are still students most are postgraduates doing advanced biblical study.

Mordechai begins by telling the story of Abraham and Lot’s relationship, in a historical context, then Mordechai begins to use the Zohar to peel back the outer layers of the story and interpret the symbology and metaphors it contains to reveal the story’s luminous esoteric core

After Mordechai speaks, Ghassan begins to share Ibn Arabi’s spiritual interpretation of these stories.

I am stunned by the similarities and I wonder what is the connection between these two authors? What journeys have transpired, and what exchange of knowledge has taken place to inform these two great works? Surly the influences must be there. The similarities are obvious to everyone, and the scholars offer informed speculations, that may have transpired, and identify scholarly connections within and between these two spiritual lineages.

I have participated in many text study groups before, but I have never experienced such a profound, spiritual state as I have had in this text study group, I am left with a luminous sense of awe, and a powerful sense of spiritual truth as I listen to these two interpretations.

I feel grateful that the enlightened spiritual leaders in the Abrahmic Reunion such as Sheikh Ghassan Mansara and Rabbi Mordechai Zellar, are able to guide participants in these text study programs to break through the academic shell that can imprison the spiritual experience that the authors intended their readers to have.

UK Speaking Tour, November 2017

Sheikh Ghassan Manasra and Rev. Cherag Anna Less Phd travel to London and the UK for a late-autumn speaking tour which also includes National Interfaith Week in the UK. They are joined by Sheikh Ghassan’s daughter and AR young adult leader Zeynab Manasra, Rabbi Mordechai Zeller (trustee to AR UK and Rabbi in residence at Cambridge University), and Michael & Amanda Kenton, co-founders of AR UK.

Dinner with Syrian Refugees in London
November 8:

A number of you may have read my blogs from May about our visit with Alaa and his family, who are refugees from Syria living in London. I have recopied those blogs from May here to provide you with a back ground for today’s story (Click here to read those accounts).

Ghassan and I have stayed in touch with Alaa since May and we have learned that his brother Bahaa finally gained permission in June to move to England and join them. After two years separation, he has been reunited with his wife and children and has been living here and adapting to life in England. We are anxious to meet him and also to learn how Alaa is doing.

Of the many people we met on our last journey Alaa was perhaps the most enthusiastic person we had encountered. He expressed a great desire to learn to become an Abrahamic Reunion facilitator for interfaith text study groups. He saw it as a great method for helping the mostly Muslim Syrian Refugee community in which he is clearly a leader, to practice their English, and learn about the culture and beliefs of the English community they had now become members of.

A few months ago these dreams crumbled when we were heartbroken to learn that in August, just as Alaa had finally gained permission to work in England, he was diagnosed with colon cancer, and since then he has had his entire colon removed, and is currently in his third round of chemotherapy. It seemed that things had suddenly taken such a dire and unexpected turn for this young family, who a few months ago seemed on the verge of beginning a hopeful new life.

We have invited Alaa and his wife Taghrid and their daughter Yara as well as Alaa’s brother Bahaa and his wife and their two children to a nearby Syrian restaurant for dinner. They have told us that since leaving Syria over three years ago they have not been able to afford to go out to eat in a restaurant so we hoped this will be a special occasion for them.

The neighborhood where we stay in London is mostly inhabited by people from the Middle East. The grocery stores and restaurants advertise halal meat and feature foods common to that region of the world. The signs and menus are written in Arabic, and the staff is able to communicate with shoppers and diners in their native language. Women are typically dressed in full niqabs or hijabs. At times it is hard to remember we are in England, because it feels more like we are in a Middle Eastern country. We hope they will feel at home.

We are surprised when Alaa walks into the restaurant. He has a long beard and a full head of hair. He looks well, except for a sadness in his eyes. He explains that due to his low immune system doctors do not allow him to shave. We sit down to eat and they seem delighted to discuss the menu with the wait-staff in Arabic. The staff, who know us, and why we are here, are anxious to serve this family with love and kindness and treat them with special care.

It feels like a holiday and Alaa shyly shares, that tomorrow it is their one-year anniversary since arriving in England. As the evening continues he again expresses his desire to begin text study group for his community, but it is evident that his health is fragile and soon he appears very tired.

We take a short walk and they all express that they look forward to revisiting this neighborhood again soon as it is so comforting to be in a place that feels like home.

We stop on the sidewalk, to call an Uber and look up and see a big sign that says: “No one ever really dies.” Alaa walks over and takes a picture. It is a poignant moment as this young family considers their uncertain future.

Opening Hearts at Springhill Prison

UK Speaking Tour, November 2017

Sheikh Ghassan Manasra and Rev. Cherag Anna Less Phd travel to London and the UK for a late-autumn speaking tour which also includes National Interfaith Week in the UK. They are joined by Sheikh Ghassan’s daughter and AR young adult leader Zeynab Manasra, Rabbi Mordechai Zeller (trustee to AR UK and Rabbi in residence at Cambridge University), and Michael & Amanda Kenton, co-founders of AR UK.

Opening Hearts at Springfield Prison

November 7: Today Abrahamic Reunion’s UK tour had a presentation at Springhill Prison in Buckinghamshire, England.
Abrahamic Reunion Peacemakers Sheikh Ghassan Manasra (Director), Rabbi Mordechai Zeller (a former resident of Israel serving as the current Rabbi for Cambridge University, and a trustee for the Abrahamic Reunion in the UK), and I, Reverend Cherag Anna Less PhD, (AR Executive Director) together with Abrahamic Reunion youth leader, Zaynab Manasra, and our UK Abrahamic Reunion team, Michael and Amanda Kenton, and Yvonne Dixon the Quaker Chaplain at Springhill Prison, met to offer a presentation to approximately 80 inmates, staff members and chaplains at Springhill Prison.

Yvonne introduced us to the audience and spoke about Springhill’s history, which served as the training centre for British Special Forces during World War II. She explained that the gymnasium where we were giving our presentation was built by the prisoners and named after Britain’s first Muslim war heroine, Noor-un-Nisa Inayat Khan.

Although Springhill Prison shares the same grounds as Grendon Prison, where the Abrahamic Reunion had presented last year, Springhill has a very different population than Grendon Prison, which offers a therapeutic program for England’s most dangerous and violent criminals.

Springhill is an open prison that supports the needs of about 335 long-term prisoners who are in the last few years of their sentence. At Springhill prisoners train and prepare for their release, and participate in a resettlement program that allows them to work in jobs outside of the prison during daylight hours, and return to live in the prison when they are not working.

The majority of residents in our audience were Muslims and surprisingly for us, there were a number of Palestinians.

The Palestinians inmates eagerly gathered around Ghassan to speak with him in urgent, hushed Arabic while Mordechai and I made our presentations.

After all of us had spoken there was a Question and Answer period, and initially the tone of the inmate’s “questions”, which were directed at Mordechai, began as wounded and skeptical challenges that bordered on being aggressive.

But Ghassan immediately stepped in to skillfully navigate their hostility, and soothe them with quotes from the Quran and the Hadith.

He appealed to their innate desire for peace in ways that were culturally familiar for them, and once they felt their pain had been heard and responded to, they began to soften and calm down.

As Ghassan continued to raise their consciousness to a higher level, they reluctantly began to open their hearts to Mordechai (their preconceived enemy), and me (Mordechai’s naïve American accomplice, who didn’t understand their collective Muslim and Palestinian pain), and an atmosphere of trust, hope and camaraderie began to take over.

By the time the evening was winding down the inmates were asking, “Are there more people like you?” “Are there more people who believe what you believe?” In other words, “Is it really safe, and possible, to love one another?” As they hugged Ghassan and Mordechai goodbye, and shook my hand, they admitted what “a good guy” Mordechai was, and they shared that they had never met people like us, and this evening offered them the possibility to consider a new ending to an old story that always left them feeling like the victim. They asked how they could get in touch with us when they “get out.”

The authorities and staff at Springhill also immediately came forward at the end of the program to discuss our next steps together regarding offering programs, and in-depth trainings, here, and in other prisons they are responsible for.

As we packed our things to leave, we could finally exhale and thank the dedicated staff at Springhill. We send a special thanks to Chaplain Coordinator Brenda Davies and Yvonne Dixon for their support of the Abrahamic Reunion.