From the Park51 Ruckus Comes a Mission for Interfaith Harmony

Participants in a mission to Israel pose on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.

During the rancor and frayed tempers of last year’s Park51 Islamic community center controversy — during which some expressed opposition to an Islamic place of worship being placed a few blocks from Ground Zero in Lower Manhattan — it was hard to imagine communal harmony as an outcome.

And yet from all the quarrels emerged a remarkable joint mission, reports The Jewish Week. A group of 16 religious leaders from Manhattan joined together to visit Israel and the Palestinian territories. The idea for the trip began with the congregation of Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, who gave “quite an impassioned sermon” at the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, calling for “religious moderation” amidst the heated Park51 debate.

The result was a “Senior Religious Leaders Interfaith Mission to Israel” supported by philanthropic members of the congregation and led by Rabbi Hirsch last month. For five days, 16 hand-picked leaders of major congregations in Manhattan — Jews and Muslims, Catholics, Protestants and a Unitarian — traveled around Israel and the Palestinian territories, meeting with representatives of the three major monotheistic faiths.

Two of the leaders shared what they took from the experience.

One of the Muslim participants says he will incorporate lessons from the mission into a comparative religions course — a balanced course that presents the perspectives of Judaism, Christianity and Islam — at a New Jersey university where he teaches.

And Stephen Phelps, senior minister at the Riverside Church, says he will speak out against the Presbyterian denomination’s consideration of an anti-Israel resolution at a national conference this summer.

“The trip … to Israel/Palestine did not change my mind, but confirmed my view that increased investment in the West Bank is the policy to pursue, not disinvestment from the State of Israel or from certain companies with activities in the West Bank,” he told The Jewish Week in an e-mail interview. “I will not have a voice or vote in the national assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA this summer, but will express my view in other venues.”

In the end, it was the regular people they met that made the trip worthwhile, the participants explained.

In their remarks last week at Rabbi Hirsch’s synagogue, mission participants reported that one of the most moving moments of the trip was a meeting with Ronit, a grandmother who lives on a moshav near Israel’s border with Gaza. The moshav is subject to frequent shelling by Hamas terrorists in Gaza; the last attack had taken place the week before the New York delegation came.

“She was upbeat, despite the unyielding anticipation of unpredictable danger,” said Shaykh Ibrahim Abdul-Malik, a career educator who teaches at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck, N.J., and is a co-founder of the Imams Council of New York.

“She is keenly aware of the intransigent nature of the conflict,” said Shaykh Abdul-Malik, who visited Israel for the first time on the mission. “Her advice to us? She pleaded that we not take sides, but that we listen openly.”

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