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Interfaith encounters of the rabbinic kind
Washington Jewish Week / March 5, 2009

By Larry Luxner

SPRINGFIELD, Va. Anyone who could get a radical Hamas fundamentalist and a hardcore Jewish settler from the West Bank to sit down and discuss religion and actually enjoy it might be worth listening to on the subject of Middle East peace.

Yehuda Stolov is that man. Last week, the Orthodox rabbi from Jerusalem stopped in northern Virginia while on a U.S. tour to promote the Interfaith Encounter Association, the nonprofit organization he founded eight years ago.

Speaking one day at Congregation Adat Reyim in Springfield and the next day at Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in McLean, the 48-year-old religious scholar said his group actively embraces religion through weekend retreats, women's meetings and informal "encounters" that take place all across Israel, from the Upper Galilee down to Eilat.

"Many of these other 'interfaith' groups work on the premise that once we establish two states one for Israelis and one for the Palestinians everything else will be solved," he explained. "They are very secularized, believing that the farther away you stay from religion, the better you are. But religion does not go away just because you don't look at it. It's a powerful force and can also be used constructively as well as destructively."

Stolov, who studied physics at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, planned to become a full-time academic when he realized where his true calling lay. In 2001, he and a group of other idealists established the IEA with the aim of promoting "real and sustainable co-existence" through honest religious exchange among Jews, Christians and Muslims.

"Interfaith dialogue is very effective for three reasons," he explained. "First, it takes the conversation to a much deeper place. Even those who are not religious are somehow connected to their traditions. And even if they're completely detached, the discussion has deep existential values. So when people talk about their feelings, they're not quoting a book, they're sharing themselves."

Secondly, said Stolov, those who engage in interfaith dialogue discover "many commonalities among their religions," and third, "we end up developing friendships with people we disagree with."

The interfaith groups meet once a month for two or three hours, usually focusing on a specific geographic area or interest such as health care or women's rights. Stolov said 2,000 to 3,000 people are involved with Interfaith Encounter on a regular basis. Of the 29 groups that meet regularly, 27 are within Israel proper; another two bring together Israeli Jews and Palestinians from the West Bank.

The group has been particularly effective in the Israeli development town of Karmiel and the Arab village adjacent to it, Majd el-Krum. The two neighboring communities are featured in a video about IEA, which in 2006 was awarded the Immortal Chaplains Foundation's 2006 Prize for Humanity.

"Our goal is to provide each person a group close to his home and heart," he said. "Most of our activities are among Israeli Jews, Muslims, Christians and Druze. We even have a few groups where no Jews at all are involved."

But Stolov said 29 groups is just the beginning.

"If we want to transform a country of 10 million people, which includes the Palestinians, we need hundreds of groups," he said. "We live in the same land. We need to learn how to interact positively."

In addition to those groups, IEA sponsors the Middle East Abrahamic Forum, an annual event that has brought together Muslims, Jews, Christians and others from Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Qatar, Tunisia, Turkey and even Iran.

IEA operates on a $100,000 annual budget and is constantly seeking donations from private individuals as well as foundations.

In Israel, the interfaith encounters usually take place in Hebrew, because Israeli Arabs usually speak better Hebrew than Israeli Jews speak Arabic. Palestinian-Israeli encounters are more difficult to arrange, because travel permits must be obtained in advance. Despite the obstacles, IEA has managed to sponsor group meetings between young adults from Jerusalem and the West Bank city of Hebron, and another group that brings together Jewish settlers from Ma'aleh Adumim and Arab residents of nearby Abu Dis.

"Extremists can also get along well," Stolov recalled. "Once, I organized a very small encounter between a Hamas radical and a local Jewish leader who was from the ideological core of the settlement movement. They got along very well. We were all shocked with how well their conversation went. But then the intifada broke out, and we didn't continue."

Stolov says his organization frowns on political debates, though it doesn't forbid it either. He declined to comment on Israel's current political stalemate between Binyamin Netanyahu and Tzipi Livni, saying only that "if we have two states, then they have to be two friendly states. And if we have one state, Israel, it has to accommodate all of its non-Jewish citizens. We're not advocating one type of solution or another just that we become more human."

The rabbi added that he welcomes not only open-minded, decent Arabs and Jews to participate, but skeptical and angry people as well.

"For me, it's enough that they come," he said. "If I required that only people with goodwill come, then our program would be less effective, because then I'd get only people who were good from the beginning."

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