The recent round of fighting between Israel and Gaza was depressing to most Israelis and Palestinians. This tragically has been the history of life in Israel since the Jewish people returned to our ancestral homeland in 1948. Many of my friends and neighbors have fought in several wars. Many of them spent their early childhoods sleeping in bomb shelters. Many Palestinians have lived in refugee camps, lost friends and family, and lived in fear for decades.
We yearn for the day that our Palestinian friends and neighbors will no longer suffer as the result of our need to defend our nation.
Yet, there is hope for peace for the people in our region. I am blessed to live in Haifa, which is the city of peaceful coexistence.
There is a popular expression in Israel: “In JERUSALEM people pray, in HAIFA they work, in TEL AVIV they have fun”. Haifa gives the impression of a world light-years away from the religiosity of Jerusalem and the skyscrapers of Tel Aviv. Here everything is different. The city is positioned on top of a magnificent bay, and although the typical white stone that is characteristic of the whole country prevails, the buildings and skyscrapers have a variety of styles.The port is busy with bustling commerce. The many industries in the area are mainly concentrated in the so called Krayot, surrounding villages. There are three major universities and a high-tech center known as Matam.
The city is dotted with gardens. The most prominent is at the world center of the Baha’i religion, with the tombs of the Bab (Mirza Muhammad Ali) and Abbas Efendi, son and successor of the founder of the faith, Bahá’u’lláh. The presence of the Baha’i, for so long persecuted in various Middle East countries, is evidence of the tolerant social fabric of this city. Haifa is the spiritual and administrative center of the Baha’i.
Haifa has a multiethnic and multi-religious population of 260,000, with a Jewish prevalence (91%). The well integrated Arab minority is Christian (4.5%), Muslim (3.5%) and Druze (1%). Road signs in Cyrillic, alongside Hebrew, Arabic and English, are signs of the extensive Russian community here (25%).
In the past, peaceful coexistence, however, could not be taken for granted. Here too, in fact, the birth of the State of Israel was marked by tensions and blood. Haifa’s port became the arrival site of thousands of Jewish immigrants after World War II and the departure port for the Arabs ﬂeeing during the 1947–48 Arab-Israeli war. Clashes between Arabs and Jewish paramilitary groups led to numerous casualties on both sides.
Over the years, many worked at rebuilding this social harmony and religious tolerance that has very ancient roots. Haifa, in act, is built on the slopes and foot of Mount Carmel, where according to tradition the prophet Elijah lived. A cave called Elijah’s Grotto is inside a Carmelite monastery and is venerated by Jewish, Christian and Muslim pilgrims.
The effort to integrate social, cultural, and religious identity in an area with a high risk of conﬂict has warranted the continued commitment of all the groups present in the area to administer it. The civic and religious communities both have a decisive role.
I have been blessed to participate in some of the efforts to maintain and even improve the harmony between faiths and cultures in Haifa. Each month for the past five years I have participated in a joint study session promoted by the Catholic Focolare. Rabbi Edgar Nof developed this activity within the Jewish community. The Focolare does a myriad of spiritual, cultural, social, and economic programs worldwide- based on their primary tenet "Unity for All". The members of the Focolare live by the golden rule "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." We study each other's faiths with the goal of understanding not changing each others views and values. We have hosted and promoted an interfaith Choir performance and took part in a four day interfaith spiritual retreat at Kibbutz Nes Ammim in the Galilee.
The event was done in the summers of 2009 and 2010. Jews, Christians, and Muslims from both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian border took part in the retreat took part in a four day interfaith spiritual retreat at Kibbutz Nes Ammim in the Galilee. The event was done in the summers of 2009 and 2010. Jews, Christians, and Muslims from both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian border took part in the retreat. We studied each others holy books, prayed together, and enjoyed meeting participants from dozens of countries. Our only real source of contention was the nature of the cuisine! We were the first Jewish participants in this convention in the history of Israel-Palestine.
We also sent a delegation to the world renowned Run4Unity. It was held for the first time ever in Haifa in the year 2008. Youth from Israel-Palestine participated in a variety of sports activities held at Haifa's Carmel Beach. Several hundred youth from Israel and Palestine shared this activity without contention. Jewish, Christian, and Muslim young people participated. The last event was held in Caesarea in May of this year.
My favorite interfaith experience took place in November of 2009. We joined our friends from the local Muslim Ahmadiyya School in Haifa to host a youth "Soccer for Peace" program at their school in the Cababir part of Haifa. Jewish youth from Temple Or Hadash played soccer with the Ahmadi team from Cababir in a tournament of a three game event. The Ahmadiyya are peaceful followers of Islam. They have more than one hundred million followers in the world. Many live in Indonesia, Pakistan and England.
Our team coach was Timothy Crowe, a Southern Baptist envoy to Israel from Dallas Texas. The kids enjoyed the beautiful Haifa fall weather, and a feast of cookies, cakes, pizza and soft drinks that followed the games.
I am writing this post while sitting at The Ego Food and Coffee in the world famous Dan Panorama Hotel and mall. The cafe is owned by Hannah whose family immigrated to Israel from Poland in 1948. The hotel cafe on the second floor of the center is managed by Muad who is a Muslim and my friend. On my way home I will stop to buy groceries at our local Macolet or quick stop grocery store. The owners are Christian Arabs who were born and raised in Haifa.
I am looking forward to celebrating Hanukkah with my Focolare friends as has been the case for the past five years. Joint celebrations of the holidays are common in Haifa. We will share Christmas together and plan activities for the coming year to bring harmony between the faiths in Haifa and throughout the region.