Last week, a group of us who are spending this year studying in Israel made our way from Jerusalem to Neve Shalom Wahat al-Salam, a village jointly established by Jewish and Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel to educate toward peace and reconciliation.
We came to take part in an evening of music and dialogue put on by the Sulha Peace Project. The Sulha happens frequently throughout the year; this particular gathering was convened in anticipation of the UN vote on Palestinian Statehood. As a grassroots reconciliation project, the goal of the Sulha events is to bring together the “children of Abraham” at peace gatherings that allow for honest communication and deep connection with the goal of helping to heal the deep divide that has formed among those who live in this region. Last week’s event was held to create a space to hold the increasingly intense anticipation, anxiety, hope and fear that many who live here are feeling at this juncture in the unfolding history of this region and to build bridges where for so long there have been walls.
In trying to figure out how to get the group of us from Jerusalem to Neve Shalom, it turned out it was easiest to have the bus coming from Palestine stop and pick us up at the edge of the city. Rather than arriving at the Sulha in our own car, or on a bus of Jewish Israelis, we came with the Palestinians and Arab Israelis. It was an unplanned yet important opportunity that gave us a sense of kinship and solidarity that likely would not have been fostered if we had shown up with a bus of Jews and met at the event itself.
I met a 15-year-old Arab Israeli boy who walked around introducing himself to everyone and shaking our hands, pleased to have us on the bus and eager to assume to role of host. I spoke with a girl a little younger than me originally from Iraq currently living in Palestine. She was overjoyed to have driven through Jerusalem on the way to the Sulha—it’s been twelve years since she’s been. We heard about the process of applying for visas to come to the Sulha—a many-month-long process that begins with complete rejection of the application and finally eventually grants a portion of those applying permission. When we hopped on the bus after a day of classes around 5:00pm, those on the bus had already been traveling for many hours, the forty-mile trip to the Sulha taking up the entirety of their day due to delays at check points.
Out among the scraggly brush of the desert, the Sulha began at dusk and went late into the evening. We gathered together: Jewish and Arab Israelis, Palestinians, our small contingent of American Jews, and others; kids and adults wore everything from flowy skirts and colorful scarves to tight jeans and slicked back hair. Statements of welcome flowed in Hebrew and Arabic, as those English-speakers among us did our best to follow along. The event began with all of circled around the fire pit. The fire was lit and as the sun sank the surrounding land began to melt into the background as the faces around us became illuminated.
In honor of Elul (the Jewish month of introspection that leads up to the Jewish new year of Rosh HaShannah) the shofar was blasted. The sounding of the shofar sent haunting wails ricocheting throughout the desert. The blasts reverberated in our bodies, publicly acknowledging in a language older than words the individual and communal pain, suffering, and yearning for wholeness that fills each of us.
Echoing the truth, simplicity, and power of the shofar was the prayerful music led by Fred Johnson. Fred is a Sufi mystic whose music is rooted in the African tribal tradition. As half the group met in a separate room to begin sharing circles together, a hundred or so of us gathered for Fred’s session. He led us with two of the most basic and simple tools we humans possess: breath and voice. With his clear, booming, and exquisite singing he led us through exercises that explored the power of the vibrations we create. We held our hands on our stomach and our head and felt the different sensations of the vibrations being emitted. We harmonized and moved to the rhythms we were creating and generated a joyful, playful energy that began to link us all together.
In framing the work we were doing together Fred said, “The sound of your voice vibrates inside of you before it goes out into the world. Creating a vibration of love and peace begins with us vibrating on the inside. The only way to change the world is to find something within us that constantly reminds us that life is precious—the energy of love will move inside of you and it will move the world.”
As a Caucasian American it was powerful to hear these words spoken by an African American man to a group of Arab Israelis, Palestinians, and Jews. Beyond his words, to me his physical presence seemed to be saying: change does happen, injustice can be overcome, wounds do heal, forgiveness is possible.
Yesterday morning I woke up at 4:00am to make it to a small Kurdish shul for Selichot (penitential prayers), which begin at sunrise every day for the month of Elul through Yom Kippur. As I ventured out into the deep darkness before dawn the streets were still asleep and I could hear the more subtle sounds of this land. The Muslim morning prayers echoed in the air, sounding like an ancient creature groaning in the night. Unable to locate where exactly they were coming from, the sounds resonated all around me and felt as if they were coming up from the very land itself. I made my way to Selichot and added my own voice to these groans through the traditional Sefardic melodies and trills. Sounds of prayer and shofar from the many surrounding houses of worship began to envelope me and open me at once. The vibrations of the yearnings of so many others awakened within me my own longings—for Gd, for connection, for forgiveness, for healing, for peace.
“The sound of your voice vibrates inside of you before it goes out into the world.”
This is an auspicious time in the Jewish year cycle when the gates on high may be open to our prayers. My prayer for all of us is that beyond, between, or though the words and melodies and rituals that we engage in during these High Holy Days, we are learning how to move the energy of love within ourselves so that it can move the world.
My own image (via Wikimedia Commons)