During the last week of July, I never read a newspaper, never heard the radio, never turned on the TV. I recommend an annual respite from our 24/7 broadcast of whatever the editors and pundits think is worth noting, if only to experience the useful instruction that comes when we tune back in and find we haven’t missed much. Though there are real human stories behind the headlines — stories that matter a great deal to the people involved and even to those who aren’t — in the aggregate, they add up to something like the backdrop loops on those animated cartoons I watched on TV as a kid: as the main character runs for his life, every few seconds the same palm tree, the same mountain and the same cloud cross our field of vision — there it comes again!
In the silence created by switching off those who perpetually instruct us what to notice and how to think about it, a different kind of news emerges. In the place of casualty figures and disaster reports and the feeling of doom that gathers as they recycle, one starts to hear individual human voices, and very often, they tell stories of healing and possibility.
I spent the end of July at a biennial spiritual gathering, the ALEPH Kallah: 750 members of the Jewish renewal movement gathered from all over the world to study and learn, sing and dance, pray and connect. I got on the airplane on the 24th mired in complaint, wondering if I would be able to enter into the event; and I left on the 31st having absorbed so much wonderful teaching, friendship and energy, I felt like a brimful cup. This is the first of several short essays about the Kallah I will publish during the next couple of weeks.
One of the things I saw is that even though the commercial media portray Jews and Muslims as intractable enemies, many people are reaching across the divide with loving, constructive intention. The Kallah featured several opportunities to learn and get involved. One activity during the Kallah was a community service project, assembling a work party to make repairs to the equipment and grounds of the Islamic Center of a nearby town. Imam Fouad El-Bayly of the Islamic Center visited the Kallah earlier in the week for a dinner with some of the project’s organizers. Without telling anyone, he stayed around for the evening service, which was dedicated to prayers for peace and would be followed by the ordination of two rabbis. One of them, Shalom Schachter of Toronto, is a labor lawyer for a union, who made legal history by suing the Canadian government to extend parental benefits to men. For his ordination ceremony, he wrote a new prayer that reads in part:
Source of Life,
we seek Your blessings
not just for ourselves, our families and friends
but also for our communities, local and global.
What we want for ourselves,
we don’t wish to deny our neighbors
whether they be close or distant.
Instill in all our hearts a respect for one another and for all of your creation.
Strengthen our awareness of the fragility of our planet
and our responsibility to nurture as opposed to exploit it.
During services, one of the rabbis present felt a strong impulse she understood as needing to leave the room. But as she made her way to the door, she spotted the Imam sitting near the back. She asked him to give a blessing, and he made his way to the stage in time for one of the most powerful prayers for peace.
I will never forget the light that shone from his face as he delivered a spontaneous message to the assembled. “\As-Salaamu Alaikum\,” he said, and hundreds of Jews replied “\Wa Alaikum Salaam\.” “To tell you the truth,” Imam El-Bayly said — and it was evident he was speaking directly from the heart — “I was a little afraid to come here.” Then he laughed at himself with complete delight and compassion. As we joined in laughter at the absurdity of all our feelings of separation in the face of such evident connection, he said he felt us to be brothers and sisters, and we felt it too, and prayed to feel it always.
It is wonderful to experience a news flash like this, one that cuts through the pre-packaged headlines and delivers a deeper truth. But most wonderful of all was to see a brave man stand before a roomful of strangers and show us, in real time, what it is to face one’s fears with an open heart.
And that was only the first night of the Kallah! More soon.