Rabbi Nahman of Breslov taught that it is best to pray with the simplicity of a child; talking to God as if He were your best friend.
But what about praying alongside your neighbors as if they were your friends, with the ease of children on the playground? These ideas of simplicity and kinship in prayer are being utilized in Jerusalem on a monthly basis by Praying Together in Jerusalem, a group co-founded by Peta Jones Pellach of the Elijah Interfaith Institute and Russell McDougall, rector at the Tantur Ecumenical Institute.
When asked about the impetus to start Praying Together, Pellach said, “We were having a seminar on envisioning our future last summer, hosted by the Abrahamic Reunion, where many delegates came representing different organizations. We were brainstorming ideas, and it was out of this that Praying Together was born. We came to the conclusion that we really needed to pray side-by-side publicly and visibly.”
Discussions on where the ideal place would be to hold such an interfaith prayer group quickly followed, with a plethora of potential locations. The goal was to find neutral ground. The City Hall was dismissed, and Tzahal Square had military symbolism. Several other Jewish and Muslim venues were considered, but ultimately, Pellach and McDougall settled on the Jaffa Gate as the location for the first gathering in October.
“We chose October to begin the monthly Praying Together events, not knowing that it would be such a violent month. One Muslim did come to that first gathering. We’re now on our sixth meet-up, and on the average, we get about 40 Christians and 20 Jews,” Pellach added.
Muslim participation had been extremely low for the first five events; a fact that was distressing to all who are involved with Praying Together. The initial lack of Muslim attendance may be due to an incident last summer at another interfaith event, The Jerusalem Hug, where Muslim participants were attacked by another group of Muslim radicals, and accused of being “normalizers.”
Eliyahu McLean, founder of the Abrahamic Reunion and member and co-organizer of Praying Together, expounded, “Ever since then, many of our Palestinian friends have been afraid to come to our events in or around the Old City because of these anti-normalization thugs. They could show up at any moment to attack Muslims, simply for praying together for peace with Israeli Jews. They call it ‘normalizing the occupation.’ Obviously we would disagree with what they think we are or are not. The normal reality is fear and separation, so in my mind, we’re anti-normalizers.”
The sixth and most recent Praying Together event, held on May 9, was the first to bring a sizable Muslim attendance. The event was held at Tantur Ecumenical Institute, which served as a safe space for Muslim participants, who came by bus from Nablus, Husan (a village next to Beitar Illit), Jericho, and Beit Hanina in east Jerusalem.
It was a significant improvement upon past events, and no small feat to coordinate, as entry permits had to be secured by McLean for the Palestinian participants and coordinators, a process which takes about two weeks.
Cofounder McDougall stated, “We had a fairly good turnout at the Jaffa Gate gatherings, but at the same time, it hasn’t brought the whole family together; it has been mostly Jews and Christians. We felt the absence of part of our family that’s been missing. Today however, we have representation from all faiths together.”
McLean added, “The challenge now is outreach to Israeli Jews to get them to join these events, and have it not be only liberal Jewish Anglos.
We find that faith and spirituality are the best bridges to bring all of these people together. If we asked these people what their political views are, it would be polarizing. But praying together is simple and we want to honor Judaism, Islam, and Christianity in this way.”
Praying Together events are in three parts: learning from each other in groups, praying alongside one another, and then in the final holy act, eating together. The May 9 event began with Pellach sharing a line from last week’s Torah portion that is also found in the Koran, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Pellach shared that in her mind it was divine providence that the passage had such resonance with Praying Together’s ideology.
Immediately following this introduction, smaller groups were formed and the question “What does prayer mean to you?” went around the different circles. It was a fitting query to segue into a beautiful evening prayer service, where the Christian group, praying from a text compiled specially for the event by McDougall, stood alongside the Jewish group, who recited the afternoon and evening prayers, alongside the Muslim group, who prayed facing Mecca. The room during prayer time was full of different voices and language, each loud enough to be heard, but not overpowering one another; an interfaith symphony.
“Our hope is that the three members of the Abrahamic family can pray alongside one another.” McDougall summarized.
“We, as the children of Abraham, are able to stand beside one another in peace, brotherhood and sisterhood.”
This article first appeared in the Jerusalem Post, on May 19, 2016.