Overcoming division through encounter
Tue, 25 Feb 2020 | By NNA correspondent Cornelie Unger-Leistner
The interreligious Peace Exercise Week was held in Galilee for the sixth time last autumn. A special experience, as NNA correspondent Cornelie Unger-Leistner discovered.
How can people from a great variety of backgrounds and beliefs engage in dialogue, learn more about one another and encounter one another in peace? This key question of our time informs the work of the “Tor zur Welt”, the German sponsor of the Sha'ar laAdam - Bab l'il Insan meeting centre in Galilee where the interreligious Peace Exercise Weeks have been held since 2009. NNA correspondent Cornelie Unger-Leistner spoke with the organiser of the Weeks, the Christian Community priest Ilse Wellershoff-Schuur from Überlingen, and met participants of this year’s Peace Exercise Week in Jerusalem.
JERUSALEM/ÜBERLINGEN (NNA) – The Peace Exercise Weeks go back to the 1980s, a time in which peace and disarmament occupied the minds of people in Europe. NATO’s so-called Dual Track decision – to offer the then Warsaw Pact a mutual limitation of medium and intermediate range missiles combined with the threat that in case of disagreement NATO would deploy more middle-range nuclear weapons in Western Europe – and the continuing arms build up on both sides of the Iron Curtain brought hundreds and thousands of people out on to the streets.
As a result, an initiative came about in the Christian Community which aimed to work for peace in the world on a more inward path through prayer, knowledge of self and the world, as well as practical work in concrete projects. More recently, this initiative has translated into Peace Exercise Weeks which have taken place in the Sha'ar laAdam - Bab l'il Insan House of Devotion in Galilee every two years since 2009 – an initiative of lay people in the Christian Community which is organised each year in various other places as well.
One of the places in which these Exercise Weeks originally started was the Oberlin House in the Vosges mountains. “The participants read holy texts throughout the night but it was also about developing a sense of the surrounding area. There are parallels, after all, with Galilee because the Vosges mountains were the scene of major battles in the First World War. Those attending wanted to let the Eternal Light burn in such a place,” explains Ilse Wellershoff-Schuur.
The idea to take the Peace Exercise Weeks to the Holy Land was born in Estonia a short time after the fall of the Iron Curtain. “It came from Jewish participants from the former Soviet Union who had emigrated to Israel and wanted to contribute something of the impulse of the Peace Exercise Weeks there.”
Galilee offered a suitable location for such a meeting place. As early as 1998, an impulse arising from the youth camps of the Harduf kibbutz led to the foundation of the “Tor zur Welt” (Gateway to the World) association in Germany which wanted to support a local initiative between Jews and Arabs and be involved in the foundation of a meeting place for different cultures. In 2002, the project managed to acquire a plot of land near the kibbutz where a whole series of anthroposophical establishments were already located, including a Waldorf school, a special needs school and various artistic and social therapy initiatives. The founders of the project came from there and the neighbouring Bedouin village of Sawa’ed El-Homeira. This created the opportunity to work on overcoming the division in Israel between the Arab and Jewish communities, at least in this location.
House of Devotion at its heart
Today the initiative is in the process of building a House of Devotion and possesses an open-air stage, various residential buildings and a tent village which houses most of the students on the anthroposophical training courses. The festivals of the different cultures are celebrated together, seminars on various subjects are organised and young people from all over the world come to do voluntary service. Cultural projects with an interreligious character have an influence far beyond the location itself. The initiative took a major step forward through hosting intercultural and ecological vounteer programmes of the Jewish Agency which also enabled it to start building the accommodation. There is also a joint orientation semester for Arabic and Jewish school-leavers and volunteers from Europe also regularly attend.
The House of Devotion is at the heart of the initiative although it is still under construction. “It can already be used and we have held services in it, although windows and doors are still missing,” explains Ilse Wellershoff-Schuur. During her last stay in Galilee, part of an Arab wedding was held in the House of Devotion – with Arabic, Jewish and international guests. “It was a wonderful festival with music and speeches which would not have been possible in this way twenty-five years ago. A very mixed group came togehter: people from the Harduf kibbutz, present and past volunteers from all over the world, inhabitants of the Bedouin villages and the Arab towns nearby.”
Thus the House of Devotion turns into reality what the initiators wanted from the beginning: just being human beyond all group or religious affiliations. This is particularly important in the Holy Land because life in the various ethnic groups makes contact between the different population groups difficult.
Overcoming blinkered thinking
In the view of its founders, the work of the initiative can also reflect back to Europe: “In the Peace Exercise Weeks it is possible to experience through the variety of lifestyles the extent to which we are all shaped by our family origins and tradition. We can sense our own cultural preconceptions. But such blinkered thinking does not get us anywhere today, we have to work at a higher level on the universal aspects of what makes us human,” Ilse Wellershoff-Schuur emphasises. Anthroposophy provided a good basis for this which in this context was also easily accepted by participants who had not previously come into contact with its founder Rudolf Steiner.
But the priest, who is responsible in the Christian Community for work in the Middle East, among other things, is reluctant to use the term “peace work” for the initiative. That was in a different league and too ambitious: “What has grown here between people in Galilee has come about through steadfast relationships between individual people – that is the only way to practise humanity and it supports real encounters rather than ready-made solutions.” The Middle East with its complex problems and interrelationships showed, above all, that there are no simple solutions today. “The problems with which the rest of the world also has to struggle are concentrated here in the Holy Land like in a nutshell. All of us can learn from it – primarily how to deal with diversity and complexity.”
How, then, did the participants at this years Exercise Weeks experience their stay in Galilee? The group started its visit with a two-day stay in Jerusalem which began with a visit to the city museum in the David Tower. A tour along the Via Dolorosa, through the Kidron Valley, to the garden of Gethsemane, the Mount of Olives and the Wailing Wall gave the participants a picture of the diversity and complexity of Jerusalem. From the Jaffa Gate the group then took a minibus to Galilee.
Rianne is a Waldorf biology teacher from near Utrecht in the Netherlands. She was attending the Peace Exercise Week in Galilee for the second time. Looking back to 2017, she recalls that at that time little more existed of the House of Devotion in Sha'ar la Adam - Bab l'il Insan than the foundations. Young people from the kibbutz had built a sukkah on it. “We celebrated the act of consecration each morning in the sukkah, that was something quite special.”
People stayed, although it began to rain heavily on the second but last day. Sukkahs are part of the Sukkot festival in Israel and are even built on the balconies of flats and people eat and celebrate in them. It commemorates the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt when the people lived in provisional shelters. “They are actually made of organic material and leaves, which means that they don’t keep the water out. But the intention is to be able to see the stars in the sky,” explains Rianne. For the teacher, the joint celebration of the festivals of the three religions is a reason why she keeps returning for the Peace Exercise Week. She was all the more pleased to see how much progress there had been in the construction of the House of Devotion this year.
“We were only a small group this time round, but a strong one! We agreed on what we wanted to do. We also tried the night reading but since we were not that many people we could not read throughout the whole of the night.”
Language of the heart
Visits to the Bedouin villages led to an invitation to an Arab family with grandmother and three following generations of women. A lasting impression was also left by a joint discussion session in the House of Devotion at which the sheikh from a local village also spoke. “There was translation but it could be felt how much the sheikh spoke from the heart.” The Waldorf teacher was already familiar with Israel beyond the Peace Exercise Week and has visited the country with her class. Now she intends to engage herself in setting up a sponsoring association for the Sha'ar laAdam - Bab l'il Insan project also in the Netherlands. She is certain that she wants to be there in two years’ time: “It is the encounter between people, heart to heart, which you take home with you and which continues to work here among us as well.”
Kajo, a retired Waldorf class and upper school teacher from the lower Rhine had often visited Israel before but this was his first time at the Peace Exercise Week. Ilse Wellershoff-Schuur’s book Am Kreuz der Erde had drawn his attention to it. “It fascinated me so much that I read it twice and then absolutely wanted to join in,” he explains. His visit to Galilee had then been even more impressive than could have been predicted from the book: “The kibbutz, all the people, that there are so many Waldorf schools in Israel – all of that came as a surprise to me although I have often been in Israel.”
For Kajo, too, the human encounters were the most impressive experience of the Peace Exercise Week – the meeting with the various communities, for example, at the inauguration of the House of Devotion: “As the sheikh from the neighoubring village told us, they speak five languages in his village. Those are citizens of the world …” Kajo was also surprised to discover how many people he met in and around the kibbutz who were already familiar with the subject of anthroposophy.
Alongside the prayers, nighttime reading and discussion groups, the programme of the Peace Exercise Week also includes excursions. This time it was a visit to the ancient port of Akko, then Tabgha on the Sea of Galilee and also Mount Tabor. Kajo found that these places led to special experiences: “It is an interesting feeling in these places, out in the open, where – unlike in Jerusalem – not everything is built up. It’s not just nature but a sense of the whole of the geological foundation.” He had been particularly moved by the visit to the Eremos Grotto above Tabgha which, as the story has it, was the place to which Jesus is said to have gone to pray. There had been much prayer in these Biblical locations and the corresponding passages had been read there. But: “We were also silent together for a lot of the time.”
One experience which the Waldorf teacher likes to remember is the music and drama festival in the old town of Akko: “Without a drop of alcohol – that was a real contrast with our festivals here in Germany.” Kajo, too, wants to return to Galilee for the next Exercise Week, health permitting. At the end he still mentions his accommodation in the kibbutz – a reflection that attending the Exercise Week in this location also requires some courage: since the other rooms were already fully booked, Kajo stayed in the air raid shelter. “I slept well and felt absolutely safe,” he says in conclusion.
Item: 200225-02EN Date: 25 February 2020
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