UK Speaking Tour, November 2017
Sheikh Ghassan Manasra and Rev. Cherag Anna Less Phd travel to London and the UK for a late-autumn speaking tour which also includes National Interfaith Week in the UK. They are joined by Sheikh Ghassan’s daughter and AR young adult leader Zeynab Manasra, Rabbi Mordechai Zeller (trustee to AR UK and Rabbi in residence at Cambridge University), and Michael & Amanda Kenton, co-founders of AR UK.
November 10, 2017
Rabbi Jonathon Wittenberg is Masorti Judaism’s senior rabbi in the UK. He is also the Rabbi of the New North London Synagogue, which has approximately 2400 members. Besides being a leading writer and thinker on Judaism, he is also a board member of the Elijah Interfaith Institute, an organization that partners with the Abrahamic Reunion and Tantur Institute, to co-sponsor “Praying Together In Jerusalem”, a monthly event whose participants believe in the power of side-by-side prayer to bring friendship, respect and, ultimately, peace between people of all faiths. These gatherings have been held at various venues within, and outside the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem since 2015. They are currently held on the last Thursday of every month, at sunset, at the Jaffa Gate.
For more information you can contact Abrahamic Reunion Board Member, Raanan Mallek: firstname.lastname@example.org
Rabbi Wittenberg and his congregation together with a few other congregations have collectively taken on the responsibility of supporting a community of Syrian Refugees in their North London district of Finchly, and it was at his home, last spring that the Abrahamic Reunion was invited to co-host an interfaith Iftar for those refugees, and the congregations that support them. To this day we have still maintained a close relationship with the Syrian families we met there.
The depth of Jonathon Wittenberg’s commitment to these refugee families and to interfaith can best be described in his own blog, which begins like this:
Refugees from Nazi Germany, new to London, twice bombed out in 1940, my mother and her family were taken in by a devout Christian couple, the Micklems. These good people welcomed them into their home in Boxmoor, where they stayed until the end of the war.
When they were leaving, my mother said to Mrs Micklem:
How can I ever thank you enough?
One day you’ll help others who are refugees as you once were. That’s how you’ll thank us.
(To read more: http://jonathanwittenberg.org/community/an-impassioned-plea-for-refugees/)
This time we have been invited to Rabbi Wittenberg’s home to help him commemorate, together with members of his large congregation, the event described in Genesis of when Isaac and Ishmael come together to bury their father, Abraham.
Then Abraham breathed his last and died at a good old age, an old man and full of years; and he was gathered to his people. His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah near Mamre, in the field of Ephron, son of Zohar the Hittite, in the field Abraham had bought from the Hittites. There Abraham was buried with his wife Sarah.
The story is profound in its simplicity: Isaac and Ishmael, half-brothers who earlier did not get along, come together in peace to bury their father. It’s an amazing story of forgiveness that I think still says a lot to us today.
It is Shabbat so no photographs are allowed, but I have included some stock photos of Rabbi Wittenberg that convey his deeply compassionate nature.
We meet many influential members of the Jewish community in Rabbi Wittenberg’s home. Most of them hail from all over the world, and have fascinating backgrounds.
One older woman, Judith, explains that her family came from Aleppo, Syria but she was born and raised in Jerusalem and although she is Jewish, her first language was Arabic, “because at that time almost all of the Jews in my generation who lived in Jerusalem spoke Arabic as their first language.”
I was also surprised to learn that Judith’s brothers and sisters had Arabic names rather than Jewish names. “It didn’t used to be like it is now,” she says, “in those days we all lived together, we spoke Arabic, we were neighbors, and we were friends.”
I am in awe of this woman, who although she is 88 years old, is still a practicing psychotherapist who travels to the West Bank and Israel regularly to train and mentor psychotherapists there. She founded, and is the chair of an organization in the UK called the “Friends of the Bereaved Familes’ Forum”, a group that supports 600 Israeli and Palestinian families who have lost close relatives to inter-communal violence, and are determined to spare others what they have suffered.
The next day, for Interfaith Week, Judith will be speaking to the congregation of a large mosque in London to represent the Jewish community, and the perspective of the “Friends of the Bereaved Familes’ Forum.”
We were also happy to meet Liron Velleman again. Liron is the Campaign’s Manager for the Union of Jewish Students. (UJS), which represents 85,000 Jewish students on campuses across the UK and Ireland. Last year we met Liron at an Abrahamic Reunion event he help organize for students, at the Jewish Community Centre in London.
Another gentleman seeks us out, and takes our card and says he is anxious to connect, because he was the psychotherapist who trained the therapists at Grendon Prison, where he knows The Abrahamic Reunion has been working. He wants to support our prison work and we are eager to follow up.
Other important connections are made, and since that evening a number of participants, who took our cards, have reached out to connect.
Thank you Rabbi Wittenberg for supporting our work. We look forward to being together again soon.
Dear readers, your donations have enabled us to expand the Abrahamic Reunion’s support network in the UK, where our work is rapidly growing. Please continue to support us and donate to the Abrahamic Reunion.
Rabbi Wittenberg visiting Syrian Refugee camp in Greece.
The Zohar, Interreligious Text Study at Cambridge University with Rabbi Mordechai Zeller, and Ibn Arabi
Today we traveled to Cambridge to meet with Abrahamic Reunion Peacemaker Rabbi Mordechai Zellar who is currently the Jewish Chaplain at Cambridge University. It is interfaith week in England, and Mordechai has invited the Abrahamic Reunion, and the Cambridge University Islamic Society (Isoc) to his weekly Zohar study group.
The word Zohar means “splendor” or “radiance” and it is considered to be the core text of Jewish mystical thought known as Kabbalah, which offers a mystical interpretation of the Bible.
Composed by kabbalist Rav Shimon bar Yochai, the Zohar is a set of twenty-three books that provide a commentary on biblical and spiritual matters in the form of conversations among spiritual masters. On the one hand it is a vast, comprehensive commentary on biblical matters, and on the other hand it is intended to be a guidebook for the lost divine nature of our souls, and the Zohar describes all of the spiritual states that the sole experiences as it evolves. At the end of this process, the soul achieves what Kabbalah refers to as “the end of correction,” the highest level of spiritual wholeness.
Often written as a cipher, the codes, metaphors, and cryptic language of the Zohar are designed to provide channels for spiritual energy.
Hidden for 900 years between the 2nd and 11th centuries, the Zohar began to be shared in the 16th century when The Holy Ari, Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534-1572) stated that from his time onward, the wisdom of Kabbalah was ready to be opened to everyone.
The topic of today’s interfaith study group will be the relationship between Abraham and his nephew Lot from the perspective of Judaism, and Islam.
Mordechai, Ghassan and I have had a few conference calls to prepare for this evening. When Ghassan mentions to Mordechai that he would like to use Ibn Arabi’s book “The Bezels of Wisdom” as his source for speaking about Abraham, Mordechai not only runs out to get Ghassan a current copy of the book from the store, he makes arrangements for us to visit Cambridge University’s research library to study some of the earliest known copies of this precious book.
Called by Muslims “the greatest master,” Ibn Arabi was a Sufi born in twelfth-century Spain. At the end of his life, while in Damascus Ibn Arabi had a vision that prompted him to write this book. He describes the experience in his preface.
“I saw the Apostle of God in a visitation…He had in his hand a book, and he said to me, “This is the book, “The Bezels of Wisdom”, take it and bring it to men that they might benefit from it.”
A “Bezel” is a setting on a ring, and in Arab culture this “Bezal” would have been set with a gem, engraved with the wearer’s name, to make the ring into a seal.
The “setting” that holds Ibn Arabi’s gem of spiritual wisdom, describes the author’s mystical insights through the lives of each of the prophets, and Ghassan wants to share with our group Ibn Arabi’s esoteric commentaries on the life of Abraham.
As we walk on cobblestone streets, through Cambridge’s medieval neighborhoods, we feel as though we have already begun a journey back in time.
Outside the Cambridge Library Itai Kagen, the son of Rabbi Ruth Kagen and Michael Kagan, who have participated in many Abrahamic Reunion events in Israel, comes running up to us to embrace Ghassan. Visiting from Hebrew University, Itai is living in London to do Biblical research. He has heard that Ghassan will be teaching with Mordechai in Cambridge, and has traveled with his wife 2 hours by train to attend Mordechai’s Zohar class so he can hear Mordechai and Ghassan teach together. While we use the library’s research room to study Ibn Al’ Arabi, he will be here to study an ancient Hebrew manuscript found in Egypt.
We enter the library bearing 2 forms of ID. Security is tighter here than at the prison we had entered together two days earlier.
We are escorted through a series of locked doors that require pass codes, to a room containing Cambridge University’s most valuable and precious books. Photos are forbidden as two ancient volumes are offered to us on pillows. Only one person, Estara, the research specialist has permission to touch the books, and turn the pages, which have been mounted on special paper to preserve them. One book was composed in the 14 century, and the other one was written in the 16 century. Several different scribes hand wrote each volume, as Estara points out where the script of each different scribe changes. We hover around Estara, as she turns the pages, and Ghassan begins to read out loud when he comes to the section on Abraham. Certain pages contain blank symbols in the midst of the hand written script. Ghassan explains these esoteric symbols are ciphers and amulets used to transmit realization and messages to the reader. The margins of the pages contain hand written notes in Arabic, Hebrew, and other ancient languages, the work of long ago scholars deciphering the esoteric contents for their own research.
Ghassan reads aloud to us and translates as he goes along. The whole experience has a mystical quality so different than reading on the Internet, or from a modern mass-produced book. And we are mesmerized by the experience.
We also take time to visit Itai at the table behind us, as he carefully sifts through the fragments of an ancient Hebrew manuscript that have been suspended between large sheets of plastic. He and Mordechai and Ghassan read it together and Itai explains that he can speak at least eleven ancient biblical languages, and he is here to do research for his professors at Hebrew University. He says he and Estara will meet us later at Mordchai’s Zohar class.
As we gather for our meeting about 25 people enter the room. As they introduce themselves I am quick to realize that this text study group is not going to be like any text study group I have attended before. This will be a meeting of biblical scholars. Although many are still students most are postgraduates doing advanced biblical study.
Mordechai begins by telling the story of Abraham and Lot’s relationship, in a historical context, then Mordechai begins to use the Zohar to peel back the outer layers of the story and interpret the symbology and metaphors it contains to reveal the story’s luminous esoteric core
After Mordechai speaks, Ghassan begins to share Ibn Arabi’s spiritual interpretation of these stories.
I am stunned by the similarities and I wonder what is the connection between these two authors? What journeys have transpired, and what exchange of knowledge has taken place to inform these two great works? Surly the influences must be there. The similarities are obvious to everyone, and the scholars offer informed speculations, that may have transpired, and identify scholarly connections within and between these two spiritual lineages.
I have participated in many text study groups before, but I have never experienced such a profound, spiritual state as I have had in this text study group, I am left with a luminous sense of awe, and a powerful sense of spiritual truth as I listen to these two interpretations.
I feel grateful that the enlightened spiritual leaders in the Abrahmic Reunion such as Sheikh Ghassan Mansara and Rabbi Mordechai Zellar, are able to guide participants in these text study programs to break through the academic shell that can imprison the spiritual experience that the authors intended their readers to have.
If you are interested in learning how to start an Abrahamic Reunion text study chapter please contact Anna Less, the Executive Director of the Abrahamic Reunion, at email@example.com
Dinner with Syrian Refugees in London
A number of you may have read my blogs from May about our visit with Alaa and his family, who are refugees from Syria living in London. I have recopied those blogs from May here to provide you with a back ground for today’s story.
Ghassan and I have stayed in touch with Alaa since May and we have learned that his brother Bahaa finally gained permission in June to move to England and join them. After two years separation, he has been reunited with his wife and children and has been living here and adapting to life in England. We are anxious to meet him and also to learn how Alaa is doing.
Of the many people we met on our last journey Alaa was perhaps the most enthusiastic person we had encountered. He expressed a great desire to learn to become an Abrahamic Reunion facilitator for interfaith text study groups. He saw it as a great method for helping the mostly Muslim Syrian Refugee community in which he is clearly a leader, to practice their English, and learn about the culture and beliefs of the English community they had now become members of.
A few months ago these dreams crumbled when we were heartbroken to learn that in August, just as Alaa had finally gained permission to work in England, he was diagnosed with colon cancer, and since then he has had his entire colon removed, and is currently in his third round of chemotherapy. It seemed that things had suddenly taken such a dire and unexpected turn for this young family, who a few months ago seemed on the verge of beginning a hopeful new life.
We have invited Alaa and his wife Taghrid and their daughter Yara as well as Alaa’s brother Bahaa and his wife and their two children to a nearby Syrian restaurant for dinner. They have told us that since leaving Syria over three years ago they have not been able to afford to go out to eat in a restaurant so we hoped this will be a special occasion for them.
The neighborhood where we stay in London is mostly inhabited by people from the Middle East. The grocery stores and restaurants advertise halal meat and feature foods common to that region of the world. The signs and menus are written in Arabic, and the staff is able to communicate with shoppers and diners in their native language. Women are typically dressed in full niqabs or hijabs. At times it is hard to remember we are in England, because it feels more like we are in a Middle Eastern country. We hope they will feel at home.
We are surprised when Alaa walks into the restaurant. He has a long beard and a full head of hair. He looks well, except for a sadness in his eyes. He explains that due to his low immune system doctors do not allow him to shave. We sit down to eat and they seem delighted to discuss the menu with the wait-staff in Arabic. The staff, who know us, and why we are here, are anxious to serve this family with love and kindness and treat them with special care.
It feels like a holiday and Alaa shyly shares, that tomorrow it is their one-year anniversary since arriving in England. As the evening continues he again expresses his desire to begin text study group for his community, but it is evident that his health is fragile and soon he appears very tired.
We take a short walk and they all express that they look forward to revisiting this neighborhood again soon as it is so comforting to be in a place that feels like home.
We stop on the sidewalk, to call an Uber and look up and see a big sign that says: “No one ever really dies.” Alaa walks over and takes a picture. It is a poignant moment as this young family considers their uncertain future.
Opening Hearts at Springfield Prison
November 7: Today Abrahamic Reunion’s UK tour had a presentation at Springhill Prison in Buckinghamshire, England.
Abrahamic Reunion Peacemakers Sheikh Ghassan Manasra (Director), Rabbi Mordechai
Zeller (a former resident of Israel serving as the current Rabbi for Cambridge University, and a trustee for the Abrahamic Reunion in the UK), and I, Reverend Cherag Anna Less PhD, (AR Executive Director) together with Abrahamic Reunion youth leader, Zaynab Manasra, and our UK Abrahamic Reunion team, Michael and Amanda Kenton, and Yvonne Dixon the Quaker Chaplain at Springhill Prison, met to offer a presentation to approximately 80 inmates, staff members and chaplains at Springhill Prison.
Yvonne introduced us to the audience and spoke about Springhill’s history, which served as the training centre for British Special Forces during World War II. She explained that the gymnasium where we were giving our presentation was built by the prisoners and named after Britain’s first Muslim war heroine, Noor-un-Nisa Inayat Khan.
Although Springhill Prison shares the same grounds as Grendon Prison, where the Abrahamic Reunion had presented last year, Springhill has a very different population than Grendon Prison, which offers a therapeutic program for England’s most dangerous and violent criminals.
Springhill is an open prison that supports the needs of about 335 long-term prisoners who are in the last few years of their sentence. At Springhill prisoners train and prepare for their release, and participate in a resettlement program that allows them to work in jobs outside of the prison during daylight hours, and return to live in the prison when they are not working.
The majority of residents in our audience were Muslims and surprisingly for us, there were a number of Palestinians.
The Palestinians inmates eagerly gathered around Ghassan to speak with him in urgent, hushed Arabic while Mordechai and I made our presentations.
After all of us had spoken there was a Question and Answer period, and initially the tone of the inmate’s “questions”, which were directed at Mordechai, began as wounded and skeptical challenges that bordered on being aggressive.
But Ghassan immediately stepped in to skillfully navigate their hostility, and soothe them with quotes from the Quran and the Hadith.
He appealed to their innate desire for peace in ways that were culturally familiar for them, and once they felt their pain had been heard and responded to, they began to soften and calm down.
As Ghassan continued to raise their consciousness to a higher level, they reluctantly began to open their hearts to Mordechai (their preconceived enemy), and me (Mordechai’s naïve American accomplice, who didn’t understand their collective Muslim and Palestinian pain), and an atmosphere of trust, hope and camaraderie began to take over.
By the time the evening was winding down the inmates were asking, “Are there more people like you?” “Are there more people who believe
what you believe?” In other words, “Is it really safe, and possible, to love one another?” As they hugged Ghassan and Mordechai goodbye, and shook my hand, they admitted what “a good guy” Mordechai was, and they shared that they had never met people like us, and this evening offered them the possibility to consider a new ending to an old story that always left them feeling like the victim. They asked how they could get in touch with us when they “get out.”
The authorities and staff at Springhill also immediately came forward at the end of the program to discuss our next steps together regarding offering programs, and in-depth trainings, here, and in other prisons they are responsible for.
As we packed our things to leave, we could finally exhale and thank the dedicated staff at Springhill. We send a special thanks to Chaplain Coordinator Brenda Davies and Yvonne Dixon for their support of the Abrahamic Reunion.