How do you pray? It’s an intensely personal question, one that gets much traction in Jerusalem – a city of immense holiness to Christians, Muslims and Jews.One organization is looking to answer that question – or at least explore it.Tucked away in the Ecce Homo Convent in the Old City, the Elijah Interfaith Institute (EII) has brought together a diverse group of people trying to answer the very fundamental question of why we pray, and how different styles of prayer ‘We’re relate to each other. During a fiveday intensive seminar, the Elijah Interfaith Institute’s special summer program, The Power of Prayer, aims to bring people of varying faiths and backgrounds together to learn from and about one another.
This session has 20 participants from different countries – including Italy, Germany, Sweden, Australia, the US and UK – academics, religious leaders, students and interfaith activists. The majority are Christians, but there are also Muslims and Jews.The interreligious seminar aims to look at prayer through the eyes of each faith, while exploring the idea of understanding the “other” through activities like bibliodramas that take stories from the Torah, Koran and New Testament. There are speakers from each of the three religions, as well as discussions and dialogues, all towards the seminar’s goal of granting participants a better understanding of one another by looking through the lens of prayer.This interreligious dialogue is a hallmark of EII; its faculty includes Sheikh Ghassan Manasra, Father Gregory of the Dormition Abbey, Prof. Haviva Pedaya of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and bibliodramatist Yael Unterman.The EII started in 1996 as a summer school, serving as a place in Jerusalem where people of different religions could come together. From 1997 to 2002, its cutting-edge summer program brought together Jews, Hindus, Christians, Muslims and Buddhists.EII founder and director Rabbi Alon Goshen-Gottstein explains, “We had a very wide scope, which laid the foundation for the interfaith academic program here in Jerusalem. Then the intifada broke out, and we took a change of course. This is now really part of the new incarnation. We’re looking to create a house of prayer and education, where people of different religions can pray together and learn.”Despite the fighting in Gaza – or maybe because of it – EII has managed to get a group of people to come together in Jerusalem, from all over the world, in the name of understanding each other through interreligious dialogue. Their slogan, “Sharing wisdom, fostering peace,” may sound like a pipe dream, but for one week at least, EII is making it happen.This is the first year in almost a decade that EII has held a summer session in the Holy City. Director of educational activities Peta Jones Pellach emphasizes, “Most of Elijah’s work has taken place outside of the Holy Land because it’s almost too difficult here. Politics gets in the way of true interreligious dialogue, which is very sad. We decided as an organization a couple of years ago that we wanted to move our focus back to Jerusalem.”THE POWER of Prayer marks EII’s triumphant return.“We didn’t know how bad the situation was when we started planning this program, but it gave me an added incentive and an impetus to make it happen,” Pellach said. “I truly believe this sort of dialogue is significant.”However, she noted, “We had several cancellations of participants from overseas due to the security situation, and even Israelis [were] unable to make their plans in advance due to the uncertainty.” She added that those who did choose to attend despite the threat of rockets “overwhelmed me with their commitment and enthusiasm... At a time when religion can be accused of playing a major role in conflict, it is so heartwarming to see committed religious people reach out in peace.”The organization believes that prayer matters, and has an impact.Above and beyond that, bringing people together now is a symbol of the kind of thinking that could affect lasting change in its participants, and perhaps over time, in Jerusalem.With this program, EII is uniting people who are both cross-religious and cross-cultural, wanting to learn from each other no matter what the political situation. The participants, merely by signing up, are saying that regardless of any circumstance, they want to share their humanity and different spiritual paths.“My hope for this week is that people will form bonds with one another that are both intra-religious and interreligious,” said Pellach. “For example, in the Muslim world, we have two presenters who have entirely different approaches towards Islam. I think the intra-religious aspect is very important because we need to realize that none of us speaks for the entirety of our religion. There’s no one single voice.”EII comes from the position that divine wisdom cannot be held in one belief system. The encounter with the other expands a person’s wisdom and helps them understand their own tradition differently, perhaps even on a higher level.Pellach was formerly an English teacher in a Jerusalem school, which validated her opinion that there is no opportunity in the current religious school system for Jewish children to learn about Christianity or Islam; not even from a Jewish perspective. “They remain so ignorant, and it’s very sad,” she said. “Children born after Nostra Aetate [1965 Declaration on the Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions of the Second Vatican Council] still think the Catholic Church believes that Jews killed Christ.”“I taught seventh grade and wrote the letter “T” on the board in lower case [which resembles a crucifix]. The kids were yelling, “You can’t do that!” I thought, how petty, if that’s all they know about Christianity. Unfortunately, we’ve seen a growth in the unwillingness to learn about the other.I think the current education minister would be amenable to making changes, but it hasn’t happened yet. For the long term in Israel, this has to be seen as a priority.”It goes the other way as well. Growing up in Australia, Pellach encountered many people who had never met a Jew, and were completely ignorant about Judaism. If they were Christian, they only knew of Judaism as the religion Jesus had been born into; nothing more.“Because we are a Jewish majority here in Israel, and it’s the only place in the world where that’s the case, we allow ourselves the luxury of not knowing about the other,” she added.She initially became involved with interreligious dialogues to combat this kind of ignorance from all sides. After an incident in Australia in which an anti-Semitic flyer was brought to the attention of the Jewish community by a member of the Uniting Church, Pellach started developing educational programs for Christian leaders to educate them about Judaism. Though this was her initial draw into the world of interreligious dialogue, it was the reciprocity that got her hooked.It is surely this same correlativity of mutual understanding that drew this summer’s participants to The Power of Prayer.Indeed, Art Brons, an attendee from the Netherlands, said, “I’m here on behalf of an organization of Protestant Christians; we think it’s important to learn about Israel. One of the main things I’m learning is to appreciate the traditions of others. I see and experience here in Jerusalem so many different traditions that are not my own. It’s wonderful to see the power of prayer in different forms.”Ari Engelberg, a participant from Jerusalem, said, “I’m here on various levels. Personally, I always wanted to get more intimate knowledge of people of other faiths. I’ve always been curious about people in general, and religion is something that’s been dominant in my life. Islam and Christianity have always been very interesting to me. Also on a professional level, I’m a sociologist who teaches sociology of religion, so I want to get more of a comparative perspective.”Arlene, a participant originally from the Philippines who now lives in Jerusalem, said, “It’s a blessing to be here and talk about prayer with so many different kinds of people from different traditions. I want to know how they pray, and how they relate to God.”Alejandra Basquez, who came to the program from Guatemala, added, “In the beginning, I wasn’t sure what to expect from the program, but now I see that everybody needs to pray. We are all human, and we all share a connection to prayer.”