Talking faith to faith

Leaders representing various religions gathered in Ukraine, aiming to improve ties and promote dialogue.

Interfaith Forum 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Interfaith Forum 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
‘One must not mix in with evil,” a short, middle-aged Ukrainian woman tells me as several dozen protesters behind her chant slogans against interfaith dialogue. While others should be free to worship as they please, she says, they must not be allowed to mix with the followers of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church – the one true church, she believes.
I am in the Ukrainian capital city of Kiev to cover a fascinating conference, the Kyiv Interfaith Forum. The forum – comprising representatives of various strains of Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism who hail from everywhere from Jordan to Azerbaijan – is especially of interest to me due to its novel setting.
Kiev has a long and varied Jewish history that abruptly came to an end during the Holocaust. However, it was the role of the Ukrainian people in actively abetting the German genocide that has given the city its image among world Jewry. The fact that this country, with its history of anti-Semitism and its fervent Christian Orthodoxy, which is not the most historically Jew-friendly of faiths, is hosting an event of this nature is the real reason why the forum deserved coverage.
Among the topics discussed by the participants is the role of religion in contemporary secular democracies and the interplay between the largely secular media and, at least in Ukraine, an increasingly religious populace. As a journalist who has covered issues of religion extensively, for the secular and religious press in Israel and abroad, and having spent three days in close contact with the various participants of the forum, becoming more a participant than a reporter myself at times, an article detailing my impressions in the first person seems more appropriate than a mere retelling of quotes and discussions.
Speaking with local rabbinic leaders as well as lay leaders and representatives of the local Jewish community, an image emerges of a nation that is, while still latently somewhat anti-Semitic, largely struggling successfully to combat religious intolerance on a leadership level.
MEMBER OF Parliament Oleksandr Feldman, the founder of the forum, is a kippawearing Orthodox Jew. Well-connected with the senior leadership of both his nation and the State of Israel, Feldman has already organized one previous conference and worked tirelessly to deepen the Ukraine’s ties with Israel.
Upon opening the conference, Feldman notes that “respecting other people does not require that they share a common religion.”
As someone who “picked up faith when he was already mature,” like many who grew up under Communism, he came to believe that “freedom depends on struggling for the rights of others.”
Picking up on a theme that will be reiterated by speaker after speaker throughout the three-day conference, Feldman notes that every community has extremists who must not be allowed to hijack the dialogue between groups.
As if on cue, Rabbi David Rosen, adviser on interreligious affairs of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, leans over and whispers to me to check out the aforementioned group of protesters.
Much of their anger, he notes, is against the inclusion of the Russian Orthodox Church, from which their church had split in an act of nationalism following the end of the Warsaw Pact.
In sharing the principles of a worshipping the divine and loving one’s neighbor, Feldman continues, all religions, no matter how radically different, must work together to reinforce their shared values and morals in the secular societies in which they find themselves.
Rev. Leonid Kishkovsky, the director of External Affairs and Interchurch Relations for the Orthodox Church in the United States notes, however, that dialogue does not mean watering down the religious doctrines of the participants; nor does it require achieving any sort of consensus on doctrine.
The presence of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which local Chabad rabbi Jonathan Markovitch tells The Jerusalem Post has created significant and meaningful ties with local Jews, at least on a leadership level, is heartening.
Ukraine, Markovitch noted wryly, has become to young Israeli ultra-Orthodox Jews what Thailand is to the country’s secular youth: a place to go to find oneself. From organized tours of the country’s many rabbinic graves and surviving old synagogues to the annual pilgrimage of hundreds of thousands of Jews to the grave of Rabbi Nahman of Breslov on Rosh Hashana, Ukraine has become a major Jewish vacation destination.
DURING THE second day of the forum, which convenes in the parliament building, Feldman’s message of support for the highest level of dialogue with the Jews is confirmed. As we sit in a luxurious committee room, addressed by the parliament’s Speaker, it is a pleasure to see men of so many different faiths coming together to engage in meaningful discussions in such a city.
While the content is largely repetitive, with most of the speakers touching on the same themes, a few interesting tidbits do emerge.
One such point of interest is when Izzy Lemberg, the former longtime senior producer for CNN’s Jerusalem Bureau, notes that in many cases the smartphone has replaced God in the lives of young people.
Having a device that always connects its owner to people all over the world is almost religious in nature, he quips. Walking into an Apple store, Lemberg notes, “feels like entering a temple of hi-tech.”
The media and technology compete with religion, he asserts, stating that it is hard for religion to compete with the culture of consumer electronics.
Journalists, being largely secular, Lemberg believes, are not fully equipped to understand the role that religion plays in the lives of people and how it affects their decisions. Lemberg cites the Arab Spring as an example of how the media have underestimated the power of religion to shape international trends.
The most powerful experiences of the conference, however, are not the sessions or the speeches, but rather the opportunity to speak with leaders of faiths with whom one would normally not have any contact.
Chatting between speakers with Theophilos III, I learn that the Greek Orthodox patriarch of Jerusalem is engaged in interfaith efforts in Israel, although he neglects to name any particulars. However, I am made slightly uncomfortable by his defense of the Palestinian mufti of Jerusalem, who recently made statements regarding the killing of Jews. The mufti, Theophilos III says, certainly did not mean what he said in an inflammatory manner. As a Jew, I must say, this is a little hard to believe.
THE REAL impact of the conference comes after the official conference ends and I am able to explore on my own.
After the program, I, together with Izzy Lemberg and the city’s aforementioned unofficial Chabad Lubavitch “chief rabbi,” Rabbi Markovitch, go for a guided tour of the city. Following lunch in the rabbi’s apartment, however, the pleasant experiences end, as the rabbi has arranged for a driver to take Lemberg and me on what could only be called a tour of death.
Our first stop is an old, overgrown and largely abandoned cemetery, in whose Jewish section Lemberg’s grandfather is buried. As Lemberg, our guide, Vlad, and I walk down paths between overgrown and untended foliage and neglected, decaying tombstones, I reflect on the difference between the cemetery in upstate New York where my own father is buried and the decrepit ruin in which I now find myself.
In New York, mown grass and well-tended paths, pruned trees and maintained monuments prevail. However, in Kiev – a city whose Jews were murdered, whose survivors were brutalized under communism and whose remnants largely fled to Israel following the fall of the communist regime – there is no one to maintain the graves of our people.
What resources there are go toward reclaiming Jewish sites (of which there are a great many in terrible condition) and educating and supporting a population in dire need of a renewed Jewish identity. Nothing is left to spend on the deceased.
As I stumble across the bumpy and overgrown path between two graves, I notice that some of the graves looked as though they have been deliberately desecrated.
Time and again Lemberg wipes grime off faded tombstones, only to realize that he will not find his grandfather’s resting place in the time we have left.
We hurry back to the car and Vlad drives us to Babi Yar, the site of the worst wartime massacre of Jews outside the death camps.
While communists, Gypsies and others were killed at this site in 1941, the primary victims were Jewish. However, the official monument, despite Yiddish carvings, makes no explicit reference to my people.
I am told that it had, at one point, been rebuilt so as not to feature statues that appeared too Jewish.
Much of Babi Yar has been developed and next to a smaller monument in the shape of a menorah, children can be seen riding bikes and playing soccer. This scene is only yards away from a ravine in which thousands upon thousands of Jews were brutally slaughtered.
After reciting kaddish quietly, I leave, thinking how ironic it is that of all places to be assigned to cover an inter-religious dialogue about tolerance and mutual respect, it should be in this blood-soaked land whose crimes are permanently engraved in the collective memory of all Jewry.
The next day I return to the memorial site for a visit with Shyne, a Belz Hassid and rap star who spent 10 years in an American prison following a shooting incident in a New York nightclub.
Shyne, striding through a busy park on the way to Babi Yar, is a strange sight. A bearded African-American in hassidic garb would draw attention even in Jerusalem. However, no one even so much as glances in our direction. We feel no hostility and that, in this land, shows how much progress can be made when we work together to make sure that we do not repeat the mistakes of the past.