Proof that universal harmony is not a pipe dream

The Yamim Nora’im (Days of Awe) are an exquisitely rich, sweet and uniquely Jewish celebration. But the prayers for these sacred days also include hopes that reach beyond the Jewish people, imagining the entire world united in reverence and unity.

The prayer “Uv’chen ten pach’decha” (“Therefore, O God, place awe of You in all Your creatures”), repeated in every Amidah prayer during the holidays, imagines all peoples of the Earth, each in their own way, sharing in recognition of the One.

The liturgical piyyut (liturgical poem) “Veye’etayu” (“And all shall come to serve You”), in the Musaf service, expresses a dream of commonality and harmony for the whole human family.

Rabbi Amy Eilberg

I had a taste of this utopian vision last month when I participated in a 15-day, interstate Caravan of Reconciliation, sponsored by the Maryland-based nonprofit Clergy Beyond Borders.

The caravan traversed 3,000 miles in 15 days, addressing some 5,000 people at university campuses, synagogues, churches and Islamic centers in 15 cities. We offered teachings from Jewish, Christian and Muslim traditions in support of active, respectful engagement with people of other religions. We spoke of the dangers to American democracy posed by rising trends of religious intolerance, particularly against American Muslims. We shared our own personal stories of passionate engagement between and among religious communities and intoned prayers for peace.

Back on the bus together, there were countless moments of spontaneous prayer, hilarious exchanges of self-deprecating religious jokes, strategy sessions about pedagogy, media relations, and electronic gadgetry, hugs and loving laughter. Traveling hundreds of miles a day in a small, crowded van, we were a microcosm of the world we seek to build, in which people of different religions connect deeply with one another, and join their particular religious commitments to work together for justice and peace.

On the recent Caravan of Reconciliation tour, Imam Yahya Hendi, president of Clergy Beyond Borders, reads a letter to President Barack Obama outside the U.S. Capitol as (from right) Imam Bashar Arafat, Rabbi Gerry Serotta and White House staffer Paul Monteiro listen. photo/clergy without borders/rev. steven d. martin

Come Shabbat, at The Temple in Atlanta, after a warm and joyful evening service, our friend Imam Yahya Hendi rose to deliver the sermon. He looked around the sanctuary, where 250 Jews greeted him with an air of welcome expectation, and he began to cry. Deeply moved to be received so warmly, as a Palestinian-born imam addressing a Jewish congregation, he said, “My sisters and my brothers, I love you all. We are one family.”

Sprinkling his sermon with references to Jewish liturgy, he spoke of the unity of all people. “Sh’ma Yisrael,” he said, “Hear O Israel,” referencing the most beloved prayer in all of Jewish liturgy, “Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad” (“The Lord our God, the Lord is One”).

We are one, he asserted: Jews and Muslims, Christians, Hindus and Buddhists, Israelis and Palestinians, Muslims and Westerners, old and young, black, brown, white, red and yellow. All of us come from dust and to dust we will return. We are in this predicament of life together.  Together we can build a better nation and a better world.

His sermon was greeted by a resounding ovation, rounds of hugs and many tears. The imam had won the hearts of this community of Jews, and the synagogue was luminous with joy.

Saturday evening, as darkness fell, my colleagues and I headed for Al-Farooq, the largest mosque in Atlanta. It was a magnificent house of worship, the most beautiful Islamic Center I have ever seen in this country. The deep, reverent silence of the prayer hall moved me deeply, and the audience of 150 people listened with rapt attention, hushed by the momentousness of the occasion. We gave our presentation, “From Fear to Faith: Advancing Religious Pluralism,” and were greeted with fervent applause, a round of encouraging, thoughtful questions, and much engaged conversation after the formal session ended.

My colleagues were heading to Tennessee, where a debate rages about enacting “anti-shariah” legislation, prohibiting Muslims from following their own religious law, just as many Jews appeal to halachah (Jewish law) to govern their religious lives. This was sure to be a challenging and fascinating leg of the trip, but it was time for me to go home to attend to other obligations.

I was terribly sad to leave my treasured friends after our intense mission of peace and interfaith education, with many precious hours of love, laughter and prayer shared together. But I had tasted the blessing of living as one family across religious lines, a time rich with blessings.

Do you think the machzor’s prayers of universal harmony are a silly pipe dream? I think not. My experiences on the Caravan of Reconciliation prove it is possible.  Why wait till the end of time for all to share in it?

Rabbi Amy Eilberg is the first woman ordained by the Conservative movement. She lives in Mendota Heights, Minn., and works for the Jay Phillips Center for Interfaith Learning.

Rabbi Amy Eilberg
Rabbi Amy Eilberg

Rabbi Amy Eilberg serves as a spiritual director, kindness coach and peace and justice educator. More information on her work can be found at rabbiamyeilberg.com. She can be reached at [email protected].