We share the call to do good.
That was one of the strongest feelings we had from our recent trip to Greece with IsraAid. We were a group of nine rabbis and three Muslim leaders. The Jews and the Muslims did not know each other prior to our meeting in a hotel lobby in Athens, yet we spent five very intense days together. We visited refugee settlements, heard terrible stories of people’s suffering, listened to their needs and were inspired by the dedication and creativity of the humanitarian aid teams. We returned from our trip bonded by our shared experience and our shared desire to make the world a better place.
IsraAid itself is a great model for interfaith work. Their teams are made up of Jewish and Arab-Palestinian Israelis. They live together and work together closely. At least two of the Arab-Palestinian Israelis shared with us that it was a difficult choice for them to decide to join the IsraAid team. They knew that they would be representing an Israeli organization and they were conflicted. However, once they began their work, they found collegiality and friendship with their Jewish counterparts. There are still issues and feelings about what it means to represent Israel, yet doing the work of supporting humanity and relieving suffering together was enough to enable them build bonds with their teammates.
Additionally, we were moved by the stories of what happened when refugees learned more about the humanitarian aid workers who helped them. One of IsraAid’s leadership team relayed what happened one day when he pulled a small child from a raft and began treatment for hypothermia. The father of the child was, as you might expect, incredibly grateful, yet shared that he felt confused. How was it that this Israeli Jew, who is supposed to be his greatest enemy, has now become his greatest support? And how is it that the people who are supposed to do right by him, have now become the ones who have chased him from his home? Much later, after he had been settled in a different part of Europe, he heard about the fires in Haifa. His response was to buy a plane ticket to Israel and see what he could do to help.
Extreme situations have the power to change some of our deepest-held ideas, prejudices and fears. The differences between us seem far less significant when the work before us is so pressing. When we do that work together, we build a connection and a friendship. And when we are connected, we can hear each other more openly, we can empathize with each other more easily, and our differences do not seem to loom quite as large.
That is how we might build stronger bridges between interfaith communities here as well. Let’s launch into the social action and social justice work that needs us. Let’s bond over action. From there, we will find that it is our respective traditions that teach us to lead with compassion, to feed the hungry and to uplift those who have fallen. And upon realizing that commonality, we will be bonded by our traditions, too. The conversation over differences and concerns will come, but they will be less divisive in the context of friendship.
Had we met under different circumstances, there is a very good chance we might have developed a friendship. After all, we are both religious leaders, one professional and one volunteer, we are about the same age, at the same stage of life, and we live in close proximity to each other. But having gone through the experience with IsraAid together bonded us. Our friendship is founded upon our shared experience and our sense of shared responsibility. And that foundation has given us a deeper appreciation for the other’s tradition, and what moves each of us to act. We witnessed it together, and so we are in this together. Our shared charge, and our shared bond, is the call to do good.