An apolitical interfaith encounter association is bringing together radically different people of all faiths from Israel and the Palestinian Authority and discovering shared values among them.

It’s the little things that can ultimately build trust and peace in the Middle East, believe the volunteers who coordinate the Jerusalem-based Interfaith Encounter Association.

The mixed bag of Jews, Muslims, Christians and Druze – comprising four paid staff and 40 volunteer coordinators – are an umbrella group in whose shade small meetings based on faith and understanding take place in Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA).

“In all our groups the central part is conversation around issues about religious traditions,” Yehuda Stolov, an orthodox Jew from Jerusalem who founded the association and is now its executive director, tells ISRAEL21c.

At meetings, members choose subjects that have some connection to their faith, and in addition to discussion also explore them through food, music, games and environmental issues – all of which lead to the breaking down of barriers, Stolov believes.

Since 2001, a total of 29 working groups have been formed, from as far north as Israel’s Upper Galilee region all the way down to Eilat. Today, 2,000 people participate in 20 groups and the premise is the same in every one: Bring together people who may share basic values, despite their outward appearance of being radically different from each other.

Leaving politics outside

One example is the group of 10 members from the Jewish town of Ma’ale Adumim (viewed pejoratively as “settlers” by the Palestinians and some others) and the Palestinian village of Abu Dis on the eastern outskirts of Jerusalem. Whenever possible, locations for meetings alternate between Israel and the PA, says Stolov, who helps to arrange permits when necessary. “It is challenging,” he admits.

After observing the meetings of a number of interfaith groups, Stolov noticed a pattern. People would come together to listen to a panel discussion on an issue, but no matter the subject of the panel, after the speeches the talk would always come back to politics.

“It made us think that an interfaith dialogue can be a powerful tool of peace-building and an attractive [venue] for people to join,” Stolov tells ISRAEL21c. Stolov’s hope is that people will come together through channels other than political debate. His basic idea is to “connect people in another way to increase the quality of life for everyone.

“We are apolitical and our members like that. We don’t talk about politics and don’t have a political view. Even people who are right-wing are still able to join because they reason that it’s a good channel for inter-communal relations,” says Stolov.

While a volunteer is present at each one, meetings have no particular agenda. The modest costs are covered by small grants from donors like the US Institute of Peace and the Meyerhoff Foundation.

Close to your heart and close to home

Today’s interfaith encounters take place anywhere from community centers in Druze and Christian villages in northern Israel to the Hebrew University’s Mount Scopus campus in Jerusalem. Stolov hopes that one day there will be groups on every university and college campus in the country.

Transformations do occur; even after one meeting people can change the way they perceive each other, Stolov claims. Relationships form and people start to care for each other, he says.

He measures the baby steps that participants take together. In one mother-daughter group of Muslims and Jews in Jerusalem, “there is in-depth sharing about rituals and folklore. In this particular group they combine [ideas]: The daughters prepare something and they play games together. And there is food.” After a number of meetings, the women decided to get together to paint a Muslim school that was in bad need of repair.

Other examples are the group of Christian and Druze Israelis in the Galilee region who collected food for one another’s poor before holiday time, or the group in Jerusalem that collected leaven from the Jewish members and gave it to the non-Jews before the Jewish holiday of Passover, when many Jews don’t eat leavened foods.

Stolov’s vision is to have hundreds of groups meeting all over the country so that every citizen will have access to a group “close to his home and close to his heart.”

Connecting by sharing Abraham

The common theme suggested for the groups is faith and how the participants’ faith is expressed in a wide range of areas, from the environment to musical and religious traditions. At a recent meeting in Jerusalem Jews, Christians and Muslims gathered to talk about Abraham.

Abraham is one of Judaism’s three forefathers, and he is also a forefather of Muslims, who teach that Abraham and his son Ishmael built the Qaaba in Mecca. Mentioned 72 times in the New Testament, Abraham is important to Christians as a significant link in the chain of faith. A group member recently explained that Protestants believe that Abraham shows salvation by faith, as opposed to action.

Stolov believes that as a Jew, it is his responsibility to make peace in Israel. “I think it is part of our duty, part of my religious duty to connect people,” he says. “The way I understand Judaism is that the role of the Jewish nation is to lead humanity to be better. You cannot lead if you are not connected. For me it comes from a deep Jewish place.”