Leaven Collection for the Poor
With the latest tragedies in Israel and Palestine threatening to shatter the uneasy truce of the past year, it feels heartening to read stories of Muslims, Jews, and Christians engaging in constructive face-to-face dialogue and action. The Interfaith Encounter Association is a network of a dozen or so "encounter" groups in Israel, including the Jerusalem Youth Interfaith Encounter. This spring, these youth struck upon a unique service project: gathering leaven from Jewish households that would otherwise go unused during Pesach and distributing it to Arab families.
In the previous story we share what happened in a study encounter that we held, in which we studied about the ways Judaism and Islam recognize the possibility of giving charity to people of other faiths. After we saw that in both religions there is recognition of giving charity and acting with kindness with any human being, even if he or she does not share your faith, we went out in the beginning of April to implement the idea.
We printed announcements in which we wrote that this year there is a solution for those who wish to get rid of their leaven before Pesach and at the same time do good with it. We publicized the phone numbers of the group's activists and their respective living areas in Jerusalem, in order to allow anyone who is interested to bring us leaven products. In addition, we appointed contact people in all three campuses of the Hebrew University. But we did more than that. In one of the evenings before Pesach we met at Nachlaot neighborhood in the city center, to collect leaven from the neighborhood's houses. We divided into pairs, each consisting of one Jew and one Muslim, one of whom is a man and one is a woman, and started our way.
Visiting the neighborhood's houses was a very special experience. Many of us took part in many interfaith encounters and events. Usually these events happen in a very good atmosphere – due to the simple reason that those who come are either already convinced or at least are open enough to make the effort and come. In this visit to the neighborhood we could not predict who will receive us with warmth and who will slam the door. It was a real "gamble". We did not look for those who are already convinced but went from door to door. Without skipping anyone. Willing to encounter any type of response. And indeed there were also unpleasant responses. There were people who refused to donate once they understood the food is designated for Arabs. Some protested: "would Arabs collect food in this way for poor Jews?" From our perspective it was a major step. It is important to remember in which environment we operate, how deep is the mutual mistrust between the two people, how long is the way ahead of us. Whoever wants to act and make impact should not delude themselves and must understand the complexity of the reality. But it is important to stress that finally we were surprised for the better. The vast majority donated. Some even added sums of money, beyond the leaven product that were meant to be burned anyway. We left the neighborhood with large quantities of food and it was clear to us that if we had more time and more volunteers we would have collected a lot more.
We learned much from this round in the neighborhood on that evening. We were filled with hope for reconciliation and understanding when we saw that contrary to what we expected, most people agreed to donate for people of the neighboring nation, despite the on-going state of war. We think that the residents of the neighborhood also gained something from this evening, beyond the opportunity to donate to the needy. It does not occur every day that you are visited by a Jewish young man and a Muslim young woman or a Jewish young woman and a Muslim young man. It is most likely that for most of the neighborhood's residents it was the first time to see young Muslims and Jews working together for a common idea. Perhaps this too was a small contribution to the reconciliation process between us.
The last phase of this operation – which will be told next time – was the distribution of the collected food. Unfortunately, most of the Jewish members could not come. Those who could were afraid to go into the Arab neighborhood in East Jerusalem (Siluwan) where the food was distributed. And here we have another example that we should not delude ourselves. The problematic security reality caused that our original plan, of Jews and Muslims who will go together in an Arab neighborhood and will distribute food to the needy, was fulfilled only partially. Indeed the way is long but as we all know, even a journey of a thousand miles begins with one small step.
followup report on
Our operation was divided into two parts: collection and distribution. In the previous story we shared the events and experiences that we had, as a group and as individuals, during the planning and the performing of the collection.
We would like to stress that when bringing into account the number of members who participated in this operation and the actual time dedicated to the activity, the amounts of food collected were considerable. During some two hours of going from house to house in the neighborhood of Nachlaot we managed to collect more than 150 Kg of food, as we estimate it. The food we collected was varied and included rice, different pastas, sugar, sweets etc. Many of the products were not even leaven and still were generously donated to us.
When we planned the operation, we thought it would be the right way for the Arab Muslim members of the group to actively and openly participate in the collection, so that we can expose our activity to the wider public. And indeed Jewish and Muslim members were going around the Jewish neighborhoods of West Jerusalem together and in full partnership. The planning was that also when we distribute the leaven to Arab needy (Muslims and Christians) the Jewish members will participate actively and openly in order to get the same desired effect in the Arab population of East Jerusalem.
When we were looking for an institution to deliver the food to, we were surprised to discover fear and suspicion at the Arab population in East Jerusalem. One of the queries we faced was: maybe the Jews will give us poisoned food??!!! This query opened our eyes to the huge breach and the enormous suspicion that exists between the two sides. This kind of remarks just intensified our belief that we have to continue our efforts and that there is still a lot of work for us to do.
Such remarks also forced us to accept only sealed food packages from the Jewish donors…
Finally, after exploring different institutions, it was decided to give the collected leaven to an old-people's home in East Jerusalem, which is funded by private donations and is not supported by the authorities.
To our regret, on the day of delivery the Jewish members could not come – due to each member's personal reasons. One of the reasons was the fear of some of the Jewish members to visit the neighborhood where the old-people's home is located, in East Jerusalem, and their concern that they might be hurt by elements that will not be happy and will not bless their presence in the neighborhood. We could have portrayed here a beautiful ideal picture and to blur this detail, but it is important for us to present things as they are. This fear intensified our thinking of how much we need to continue working with vigor to bridge these worries and breaches.
The absence of the Jewish members from the distribution diminished a bit the affect and momentum we were aiming to achieve in this operation. The planned exposure of the Arab society in East Jerusalem to religious young Jews who are "different" than the way usual stereotypes portray them in the Arab society, would have significantly advanced the idea of our organization and diminish, even if a little bit, the suspicions between the two societies.
This absence forced the Muslim members to take the full role of both sides and to represent also the Jewish side of the group in the food delivery. And indeed, while we gave the food we made sure to present to those present our organization and to explain its goals. In addition, and this is the main part, we explained that this food was donated by Jewish people from Jerusalem and that the Jewish donors clearly knew that this food will be given to Muslim and Christian needy in East Jerusalem, and still they happily donated.
The reaction we got the director of the old-people's home, who spoke for all its residents, was warm and welcoming. She asked us to convey, in the name of all residents of the place, their gratitude and appreciation to their generosity and kindness.
Reported by Dotan Arad & Salah Aladdien. The Interfaith Encounter Association can be found on the web at www.interfaith-encounter.org.