Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Muslim Jewish Conference


I am writing from Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia & Herzegovina, where I have actually been since August 6. I came here as a participant in the Muslim Jewish Conference (MJC), an annual international gathering of 'young' Muslims and Jews. I saw an alumnus post the application online, realized that this would be my best chance ever to attend (since it has always taken place in Europe), applied, and am glad to have been accepted.

The week before MJC, my work in Budapest essentially concluded, with just some final things left that could be done remotely. I packed a big suitcase and took a train to Vienna, and continued my travels over the next week to Ljubljana and Lake Bled in Slovenia (HIGHLY recommend!) and then to Rijeka and Zagreb in Croatia. It was a lovely vacation that involved beaches, old towns, castles, museums, walking tours, and more. Then from Zagreb, I boarded a 6 AM bus to Sarajevo.

Coming in to the conference, I actually had little interfaith experience and an admittedly minimal knowledge of Bosnian history, including the wars of the '90s. Before coming, I tried watching some Youtube videos that could summarize the collapse of Yugoslavia and subsequent wars. Realizing that those videos simply wouldn't suffice, I decided that rather than pretend I knew more or hide my lack of knowledge, I would ask many questions and try and learn as much as I could.

MJC began with a room full of Muslims and Jews from 40 countries spanning all continents (besides Antarctica, which we will assume is simply anti-Semitic and Islamophobic) sitting in a hotel ballroom. We were all greeted with the traditional MJC salutation, "Shalom Salaam." Immediately after that, we were asked to organize into tables of just Jews and Muslims, which seemed like an uncomfortable start. We were then asked to list all stereotypes about our religion, which we then presented and debriefed. We all had a good laugh acknowledging that we are well aware of how the world has or does perceive us, and that this conference would be a time to understand and surpass that type of ignorance that pervades many of our home societies.

At the official opening ceremony, we entered the Town Hall for a lovely evening of speeches and refreshments. Per the agreement ending the Bosnian War, the country still has 3 Presidents, a Croat, a Serb, and a Bosniak (Muslim). The President representing the Bosniak Muslim community spoke to us, as well as the Grand Mufti of Bosnia & Herzegovina. Both spoke with pride about living in a country of such great diversity in which Muslims and Jews do not face the types of fears that they do elsewhere in Europe and around the world, and where unity lies in diversity.
Bosnian President Bakir Izetbegović
During the conference, we were divided into committees (that we requested as part of the application), and we spent much of the day with our committee. Committees included one about gender, sexuality, and intersectionality, one was about human rights, and mine was called 'Beyond Religious Borders,' in which we explored core ideas of our faiths, and unpacked the complex identities of Jews and Muslims today. It's hard to exactly define the common thread of what we discussed, but it essentially became a safe space to explore topics including gender, rituals, perceptions of Prophecy, and how our religious and national identities overlap and conflict today. I learned a great deal about Islam from these conversations, and I was glad to share my understanding of Jewish tradition and history.

What I loved most was that neither the Jews or Muslims tried to simplify their religion into clear definitions that they could present to the other group. If we wanted that, we could have read a textbook. Instead, our religions were presented through personal stories and values, and the diversity not only between our religious groups but also within them became abundantly clear. Obvious splits like Shia and Sunni or Ashkenazi and Sephardic present different understandings and traditions, but differences also come from having different heritages, from using different tools to read our texts, and from living in different places. Religious belief and practice is personal and nuanced, and I was lucky to have the chance to understand those complexities. This diversity was obvious in conversations about topics like Zionism, head scarves and modesty more broadly, Shabbat, and prayer.

Each participant entered with a sense of curiosity, which led to openness, understanding, and respect. Rather than feeling defensive, people felt empowered to share their values so that we could all understand each other and not hide any part of ourselves. People became vulnerable about the most sensitive aspects of their identities to complete strangers, and real communities of trust and understanding quickly emerged.

During one committee session that we held at the Jewish Museum, housed in a Sephardic Synagogue dating back 500 years, I was asked if I wanted to lead a Jewish prayer meditation to begin the session. I was asked as if it were something common that I would know how to do, but I have actually never done such a thing for a Jewish audience or for an interfaith one. I had everyone close their eyes and I used some meditation techniques that I've learned from Headspace (a daily meditation app), and used the structure of the Amidah, which includes thanks, request, and praise, to guide the meditation. One girl opened her eyes and tears rolled down her face, and a secular Israeli girl later messaged me saying that she had never connected with Tefillah--Jewish prayer--until that moment. I do not take the credit for what they were able to achieve in their minds, but I was happy to facilitate a space that was meaningful to all faiths and individuals.

The one topic most committees avoided until it was intentionally addressed on Wednesday was Israel-Palestine. We first built up trust and understanding before delving into the topic. The topic was finally presented with a panel featuring an Israeli woman and a Palestinian man, both of whom participate in a program called Parents Circle, an organization for Israelis and Palestinians who have lost family to the Conflict. From hearing their stories, everyone in the room connected on a human level, which must necessarily be the starting point of tough dialogue. The panel challenged many people, and about 30 of us formed a reflection circle during the coffee break that followed to unpack our thoughts.

Being in Sarajevo, we spent time during the conference to understand Yugoslavian and Bosnian history, unpacking both the traumatic lows and the wonderful highs of diversity in the region. As we learned from the President and from various speakers, the diversity of the country exposes all of its citizens to the "Other/s" from a young age, and people grow up in a colorful and accepting society. From walking the streets of the city, I must agree with that opinion. However, the looming awareness and discomfort of the genocide just over 20 years ago constantly lingered.

The whole conference took a long bus ride together on Thursday to Srebrenica, a town in Bosnia that was a focal point of the atrocities of the war. There, despite the presence of Dutch military personnel through the UN, thousands of people, mostly boys and men, were systematically rounded up and murdered. The former HQ of the Dutch mission is now the site of a new museum documenting the Srebrenica atrocities. There, we watched videos and heard video testimonies of survivors. It shook me to my core to see such clear color footage of genocide in Europe. Also, the collapse of Yugoslavia and subsequent wars were absent from any history curriculum I ever learned. So beyond the emotional impact of the visit, I simultaneously had to digest a great deal of information and history, and I was simply overloaded mentally and emotionally and felt numb.

From the museum and empty warehouse where thousands of war refugees were forced to sleep, we walked across the street to the cemetery for the victims of the Srebrenica massacres. Some graves were fresh, as bodies as still being found and identified. Rows and rows of simple white tombstones marked the spot where murdered humans now rest. Finally, our group had a space to let the pain and grieving out, and we mourned and prayed together. Both communities recited traditional words of mourning, and then prayed our afternoon services side by side.

As the conference concluded, I felt indescribably fulfilled and lucky. I met people who escaped Syria for new lives in Europe, and others who live in Afghanistan, Palestine, and Egypt, none of whom I would have ever met without an opportunity like MJC. The best part was that while we began trying to be very intentionally open-minded, it became natural and fluid within days. From laughing, going to restaurants and cafes, staying up late, and singing with friends from different backgrounds, we simply became a group of people who care for one another. Of course, most people left with more questions than they came with, and some people remain challenged and even confused. However, through the experience of opening ourselves to others (and to the 'Other') and uniting on a human level, we broke barriers and created the type of space that our world desperately craves.

On Friday night, some people whom I was sitting with asked me to teach them a Jewish song. I taught Hinei Mah Tov, thinking that its lyrics were an appropriate choice. They not only picked up the song quickly, but a Muslim girl actually corrected my singing, because her mother had played the song for her when she was younger. There were many moments, both in the hotel and in the streets of Sarajevo, when we joined together singing songs and niggunim.

We ended together with Havdalah on Saturday night.We joined together in song and blessing, transition from holiness, the space we created together at MJC, to chol, our communities and 'normal' lives around the world. Afterwards, a South American rabbi now living in the UK told the group that Jewish sources tend to be conspicuously unclear about what the time of Messiah and the World to Come look like, but that it looks exactly like this.


After the conference ended, I had another special treat. There is a observant Bosnian Jewish man named Yehuda who lives outside Sarajevo. Being the only Kosher-keeping man in the country, MJC had been in touch with him. He came to Sarajevo for Shabbat, and he and his family joined us for prayers and dinner. He is married with 5 adorable children, including 4 boys who wear the type of big kippah that I wore at their age. He asked me what my plans were for after MJC and I told him I'd be around, so he excitedly offered to give a private Bosnian tour to me and anyone else interested.

I wasn't able to reach him after that, but bumped into him Monday morning at the hotel. He was thrilled to see me, and ready to take me anywhere. We assembled a group including me, a German girl, an Australian guy (originally from Lebanon), and an Israeli guy. 2 Jews and 2 Muslims spanning 4 continents. Yehuda drove us to lunch in his big white van (we made many jokes about the absurdity of getting into someone's van in a foreign country), showed us more of Sarajevo, and then took us out of the city. Yehuda is a musician, and we listened to a CD of his choir that sings Jewish songs (Bosnian, Ashkenazi, and Sephardic), and is composed not only of Jews but of Muslims and Christians as well.

Yehuda fled Bosnia during the war and moved to Norway, where he started a life. He returned after many years, believing in the diversity of Bosnian society and the importance of maintaining a Jewish presence there.

We drove first to some beautiful ponds where water flowed from the mountains above us, creating the Bosna springs. We continued to the city of Visoko, where there are three mountains that some local researchers believe to be the world's oldest pyramids. Experts have denounced those claims, but the pyramid-believers persist in their research. We entered some tunnels where researchers have been excavating, and our tour guide not only sought to convince us that these are indeed pyramids, but explained to us the mythology therein (she spoke in terms of physics and metaphysics), including discussing the frequencies, ions and negative ions, various sorts of energies, and other physical (and metaphysical) phenomena that they discover and measure. They estimate that some civilization 29,000 years ago created these mammoth structures, and that once their excavations enter the heart of the pyramids, they will unlock all of the answers that they seek. Regardless of my skepticism, it was certainly an interesting place and project, and I was glad to visit.

Yehuda had told us he had to be back in his village at 7:30, and we didn't finish at the pyramids until 6:45. Instead of driving us back to Sarajevo, he drove us to his village, where he was set to perform. Little did we know, the village was having some annual celebration, and we joined the community to listen to the mayor provide an annual report, to hear Yehuda perform two songs with singing and piano (he then introduced his 4 guests from the stage and had us all stand up), and watch Yehuda's oldest daughter Rivka join a group of about 20 children perform traditional folk dances. Following this gathering, we joined the rest of the town in the town square for free drinks and live music. Rivka changed into a Tshirt, and I noticed that it was from Szarvas 2017! I was so excited to tell them that I worked there this summer during another session, and I played with Yehuda's kids in the street and sang songs from Szarvas with them.

After inviting us to his home that proudly features menorahs and other Judaica in the window, Yehuda took us further up the hill to a restaurant that reserves Kosher dishes and recipes just for Yehuda. We ordered fresh fish from the stream nearby and enjoyed our final stories together. Yehuda drove us all the way back to Sarajevo (1 hour roundtrip for him) and I got home at almost 1:00 AM. He thanked us profusely for our company and gave us each a copy of his CD. However, I am still overflowing with gratitude for his hospitality that day, and for his life devoted to promoting diversity, creativity, and Jewish values.

Abraham is famous in the Torah for, amongst other things, welcoming guests to his home and establishing the eternal Jewish value of hachnasat orchim, welcoming guests. Abraham also had two sons, Ishmael and Isaac, who go on to be the fathers of great nations: Ishmael the forebear of Islam and Isaac of Judaism. Having Yehuda, a deeply principled Bosnian man raised in the plurality of Bosnian society, welcome his four guests, both Jews and Muslims, into his life felt like an allegory for Abraham taking his two sons on the family road trip he craved, but that the Biblical narrative never mentioned. Finally, the family was together. A taste of the World to Come, already Here.

Standing on the bridge where Archduke Franz Ferdinand was shot in Sarajevo, triggering WWI

I'm now road-tripping for the next 5 days in the Balkans with 2 friends from Hungary. I'll be back there on Sunday and enjoy my last few days, before flying back to Chicago on Wednesday, August 23!

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