Parallel universes converge

Parallel universes converge

Orthodox rabbi, now pro-peace settler, to speak with Palestinian activist in Hoboken

Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger will talk about peace at the United Synagogue of Hoboken.
Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger will talk about peace at the United Synagogue of Hoboken.

It’s easy when you have a binary world view. Everything is black or white, good or bad, right or wrong. You know exactly where you stand in that kind of world.

It’s hard to be confronted with evidence that the world is not binary. It’s not exactly a matter of shades of gray, either; it’s more like your black and white is someone else’s white and black, wrong or right, bad or good. And it doesn’t change your own understanding of the world, either. It’s like you’ve discovered that there are parallel universes, and all of a sudden they intersect.

Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger, an Orthodox rabbi and a settler — and now also a strong proponent of dialogue, and of seeing Palestinians, like Israelis, as real people — will be talking about that shift in vision in Hoboken on April 2. (See the box for details.)

Rabbi Schlesinger is a Long Island-born Jew who made aliyah in 1975, when he was 18 years old. “I had lived in Gush Etzion, a municipality in Judea, for about 33 years, and until about three years ago, I had never met a Palestinian in any serious way,” he said.

It’s not that he’s naïve; he’s spent much of his career going back and forth between the United States and Israel, and he’s met many people of all sorts of backgrounds. But until three years ago, he had not met a Palestinian as an equal.

Judea, he said; that brings up the kinds of questions to which he now has devoted his life. What do you call the place where he lives? “It’s the heart of the conflict zone, but is it the West Bank or Palestine or occupied territory or liberated territory or Judea and Samaria?” he asked.

“It is an area where there is much stereotyping, much rage, and much fear that each side feels toward the other.

“It is a place where the two sides, the Israelis and the Palestinians, live right next to each other, but they have no contact. There are separate towns and villages, languages, school systems, municipal systems, legal systems. Everything is separate, even time zones — we switch to and from daylight savings time at different times. Different media, different world views, different takes on reality.

“And add into that, both sides are unaware of the violence that their side does to the other. Everyone just knows that the other side is violent, full of terrorists, and inhuman.”

“Three years ago, everything began to change,” he said.

“Three years ago, a small group of Israelis and Palestinians met locally,” he said. The Israelis were students of “the iconoclastic settler rabbi, Menachem Froman,” a pioneer in interfaith dialogue between Jews and Palestinians, who died in 2013. “In the wake of his death, many of his students felt that they were called upon to continue his legacy,” Rabbi Schlesinger said. Although he was not one of Rabbi Froman’s students, he was invited to a meeting with a Palestinian family, the Abu Awwads, from the town of Beit Ymar. “I had great fear and trepidation about going to the meeting, because I had never met Palestinians,” he said. “And that evening, I had conversations that completely and absolutely challenged me, in ways that I never could have imagined.

“One small story,” he continued. “I met a 17-year-old man who was wearing a windbreaker that had three English words written on it. Seeds of Peace. I had no idea what that was, but I knew that Palestinians and peace didn’t go together, so I figured that he either had found it on the ground or that someone had given it to him.

Palestinian activist Antwan Saca
Palestinian activist Antwan Saca

“So I asked him, and he began to describe a summer camp in Maine that takes kids — Israelis and Palestinians — for a summer of recreation and reconciliation.

“He came back having met Israeli kids, and his mind and his heart were transformed, and now he wants to devote his life to creating peace between the two peoples.

“I remember being deeply unsure of whether or not I should believe him. I just couldn’t wrap my head around what he was saying. And that was just an example of four or five conversations that I had.

“We also sat together and a spokesman from each side described who he was. The meeting’s convener, Ali Awwad, described his life, living in Beit Ymar, growing up under Israeli occupation.

“That was the first time I had ever heard anyone use the term ‘Israeli occupation.’ I had no idea what he was talking about.

“I couldn’t not believe it, because he wasn’t angry. He wasn’t giving a political speech. He was just talking about the way he grew up, about the conditions that drove him to be a fighter.

“He talked about how he threw many rocks at Israelis. And you know what? Some of those rocks maybe hit my family car. I have been attacked many times in my life.”

Mr. Awwad also talked about how he changed. “He was tortured in an Israeli jail, and went on an open-ended hunger strike. He was a 17-, 18-year-old kid in prison, demanding to see his mother, who was in another prison. After 17 days of fasting, the Israeli authorities gave in, and in that moment he learned the power of nonviolent resistance.”

And then there were Rabbi Schlesinger’s own bedrock views — which remain unchanged.

“I made aliyah out of a deep sense of the fact that Jewish destiny has come to a deep consummation, and I wanted to be part of the Jewish destiny,” he said.

“In front of my eyes, I saw the fulfillment of 2,000 years of Jewish dreams and hopes, and the resilience of a people, after so much destruction. I saw the triumph of the spirit, the fulfillment and consummation of our people, and I saw tremendous justice in it. I saw the triumph of the human spirit. I saw justice all around me.

“And suddenly I hear that our triumph is another people’s tragedy.

“It was extraordinarily painful,” he added. “I was deeply challenged and confused and confounded by what I heard from Ali and the other people, all their personal stories. I went home and I thought, and I became spiritually very sick. I was ill, I was nauseous, I was very sick spiritually for many months.

Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger, left, began this work with Palestinians after meeting Ali Awwad.
Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger, left, began this work with Palestinians after meeting Ali Awwad.

“I went back and met Ali a few more times, and I talked to other Israelis who had met Palestinians, and I went through feelings of depression and loss of identity, loss of mooring. I became angry and guilty and confused.

“And then I realized that I could maintain my identity, but it had to grow to include another truth, to become more inclusive. I had been blind to the story of Palestinians, so I began to develop the religious ideology that is based in the mysticism that sees God as the infinite collection of partials truths.”

Rabbi Schlesinger had always been a teacher, working mainly in seminaries for college-age students, most of them English speakers; one of his main areas of interest was mysticism. “So I began to study the sources in Jewish mysticism and in chasidic literature that talk about how you bring many sources of conflicting and partial truths into your soul. I took it upon myself to be that collector in my soul,” he said.

As he did that spiritual work, he undertook practical efforts as well. “As I am going through the process of learning and spiritual expansion, I find that the Palestinian and Israeli partners I’m learning from and talking to are undergoing similar processes,” he said. “And then, six months after we first met, we see that we have created something.

“Something was born.

“We created Roots as a framework to bring these two sides together, to listen very deeply to each other, and to find a way to absorb some of the Other’s truth and fear and narrative and identity into our own identities.”

Roots — its full name includes Shorashim/Judur, the word roots in Hebrew and Arabic — works with Israeli Jews and Palestinians. The Abu Awwad family has loaned the group the land where Rabbi Schlesinger’s first encounter happened, “dedicated to creating better futures for these families,” Rabbi Schlesinger said.

It’s not easy going. “I like to say that only the majority of settlers are against us,” he said. “There is animosity, because listening to our message is very challenging, but we do open houses in settlements around the area. People open up their living rooms. People come to listen to us because they are upset with and want to vent, or because they are curious, or because they want to tell us how bad we are. But because the Palestinian speakers are so charismatic and so real, people listen. You can see their faces as they listen; people are challenged and confused and thinking and processing. It is really something.

“And people who have heard us in living rooms sometimes gather up the courage to come to our center — and they find themselves in a whole new world.

“Friendships develop, and people start thinking and reading and then they come to our lectures, to our dialogue events, to interfaith activities, and they send their kids to our summer camp.”

It’s not exactly the same in the Arab community, he added. “It’s not really home meetings; much more word of mouth, within the clan, and through widening circles of friends.” In other words, both cultures use their own means toward the same end.

The goals aren’t entirely mirror images of each other either. “We have a strong tendency among ideological Jews to say that there is no such thing as Palestinians, but here is a Palestinian sitting in front of you, telling the narrative. And there is a strong tendency among Palestinians to tell Israelis that Jews are a religion, not a people, so what do you need a nation for.

“So the Palestinians learn that the Jews are a people, and the Israelis learn that the Palestinians exist as a people.”

In Hoboken, Rabbi Schlesinger will engage in public dialogue with Antwan Saca, a Palestinian activist who, unlike many of the Palestinians in Root, is not Muslim but Christian. He’s the program director for the Holy Land Trust in Bethlehem.

There’s one other personal note Rabbi Schlesinger is enjoying. The lecture “is in memory of a relative of mine, and it’s the first time I have ever spoken in an event related to my family.” The talk is in memory of Louis and Edith Scheinberg, who was a great uncle of Rabbi Schlesinger’s father. “He’s also Rabbi Scheinberg’s great-grandfather,” Rabbi Schlesinger said; Rabbi Robert Scheinberg leads the United Synagogue of Hoboken, which is hosting the talk. “We just learned we’re related,” Rabbi Schlesinger said, proving that no matter how weighty the issues under discussion might be, Jewish geography is inescapable.

Who: Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger and Antwan Saca of Roots

What: Are “Unlikely Partners for Peace” as they talk to each other

Where: At the United Synagogue of Hoboken, 115 Park Ave.

When: On Sunday, April 2, from 10 to noon

Why: To explore the possibility of peace in the West Bank

What else: The talk is free and brunch will follow. Reservations are encouraged at

And also: The pair also will speak at Congregation Bnai Jeshurun’s community house, 270 W. 89th St., Manhattan, on Thursday, March 30, 7-8:30 p.m.

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