Alexandra J. Wall has written for the Jewish press for 15 years. She recently left j., the Jewish news weekly of Northern California to do a natural foods chef program.
Sulha Dismantles Religious Walls, Co-Founder Says Here
This article is reprinted with permission of the Jewish Bulletin of Northern California. Visit www.jewishbulletin.com.
SAN FRANCISCO, March 16--On the day of Gabriel Meyer's Bar Mitzvah, his father took him to the home of a journalist kept under house arrest by the Argentinian dictatorship. The man had been tortured, and Rabbi Marshall Meyer had helped get him out of prison, as he did many others. He thought the visit would be a useful lesson for his son.
"People used to escape the country through our living room," Gabriel Meyer said recently, speaking of his American-born father, now deceased, who spent much of his life working for human rights in Argentina.
The younger Meyer left Argentina 14 years ago, and has lived in Israel for the last 10. And he believes that his father is looking down on him in approval.
One of the first things Meyer did on a recent stay in Oakland, was go to the local mosque for Friday prayers.
Meyer is no stranger to mosques, as he has made contacts throughout the Muslim community in Israel. He is the co-founder of Sulha, which brings people of all faiths together in Israel for the simple act of getting to know each other. Sulha, which means reconciliation in Arabic, uses music, dance and food, as well as small discussion groups, to break down the barriers. The co-founder is Elias Jabbour, an Arab Christian. Sulha's purpose: to heal the children of Abraham.
While Meyer's father was well known in the Conservative movement--he also founded New York City's Congregation Bnai Jeshurun--Gabriel Meyer is forging a slightly different path, that of Jewish renewal.
"For the last 10 years I've been integrating the renewal of spirit of Israel with nature and art and healing," said Meyer, a musician (funds from his "Merkavah" CD go to support Sulha) who has studied meditation in India and other parts of the world.
The first Sulha gathering took place in Israel in December 2001. It was both Ramadan and Hanukkah, and the Jews cooked a meal for the Muslims, who had been fasting all day, and the Muslims lit Hanukkah candles. About 150 people attended, 15 of them children.
At the next meeting of Sulha last August, 600 people attended, 100 of them children. Meyer hopes to bring 1,000 people to Sulha's summer meeting, which will be held on land donated for the cause by an Israeli Druze. The idea is not only for those living in Israel to participate, but for international witnesses to be there as well. At the last Sulha gathering, a leader from the Native American community participated, and ideally, Meyer would eventually like to bring the Dalai Lama.
The Sulha gathering for 2004 will be a peace caravan, going from the Galilee, where Meyer lives, to Jerusalem.
Continually making the point that peace is conceptual only until people get to know each other as human beings, Meyer said, "The first step is to show appreciation of another's culture, of their grandfathers. Until we do that, peace will remain just a concept."
Meyer acknowledged that this kind of talk is a tough sell in Israel right now, with people on all sides being killed almost daily. "Maybe only 10 percent is available to this language, but that's a lot of people," he said.
Meyer has been in and out of the Bay Area in recent months. He and Amir Paiss, of the Israeli band Sheva, recently joined local musician Jai Uttal in playing concerts at Chochmat HaLev in Berkeley and Open Secret bookstore in San Rafael. At the latter, as candles and incense burned, the audience of nearly 50 could hardly stay in their seats, with one woman skipping around the room.
Speaking recently at Earthville house, a nonprofit in Oakland, Meyer said it was a shame there was no Muslim in the room. "It's up to you to generate that bridge," he said, telling how he met a sheik in Israel by just picking up the phone and calling. Meyer, who is semi-fluent in Arabic, said he went with his drum and sang a song in Arabic.
"Then they see that he knows our songs, and our language. This way you reach someone's heart. That's how things start, not when you talk treaties and ideology. Don't start talking about Sharon and Arafat and borders, because we know where that's going to go. We need to speak a different language."
Earthville is serving as U.S. emissary for the group, whose Web site is www.sulha.com .
Zak Zaidman, who led a delegation of Bay Area Jews to Dharamasala, India, for Passover in 2001, is not only raising money for Sulha, but hopes to take a delegation of Bay Area Jews to Israel for this summer's gathering.
"We can spend our whole energy on how fascist the Israeli government is, or how wrong the Palestinian educational system is," said Meyer, before breaking into drumming and a song. "But it gets us nowhere. We need to encourage what brings hope. You can choose hope or you can choose despair. It's a choice.'"