Pope Francis, a Montreal rabbi and the importance of bridge-building

Pope Francis, a Montreal rabbi and the importance of bridge-building

Originally published in the Montreal Gazette, March 9, 2016

I recently returned from Rome where I had the rare privilege of an audience with Pope Francis.

Meeting the Pope is not a simple thing. Numerous levels of approval are required. It is necessary to have a valid reason. In my case, it was to meet with him on behalf of the Israeli Hand-in-Hand schools.

Hand-in-Hand began in 1997 when two Israeli educators, one a Jew and one an Arab, decided to create a school that would have as its mandate an equal student population of Jews and Arabs. Its mission was to create a shared society where Arabs and Jews could go to school together, learn to appreciate that there can be two narratives to the same story, and, most important, allow the children to grow up as classmates and friends, and not as enemies.

I believe in the mission of Hand-in-Hand and wanted to get the Pope’s endorsement for the organization.

As a Canadian, I believe in the values of peace and respect. As a humanitarian, I care about people of all religions and backgrounds. As a rabbi, I believe it’s a religious responsibility to make this world a better place for all of mankind. This is why Hand-in-Hand calls out to me and why I have made it my life’s work to support its cause.

During his visit to Israel in 2014, Pope Francis made an unscheduled stop to pray at the Israeli security wall. It was, as his aides conceded later, “a silent statement against a symbol of division and conflict.” However, many Israelis saw it as a propaganda stunt.

Those who were offended by the Pope’s prayer should not have been. If anything, I agree with him. Every time I pass the security wall when driving in Israel, I also feel pain. Even though I view the wall as a necessary reality (as it has proven time and time again to prevent terrorism), it is still a symbol of pain and failure. It represents two sides that have not been able to build a lasting trust for one another and it represents the extreme sense of incarceration that many residents living on the Palestinian side feel by the mere fact that there is a wall locking them into a specific geographic area, something the Jewish nation has personally experienced much too often. A necessary reality or not, it is a painful sight.

I met with the Pope because I want to make a difference in this world, and need the support of leaders of all faiths to do it. While there are currently six schools in Israel where Jewish and Arab children go to school together, there are 10 additional communities begging for such schools to be built. There are more than 1,000 children on the waiting list.

The best word I can use to describe the audience with the Pope is “amazing.” He is a humble and gracious man who is willing to take strong positions about his beliefs. Seating me among the cardinals and the bishops during the General Assembly prior to our meeting was a sign of the esteem he shows to clergy of different faiths. His is a bridge-building church.

When I met with the Pope, we discussed the issue of Jews and Arabs living together in a shared society based upon mutual respect and shared goals. We also discussed the work of the Hand-in-Hand schools and the role the children who attend these schools will play in building bridges between the two groups in the coming years. The Pope offered strong words of encouragement.

I walked away inspired. I hope to have future opportunities to meet with Pope Francis to discuss issues that are vital to both the Christian and the Jewish worlds. Knowing that we have a partner that represents such a large and powerful community can only be taken as a positive sign that there is a light at the end of our long tunnel.

Why I Met with Pope Francis

Why I Met with Pope Francis

I recently returned from Rome where I had the unique privilege to have an audience with Pope Francis.

When an opportunity arises to meet with a world leader, one expects to receive positive feedback from friends and community. However, this was not the consistent response. When people heard that I had been offered a brief meeting with Pope Francis, the leader of 1.2 billion Catholics and the fourth most powerful person in the world (according to Forbes magazine), instead of encouragement, I was often asked, “Why? Why him? Why not the Chief Rabbi of Israel” or better yet, “He doesn’t represent Jewish values. What advice or encouragement could he possibly offer?” To answer these questions, I feel compelled to publicly articulate what my goals were for the meeting and the positive results that came from our time together.

Meeting the Pope is not a simple thing to accomplish. There are numerous levels of approval required before being granted an audience. It is necessary to have a valid reason for requesting the audience. For me, I was meeting with him on behalf of the Israeli school system, Hand-in-Hand.

The Hand-in-Hand story began in 1997 when two Israeli educators, one a Jew and one an Arab, decided that enough was enough and decided to create a Noah’s Ark – a school that would have as its mandate an equal student population of Jews and Arabs. Its mission was to create a shared society where Palestinians and Jews could go to school together, learn to appreciate each others narrative and most importantly, allow the children to grow up with their Palestinian and Jewish neighbours as classmates and friends and not as enemies.

I believe in the mission of Hand-in-Hand and wanted to get the Pope’s endorsement for the organization that I support. If you do not believe in the vision of a shared society in Israel, then the obvious question is, “Why bother meeting with the Pope?”  However, if you want to make a difference in Israel and consider the status quo unacceptable, then the meeting was historic.

As a Canadian, I believe in the values of peace and respect. As a humanitarian, I care about people of all ethnicities, religions and backgrounds. As a Rabbi, I believe in  religious responsibility and ethics to make this world a better place for all of mankind. This is why Hand-in-Hand calls out to me and why I have made it my life’s work to support and advance its cause.

During the Pope’s visit to Israel in 2014, Pope Francis made an unscheduled stop to pray at the Israeli security wall in Bethlehem. It was, as his aides conceded later, “a silent statement against a symbol of division and conflict.” Many Israelis saw it as a propaganda stunt, an impression reinforced by the fact that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas immediately promised to create a postage stamp commemorating the moment. In response, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called on the Pontiff to make an unscheduled visit to a memorial for Israeli victims of terrorism.

Prime Minister Netanyahu and Jewish leaders, who were offended by the Pope’s prayer, should not have been. I was not offended then nor am I bothered by the Pope’s prayer stop now. If anything, I agree with him. Every time I pass the Security Wall when driving in Israel, I also feel pain and so should every Israeli. Even though I view the wall as a necessary reality (as it has proven time and time again to prevent terrorism), it is still a symbol of pain and failure. It represents an inability to live in peace with our neighbours, it represents two sides that have not been able to build a lasting trust for one another and finally it represents the extreme sense of incarceration that many residents living on the Palestinian side feel by the mere fact that there is a wall locking them into a specific geographic area, something the Jewish Nation has personally experienced much too often. I did not stop at the wall as the Pope did and offer a silent prayer last time I was in Israel. However, I believe we all should. A necessary reality or not, it is a painful sight.

The main reason I met with the Pope is that I want to make a difference in this world and need the support of leaders of all faiths to do it. While there are currently six schools in Israel where Jewish and Arab children go to school together, there are ten additional communities begging for such schools to be built. There are over 1000 children on the waiting list to attend these schools as well. This represents a grass-roots effort to do what should come naturally – to get along with our neighbours. If children can go to school together, play together and become friends from earliest childhood, maybe there is a chance for peace. When they grow up, they can continue to build these bridges and create a society that can work out differences, not through violence, but through negotiations based on trust, respect and appreciation for the fact that there can be two narratives to the same story.

The best word I can use to describe the audience with the Pope is amazing. He is a humble and gracious man who is willing to take strong positions about his beliefs. The respect he showed me was incredible. Sitting me amongst the Cardinals and the Bishops during the General Assembly prior to our meeting was a sign of the esteem he shows to clergy of different faiths.  His record during his three years as Pope certainly represents a much more caring, sensitive and bridge-building church. The most recent example of Pope Francis’ new approach for the church occurred on December 10, 2015, addressing proselytizing the Jews. Allow me to quote the New York Times article discussing the Vatican’s statement, “Despite a long history of mutual suspicion and conflict, Christianity and Judaism are deeply intertwined, and Christians should treat the subject of the Holocaust with sensitivity and repel any anti-Semitic tendencies.” The Vatican published a document titled,  “The Gifts and Calling of God Are Irrevocable,” issued by the Vatican’s Commission for Religious Relations with Jews. Addressing an issue that has been a sore point between the two faiths for centuries, the commission wrote that the church was “obliged to view evangelization to Jews, who believe in the one God, in a different manner from that to people of other religions and world views.” It specified that “the Catholic Church neither conducts nor supports any specific institutional mission work directed towards Jews.”

Following the Wednesday morning General Audience attended by over 20,000, I was given the opportunity to meet with the Pope and discuss the issue of Jews and Arabs living together in a shared society based upon mutual respect and shared goals. We also discussed the work of the Hand-in-Hand schools and the role the children who attend these schools will play in building bridges between the two groups in the coming years. After hearing about Hand-in-Hand, the Pope offered strong words of encouragement, ending with the words, “This (Hand-in-Hand) is the only way to move forward.” I could not have said it better.

I hope to have future opportunities to meet with Pope Francis to discuss issues that are vital to both the Christian and the Jewish worlds. For now, I walked away inspired. There is much to be done to accomplish our goals in Israel and throughout the world. Knowing that we have a partner that represents such a large and powerful community can only be taken as a positive sign that there is a light at the end of our long tunnel.

France Needs our Compassion, Not False Prophets

France Needs our Compassion, Not False Prophets

The world is still reeling from the terrible massacre that took place in Paris this past Friday. So many victims of terror. So many injured. So many families lives destroyed through acts of terror. Every person with a beating heart and a soul mourns the loss of life and stands in solidarity with France in their time of mourning. Beth Zion Congregation in Montreal, Canada, extends its condolences and offers prayers on behalf of those injured in the terror attacks and for the families who lost loved ones. May God give them the strength needed at this difficult time.

As a Rabbi and a humanitarian, I was pained to read a quote in the Jerusalem Post from Rabbi Dov Lior, the Chief Rabbi of Kiryat Arba in Israel.  Lior commented in relation to the recent terror attacks in France, “The wicked ones in blood-soaked Europe deserve it for what they did to our people 70 years ago.” According to the Talmud, prophecy ended with the Prophet Malachi who died about 2500 years ago. Rabbi Lior’s opinions are his and do not represent authentic Judaism.  Allow me go one-step further. Rabbi Lior’s hate filled message is the antithesis of authentic Jewish values and ideas.

The Jewish Nation that has been the target and the victim of pogroms, holocausts, terrorism and massacres. We need to be the first to speak out against acts of atrocities. We need to the first to wave the banner of humanitarianism and compassion. To pour salt in the wounds of the Parisians is not just wrong, its evil. Lior is not a prophet and cannot speak on behalf of God as to why events such as the Paris massacre took place. If we want to know what God has to say about this event, we simply need to open King David’s Psalms. In Psalm 145 the great king and poet wrote, “God shows mercy on all of his creations.” We need to emulate King David, an authentic Jewish leader and not take direction from false prophets.

Hand in Hand

Hand in Hand

With the principal of the Hand in Hand school in Kfar Kara (Israeli Arab Village). Two years ago the mayor wanted to shut down the school, now he is building them a new campus! This is the power of a vision for building bridges for peaceful coexistence. My new friend Hassan, the principal in the picture said, “The school exists because G-d wants it to.” They currently have 275 applicants for 15 open slots for the new school year. They are also now attracting religious families from nearby Zichron Yaakov. This will allow bridges to be built between not only Jews and Arsbs but between religious and secular as well.

This is the only Hand in Hand school in an Arab village and the Jewish families had to overcome serious cultural fears to enrol and bring their children to the school. Now children have play dates in each other’s homes and families get together as well.

What an honour to play a small role in this wonderful organization. Please continue your support of this very worthy cause.

Tonight will be the Hand in Hand faculty Iftar dinner (meal to end Ramadan fast). I will update about this unique and special experience  tomorrow.

Where Will the Children Go Next Year?

Where Will the Children Go Next Year?

I had the opportunity to visit the wonderful town of Haifa and spend a day visiting the “Hand-in-Hand,” bilingual pre-school. As I mentioned in previous blogs, Hand-in-Hand is the unique, multi-cultural school system that seeks to build bridges between the Jewish and Arab communities from earliest childhood. The pre-school in Haifa, which receives no support from the municipal government, started three years ago with 14 children. This year, they opened their doors to an enrollment of over 60, along with an enviable waiting list of over 90 children. Their tuition is significantly more than the seven dollar a day Garderie (pre-school) in Quebec. And yet, parents are turning to the school in droves, committing to make the world a better place while maintaining their own family’s strong and rich identity – Jewish, Muslim, Christian and in Haifa, Bahai.

The city of Haifa is a very special place in Israel.  The over 3000 year old city is home to a large port, energy and power production (including two large nuclear reactors), the world famous Technion University, the world Centre of the Bahai religion, a population of close to 300,000 and is often touted as a model of peaceful coexistence between the many faiths that call the city home.

Jews remain in the majority of Haifa, while at the same time the significant Arab population represents a very strong, affluent and important part of the cities life and culture. Jews and Arabs live in the same buildings, work together in the same hospitals and hi-tech companies and have, barring the occasional flare-ups, live in peace with their neighbours.

Why is there a question of where the children will go next school year? Status quo is only as good as today’s current events. It does not represent vison. Nor does it speak to the future. It assumes that if things are good today, they will be good tomorrow. However in the Middle East, we know that the landscape can change on a dime. We have seen this countless times; the most recent example was the Gaza war of last summer. Haifa has not yet granted the permit for the school to open a Kindergarten class for next year. So where will these children go next year is a real issue facing their parents and the dedicated educators every day. Will then enter the general system or will they continue in this unique educational environment?

The Hand-in-Hand school system is controversial. There is the obvious fear of intermarriage between Jews and Arabs and the fear of a confused identity. These same fears, however, exist in every location and in every community. There is no sector that can pat themselves on the back and say they have no-intermarriage with non-Jews in their community. And if they tell you that, they are obviously lying. The truth is, according the Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, the overwhelming majority of cases they refer to as “intermarriage,” take place between Jewish men and women from the former Soviet Union whose “Jewish” status is questionable. And in these cases, more often than not, the woman thought she was Jewish to begin with.

I am a strong believer that the ultimate location where values are conveyed and transmitted in the home.  When I began teaching 25 years ago, I believed just the opposite.  I erroneously thought that my and the school’s influence was stronger than the homes. Now I realize that educators, in addition to imparting information and teaching children how to think, can change children’s lives and influence them in a positive way — but 99% of the time, in the arena of values, home trumps school. If parents want to protect their children from intermarriage, the best way to accomplish this is to create an environment of pride and love of being Jewish and a love for Am Yisrael – the Jewish Nation. No school can ever strip a child of this.

What a school like Hand-in-Hand can accomplish though, is to pave a way for better communication, collaboration and a spirit of true peace in the future.

Status quo is never good. It may save you a headache today but you may suffer a migraine tomorrow. The children of Haifa deserve more than just, “Stats Quo.” We would never accept it in Montreal, why should they?

Rabbi P.

The photo above shows Rabbi Perton, standing with Dr. Merav Ben Nun, Community Organizer for Haifa, Hand-in-Hand community. The banner in back of them calls on the Municipality of Haifa to grant the school a permit to open a Kindergarten class for the next school year.

Yad B’Yad

Yad B’Yad

“This is the best place to be at this moment in time. It is the only place that is not teaching hatred and animosity. It is teaching how to understand and appreciate the other side.”

Today was an amazing day. I had the opportunity to visit the Yad B’Yad School in Jerusalem. The Yad B’Yad School seeks to educate Jews and Arabs in an environment of respect, appreciation for one another and dialogue. Rather than avoiding the issues that divide, through trained facilitators, the students explore the issues that separate the two cultures and learn how to appreciate that there is another side to the story. I had the opportunity to meet with students, teachers and administrators and learned about this unique educational institution.

Orfata, a teacher and pedagogic department head, (herself a parent in the school), is from the Arab village of Tz’fata. During our lengthy meeting, she shared with me the quote on the top of this page. Orfata is a proud Muslim woman who believes in the mission of the school – to build bridges between the Arab and Jewish Communities. The same can be said for Rebecca, a senior administrator who is a traditional Jewish woman who sends her children to the school and hopes that they will be able to build a better future for both people by understanding the Arab narrative as well as their own.

In November when I visited Israel, the Yad B’Yad School was firebombed by a group of three Jewish extremists who didn’t believe in the message of peaceful coexistence. The arson consumed a Grade 1 classroom and the fire was fed by burning the classroom library of children’s books. What I learned today was that the community, even those who don’t believe in the school’s mission, galvanized and came out together in one voice that violence is not the solution.

This past summer as the rockets were falling on Israel from Gaza, the school was grappling with what to do on the first day of school. How would the children be able to start the school year after such a violent summer? The school leaders, faculty and parents met as groups and began the school year by working out their own issues. Then, after understanding themselves, they could begin the school year as a united community. The year started by having a united march, Jews and Arabs together speaking out against violence and in favour of working together to bring meaningful peace to the county. This can only be accomplished by listening to each side and respecting each other. The message I heard over and over today was, “You don’t have to agree, to be able to live together in harmony.”

Children have to be taught to hate, it’s not natural. Growing up together, going to school together, playing soccer together and learning about each other’s cultures, allows the children to become adults who are not programmed to hate.

yad-byad2There are two pictures with today’s blog. The first is me with two high school students. Their names are Yazmin and Inbar. One a Jew the other Arab. They both plan on going to university, getting married and building a future based upon respect for all citizens of Israel. They are the future leaders who can bring peace to the region. The second picture is of a sign announcing that the holiday of Purim is around the corner and we need to celebrate and be happy. It is written in both Hebrew and Arabic. In fact, I sat in a Grade One class today and observed the co-teachers telling the story of Purim to the class. It was first taught in Hebrew and then in Arabic. What a beautiful sight watching Muslim children learn about and appreciate our Jewish laws, customs and traditions.

Such a school does have its challenges. However as Orfata said, “The other path has not worked. Let’s try the path of respect and the way to do this through the children.” I pray that it works so we can finally see a life of peace for all in Israel.

Over the course of this week, between continuing the planning of the Beth Zion Bar & Bat Mitzva trip, I will be visiting two more Yad B’Yad campuses. One in Jaffa and one in Haifa. I look forward to sharing with you upon my return how Beth Zion can become international leaders in their mission.

Rabbi P.


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