On May 28 in Jerusalem, clergy of all major faith communities in Israel -- Jews, Druze, Christians and Muslims -- came together, gathering for a groundbreaking conference called "Leading Toward Safe Families: Religious Leaders Deal with Domestic Violence," the first of its kind in Israel.
The day of learning and training, an initiative of the Interreligious Coordinating Council of Israel and Kol HaIsha, gave the religious leaders an opportunity to gain insight into the dynamics of domestic violence, and equipped them with practical skills for how to respond when they are next faced with cases in their communities.
In a country characterized by divisive, often violent conflicts and yawning gaps between communities, it was astonishing and inspiring to see these religious leaders reach across boundaries to exchange knowledge and support one another. In interactive workshops the clergy exchanged personal experiences and gave each other tips and feedback on how to identify what's really happening in families in their communities, as well as when to intervene and how. Though there are, of course, differences in norms and practices across congregations, the clergy members were united by their powerful role in their communities, and a commitment to taking responsibility for their part in responding to domestic violence.
Religious leaders have a special role to play when it comes to domestic violence, both because members of their communities turn to them and because they set public norms and values. The fact that these leaders are committed to understanding the issue and using their influence to make a positive change is hugely exciting, and has the potential to be truly transformative for communities across the country.
A particularly powerful moment came when Kadi Iyad Zahalka, who presides over the Muslim court of the State of Israel in Jerusalem, spoke out against so-called "honor killings." He started out by saying that "According to the Muslim faith, men do not have the right to control or dominate women," and went on to passionately declare, "I say this in the clearest way possible: according to the Quran, the killing of women is absolutely forbidden. It is forbidden to take another person's life, and for that there is no forgiveness. Only the Creator can take a life." He emphasized that this practice comes from cultural tradition and not from Islam, and encouraged the leaders present to remember to make it clear to their communities that violence against women runs counter to their religion.
Tuesday's conference was modeled on the Connect Faith program of Connect NYC in New York. I had the privilege of participating in one of their courses last year, and found it so powerful that I thought that I would try to adapt this idea to the Israeli setting. I came to Jerusalem this year as a Social Justice Fellow of the New Israel Fund with the determination to create an equivalent initiative.
The process of creating the conference exceeded my wildest dreams. An incredible team of Christian, Muslim and Jewish women from different organizations, communities, cities and cultures worked seamlessly and with great dedication for many months in order to make Tuesday's revolutionary event a reality. The group's shared vision for social change allowed us to build deep and transcendent bonds that will hopefully be sustained for many years to come as grassroots activists on the ground in Israel continue to collaborate to make a change.
Amal Najami-Abu Sif, a leader on the issue of rights for Arab women and a member of the coalition said of yesterday's conference, "We turned to religious leaders and asked for their participation in this important day in order to give women in their communities a voice, so that they would better understand women's needs and speak out against domestic violence. We are convinced that together with these religious leaders we can make a change."