10/30/2012 01:06 pm ET Updated Dec 30, 2012

Interfaith Work and the Middle East

I am sitting in the synagogue of Kibbutz Ketura. To my right is a Palestinian asking me questions about Judaism, and to my left is an Israeli trying to figure out what Judaism means for her. I can't think of a better place where I would want to be, or who I would want next to me in a synagogue. They are both students of mine at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies. While the Institute is known to use the environment as a bridge between the different peoples of the region, we have also found religion to serve as such a bridge.

As rabbis we are all too painfully aware that religion is too often the cause for what divides people. Perhaps one reason for that is the corrupting effect that belief in God can have. If as Lord Acton said, "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely," and if God is understood for many as the Absolute Power than that belief too often can become corrupting. All religions have the checks to keep that tendency in place, and fortunately most religious people are not intoxicated with that religious blindness and drunkenness.

Rather, for most religious people religion is one of the many threads of the tapestry that make up the family of humanity; religion for them is not a wall that divides but a gate to walk through to meet and better understand the other. At the Arava Institute we directly confront the Israeli-Arab Conflict through our weekly Peacebuilding and Environment Leadership Seminars (PELS); students will often leave those sessions hurt, crying and emotionally tried. Yet, we are able to see those same students laughing and learning together a short time later. One of the ways that we do this is by having many "touch points" that are not solely about the conflict. These remind the students, through those other shared experiences, that they have other common elements in their lives that they all share. One of them is religion.

While most of our Muslim students go home for Eid al-Adha, often inviting their non-Muslim classmates home with them, some stay on the kibbutz. It is then not unusual for some of the Muslim, Christian and Jewish students to go up the road to Kibbutz Yahel and have a sheep shechted (ritually slaughtered) and brought back to the Arava campus on Ketura to be cooked and eaten as part of the observance of the holiday. At Christmas many of our Jewish and Muslim students join their Christian classmates and go to Bethlehem for the various observances there. Needless to say there are many opportunities for the sharing of the Jewish holidays on the kibbutz.

This summer our daughter was a counselor again for a Kids4Peace camp which brings Israelis, Palestinians and North Americans together. During the camp opportunities were made to experiences and learn about Christianity, Islam and Judaism. Those of us involved in interfaith work know of the power of such meetings, particularly when we are able to go beyond talking about the similarities but also address and discuss the real differences. Such conversations require trust and openness and may not always easy. But as it is written in the Katha Upanishad, "The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over; thus the wise say the path to Salvation is hard."