Israel | Local

Tucsonan of many faiths join in prayers for peace in the Middle East

Oshrat Barel, director of the Weintraub Israel Center, and Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon of Temple Emanu-El at a Prayers for Peace in the Middle East multi-faith service on July 31, 2014.
Oshrat Barel, director of the Weintraub Israel Center, and Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon of Temple Emanu-El at a Prayers for Peace in the Middle East multi-faith service on July 31, 2014.

As the latest Israel-Hamas conflict raged on, Tucsonans of many faiths gathered Thursday, July 31 at Temple Emanu-El to share prayers for peace in the Middle East.

More than 200 people attended the multi-faith service, organized by Temple Emanu-El and the Weintraub Israel Center.

The mood of the evening was solemn as clergy and lay leaders offered prayers, poems and songs that spoke of a need for unity, compassion and recognition of the pain on both sides.

Welcoming the crowd with “Shalom Aleichem, Salaam Aliekum,” Temple Emanu-El’s senior rabbi, Samuel M. Cohon, said that “no matter what some may believe … there is no lasting security that can be accomplished through battle and trauma.”

Oshrat Barel, Southern Arizona’s community shlicha (Israeli emissary) and director of the Weintraub Israel Center, a joint program of the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona and the Tucson Jewish Community Center, recalled the warmth of breaking the Ramadan fast with Imam Watheq Al-Obaidi at the Muslim Community Center the previous week, along with a 10-member Jewish community delegation. She expressed her hope that the evening’s event was only the beginning of attendees becoming more familiar with those of other faiths.

Barel spoke quietly of her struggle with fear in the past weeks, and of her father’s death 12 years ago in a terror attack in Israel, the result “of blind hatred that, I think, resulted from fear. Fear which resulted from not really knowing each other.”

Over the past weeks, she said, she’s struggled with “how to balance the message to the community, how to show the unnecessary death on both sides and especially … how we can help.”

“I chose 12 years ago, and every day since, to open my heart to love and care for others and to clean my heart of blind hatred,” she said, and prays for the strength to continue to do so.

Barel was followed by representatives of the Jewish, Muslim, Episcopal, Baha’i and Lutheran communities.

Noting that “Islam means peace,” Al-Obaidi read the first chapter of the Koran, which implores Allah to “keep us on the right path.”

Rabbi Thomas Louchheim of Congregation Or Chadash spoke of the need to listen even if you don’t believe in the other side’s truth. “Peace has never been founded on agreeing on who is right and who is wrong,” he said.

Accompanying himself on guitar, Father Tom Dunham of Streams in the Desert Lutheran Church sang. Rabbi Stephanie Aaron of Congregation Chaverim read a poem she wrote that portrayed the bitterness of the conflict, saying, “I want peace with you. Do you want peace with me…. I hear my pain. Do I hear yours?”

Sara Golan-Mussman sang a plaintive “Shir LaShalom” (“A Song for Peace”). Following her, Sat Bir Kaur Khalsa of the Tucson Sikh Sangat got a brief laugh when she commented, “Sara, from your mouth to God’s ear.” Khalsa’s presentation spoke of the grace of each person’s creation.

Then Imam Edip Yuksel, president of the Islamic Reform Movement, stepped to the podium and in moments the peaceful tone was shattered.

“I will not be able to sing you any songs. I don’t want you to feel good, because I don’t feel good. I am traumatized” by pictures of children killed in Gaza, said Yuksel, his voice rising.

Attempting balance, he spoke of “atrocities done in the name of the Jewish people” but also said that “Muslims massacring people in Iraq and Syria are also singing songs of peace in their mosques.”

Putting yourself in the other’s shoes is not possible, he thundered, before calling Gaza a concentration camp and charging that if Jews do not act to change Israel’s policies, “your children may curse you like the children of Nazis.” His tirade had some audience members applauding and others sitting in stunned silence, while a few walked out in protest.

After a duet with cantorial soloist Marjorie Hochberg, Cohon offered a closing benediction. We must, with God’s help, “insist on dialogue and peace … on leaders that commit themselves to peace,” he said, before Barel took the stage again.

“My intention was only to say thank you,” she said, and to invite everyone to a “peace and healing concert” on Oct. 30, which will feature Israeli singer and peace activist David Broza.

“But I can’t hold myself. I heard the imam and I share the pain that you expose,” she said, turning to him. “There is a time to pray and there is a time for action” and this night was meant as “an hour of grace, to bring people together and really open our hearts.”

“I was so afraid of this moment, during these three weeks, I was so afraid that I would see only one side, that I would see only the unacceptable fear that people in Israel, and in Gaza, are expressing,” she said. Calling for dialogue, not one-sided expressions, she concluded, “We need to close the gap,” earning a round of applause.

The following day, Cohon told the AJP that he was glad to help organize a service for peace “at a time when that seems to be the most important and elusive goal.” He noted that interfaith services in the community have become more frequent – though perhaps not frequent enough – since the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks on the United States.

While the imam didn’t follow the guidelines for the evening, “he spoke from his heart and reflected the pain and anger that many people of the world have expressed,” often in much more fervent terms, said Cohon, noting that whether the missiles come from Israel or Hamas, the devastation in Gaza is terrible.

It was challenging for people to hear the imam’s words, said Cohon, noting that many of us like to talk only to the people who agree with us. “But it is important for people in the Jewish community to be aware that the response to this situation is more extreme than we have seen in a very long time and it has moved immediately from anti-Israel rhetoric to anti-Semitic rhetoric, all over Europe, all over the Arab world … and all over America. We need to be aware that this is going on, and we won’t be able to say this is just crazy cranks who are doing this, because it’s become acceptable dialogue in a lot of places.

“We’re just being naïve if we don’t know that,” Cohon said, before returning to the fact that the imam’s speech was only a few minutes in an hour-long service for peace.

The Federation also cosponsored a “We Stand With Israel” rally at Congregation Anshei Israel on Aug. 7. “Whether it’s a ‘We Stand With Israel’ night or a night to pray for peace, it’s important for the Federation and its partners to give voice to the different forms of expression that exist in our community,” said Stuart Mellan, JFSA president and CEO

“As we dig into this work in this highly charged time,” Mellan added, “I’m just so impressed with our shlicha, Oshrat Barel,” and how she manages to “capture our need to show support for Israel and yet with heart and compassion for the pain being felt on both sides of this war.”

For a report on other two other multi-faith prayer services in Tucson, see