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Learning to hear the “other”: West Bank rabbi brings his message of “passionate pluralism” to West Hartford


By Cindy Mindell

Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger has devoted most of his professional life to interfaith relations, splitting his time between Israel, where he works with Jews and Palestinians, and the U.S., where he teaches in Greater Dallas and lectures around the country.

As scholar-in-residence at Beth David Synagogue in West Hartford later this month, he will share his own experiences as he discusses “Personal Transformation at the Heart of the Conflict” and “Passionate Pluralism.”

A native New Yorker, Schlesinger grew up in a secular, unaffiliated Jewish home. He became involved in Young Judaea during high school and studied Jewish history and tradition as a way to understand the foundation of his Zionism. After beginning a BA at Wesleyan University, he made aliyah at age 20, served in the IDF, and completed a BA through the Open University. He then spent more than 10 years in advanced Jewish study, primarily at the Har Etzion College of Jewish Studies and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Since 1983, he has lived in Gush Etzion, except from 2005 to 2013, when he served as head of the Community Kollel in Dallas. In 2010, he founded the Jewish Studies Initiative of North Texas, where he is executive director and community rabbinic scholar.

It was in Dallas that Schlesinger began to develop the worldview that forms the basis of his work. As a lecturer and educator in Reform and Conservative synagogues, the JCC, and the Jewish Federation, “I became very open to the partial truths of forms of Judaism other than mine,” he says. “I naturally searched out the sources in Talmud and Chassidic and Kabbalistic literature that provide the foundation to develop a many-faceted and nuanced understanding that there is a kaleidoscope of truths within the Jewish world.”

“Passionate Pluralism” discusses some of those traditional Jewish sources that inspired Schlesinger to hear the viewpoint, narrative, and identity of the “other.” It was a natural progression for Schlesinger to eventually apply that philosophy back home in Gush Etzion, where Palestinians make up 90 percent of the population.

“Personal Transformation at the Heart of the Conflict” describes the metamorphosis he began to undergo two years ago – “the first time I ever met a Palestinian as an equal and not as a soldier or as a homeowner having menial laborers in my house,” he says. “What we know in Israel is a function of what we read in the newspaper, and what we read in the newspaper is a function of a whole set of lenses through which we see the Palestinians,” he says. “It has to do with our society’s notions of the conflict, so we really don’t have any direct connection with the Palestinian other.”

After that initial encounter, Schlesinger set out to learn more about Palestinian lives and aspirations through reading and personal encounters.

“I wanted to complement my old lens with a new one,” he says. “Even though we may see [the] other as aggressive and dangerous and blood-thirsty, those paradigms keep us safe because they teach us that we’re living in a world that we understand. When one starts to realize that those paradigms that you have been taught your whole life are not the only truth, then life absolutely becomes much, much more dangerous – not in a physical sense but in a spiritual and psychological sense.”

Schlesinger helped establish Roots/Shorashim/Judur: The Palestinian-Israeli Initiative for Understanding, Nonviolence and Reconciliation, where he serves as director of international relations.

He found the process of meeting ‘the other’ and reexamining preconceived notions to be spiritually and psychologically disconcerting. “It’s unmooring, in that it gives one a sense of losing one’s sense of identity,” he says. “On the other hand, it’s a very, very mind-expanding and soul-expanding experience because you realize that, even though you’ve left the place where you’re anchored, you’re in a process of expanding your truth and coming closer to a truer truth because it’s more inclusive and takes into account more nuances.”

Through Roots/Shorashim/Judur, Schlesinger and his fellow members facilitate meetings between Israeli Jews (“what the world calls ‘settlers,’” Schlesinger says) and Palestinian Arabs living in the geographical region defined by Jews as Gush Etzion and by Palestinians as the area between Bethlehem to the north and Hebron to the south.

The spiritual father of the organization is Menachem Froman z”l, an Orthodox rabbi and peace activist who served as chief rabbi of Migdal Oz and Tekoa in the West Bank, and who died in 2013.

“He spent his whole life reaching out to the other,” Schlesinger says. “He was a personal friend of Yassir Arafat, he spoke in Gaza with Sheikh Yassin before Israel assassinated him, he had many connections with Muslim leaders throughout the area.” Froman’s widow, Hadassah, is a founder of Roots and one of the movement’s central activists.

“We get challenged a little bit from a Jewish-halachic-philosophic perspective, but we get more challenged simply from a gut level: ‘How could you talk to the people who are trying to kill us?’” Schlesinger says. “I don’t, and I never want to, denigrate the real dangers that each side is exposed to from the other and the fears that are generated – those fears are real. After acknowledging the fears and the anger, the question is, do we want the sword to devour forever, or do we want to try to do something to put an end to this mad conflict?”

Schlesinger and a Palestinian partner from Roots have addressed thousands of people in the U.S., at synagogues, universities, churches, and mosques.

“They tell us that they’ve begun to reexamine the way they look at the other, whether it’s the Palestinian other or the Israeli or Jewish other, and that means reexamining how they look at the Arab-Israeli conflict,” Schlesinger says. “Many people have also told us that our approach to getting to know the humanity and narrative of the other has helped them reexamine Jewish-Muslim relations in the U.S. and even black-white relations in the U.S.”

The Roots approach is based on getting to know the other as a human being, and learning to truly listen to and absorb the other’s narrative and identity. Religion, too, plays a critical role in the approach. “There are absolutely religious elements to the [Israeli-Arab] conflict,” Schlesinger says. “Those elements are often ignored by secular politicians who want to sweep them under a rock and think that if we ignore them, we could make peace between secular Jews and secular Palestinians. But we believe that religion is playing a role in the conflict and we believe it has to play a role and can play a role in the solution.”

Scholar-in-Residence Shabbat with Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger: Friday-Saturday, Jan. 29-30, Beth David Synagogue, 20 Dover Road, West Hartford. For information or to register visit www.bethdavidwh.org/events or call (860) 236-1241. n

Comments? email cindym@jewishledger.com.

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