Friday, October 30, 2015

The Welcome Mat

Returning from the synagogue, we made it just in time to get on the bus and make our way to The Hassan II Mosque, sometimes nicknamed the "Casablanca Hajj". Built on the shoreline of Casablanca, it is the largest mosque in Morocco and Africa and the 7th largest in the world. Its minaret is among the world's tallest at 60 storied high with a laser light that shines toward Mecca.

My "dance partner" for the day is Nancy Nolan, a self identified Jewbuliccan. Jewish- married to a Jewish man she raised a Jewish daughter and celebrates Jewish holidays.
Buddhist- A student and practitioner of Buddhist meditation
Catholic- Born Irish Roman Catholic, she is both spiritually and culturally Catholic
Wiccan- Interested in indigenous, Native American earth based religion. Just as importantly, she identifies as a warrior, which is evident by her strength and energy.  Rarely is she without a twinkle in her eye, a generous spirit and a joy inducing robust laugh.

Together we explore the plaza and watch the ocean waves before our tour begins of this majestic sacred space.

As we enter what is most intriguing to me is that this masjid boasts glass insets in the floor where the sea bed can be seen and a retractable roof where the sky can be seen.  There water, air and earth meet and the element of fire is added by a flame. 

Standing in the space, pigeons fly across the vast expanse. The guide says that over 100,000 people can pray within and outside the mosque's grounds.  It is massive.

It was certainly beautiful and inspiring and yet not surprising that the decision to build this mosque was controversial for Moroccans, on one hand clearly a point of national and religious pride and on the other, such a vast amount of resources poured into a project that could be directed to feed and care for people. Over 12 million people donated by the end.

I shared with Nancy that as my community moves into its own building, that is even humble in comparison to the 300 person sized synagogue in Casablanca about the nature of space.  I question the value of opulence in the name of religion.  The beauty of  both spaces were magnificent and special beyond belief. I understand that we often feel that way about God.  Our enthusiasm wants to interpret that fervor of adoring God through adornment. 

As an art lover and a fan of architecture, I can relate.  But the Tower of Babel comes to mind in all our structures. Even when the impetus is to exult God not overthrow God, the building itself can distract.  It's a contrary notion to how we are wired.  It is in the ocean, or the mountains that I feel the Godly magnificence of creation more than any palatial cathedral or temple. We agreed that Nature unlocks our awe more than anything 

Perhaps more than the grandest ark, or the most vivid stained glass windows or the highest minaret--we should all keep our eye on the most important symbol: the welcome mats of our homes of worship.

There's nothing like the feeling of being embraced and having a sense of "Welcome Home."


Thursday, October 29, 2015

Meeting Elijah

Traveling with 30 people can be like trying to keep frogs in a barrel long enough to make it to the destination.

Making it through customs and out of the airport in Casablanca, we were challenged keeping it all together. One pilgrim was led a different way out of the airport so by the time we met our tour guide, Faed he was frazzled and we were all ready late.

Groggy from traveling, we rode on the bus adjusting to the sights.  We had a lovely (if not a tad cliché) dinner at Rick's Cafe.  My partner for the day was Amina, an Ismaili Muslim physician who was incredibly curious and interested in the world around her.

Arriving at the hotel, I convinced two pilgrims to join me on a 10 min walk to find the synagogue Beth El. Father Jeffrey Ott and Dr. Keith Wood who used to lead a Seventh Day Adventist informed community.  A fierce triad we were.

The first clue that this would be an adventure was that on my GPS app the address was on one street and the location symbol was on the next. Then as we started walking the bustling streets of Casablanca, my GPS stopped functioning.

Walking in the direction of the synagogue, three young men ran out in front of us and started fighting blocking our way.  The three of froze silently trying to assess the situation.  More men began to join the fight and I felt torn.  Wrestling with what was the responsibility of our own safety and of protecting another, especially as foreigners.

We wandered a good bit the wrong way but then found the right street.  There were a handful of places with high gates and no signage where I wondered if a synagogue took refuge behind those high walls.  Eventually on a small offshoot of the street we were on at the end of the street was a "beit menachem mendel".  I had found the Chabad. 

As we headed back four kittens ran out into street crying for food.  We made it back to the hotel only partially successful.

The next morning, two of the Jewish pilgrims asked if I had been successful in finding the synagogue.  We decided to head over.  We found the chabad again.  We were allowed in and heard the davening above as we explored the beit hamidrash.  We met a few of the Moroccan Jews and were on our way.

Jeffrey pointed to a gate saying that he thought a synagogue was behind the door.  Just before we headed across the street, a man appeared and walked to the gate and opened them.  Timing wise, it was like he was Elijah.

We approached, he was apprehensive at first but we explained we were Jews in broken French. He saw my yarmulke and let us into the beautiful courtyard.  We followed him into the sanctuary as he welcomed us in and Beth El was beautiful with stunning Chagall inspired stained glass windows with each tribe and beautiful chandeliers.

There's a sacred nature of space.  To be in Jewish space across the world binds us.  To add a blessing where my Moroccan brother and sisters had been before felt like an honor.  It was like encountering buried treasure.

Our Elijah was patient, it seemed as if he was the shamash. He appreciated our witness and excitement at discovering this spiritual home of our community. We embraced as we left. 

When seeking Jews around the world, there's almost always Elijah waiting to greet you.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Wild animals and Peace

“We travel, some of us forever, to seek other places, other lives, other souls.” – Anais Nin

There is something about the physical and emotional demands of travel that breaks down barriers and encourages people to form alliances. 

At the airport in Atlanta, with anticipation the World Pilgrims began to gather.  As we account for everyone, we all join together for a few instructions and we say the Traveler's Prayer from the Jewish Tradition:

 May it be Your will, Eternal One, our God and the God of our ancestors,
that You lead us toward peace, place our footsteps towards peace,
guide us toward peace, and make us reach our desired destination for life, gladness, and peace. May You rescue us from the hand of every foe, ambush, bandits and wild animals along the way, and from all manner of punishments that assemble to come to Earth. May You send blessing in our every handiwork, and grant us peace, kindness, and mercy in your eyes and in the eyes of all who see us. May You hear the sound of our supplication, because You are the God who hears prayer and supplications. Blessed are You, Eternal One, who hears prayer.

The bandits and the wild animals bring a smile to people's faces.  With this blessing, more connective tissue is binding us together.

I find the  repetition of shalom in the prayer comforting and surprising.  It is not just that our journey be a peaceful one, but that the very purpose of our travel be for peace.

International travel is long, it takes a toll. Peace is not a necessarily obvious description even when things go smoothly.  There are many things we must internally contend with like our practice of patience, the taming of our personal will with that of those around us.  Traveling is vulnerable. We are at the hands of forces we cannot control and sometimes at the whim of others. It can be trying, but when the goal is peace it can reframe the entire experience. 

Let our experience be for the sake of peace.

Monday, October 26, 2015

In Abraham's Shadow

*This blog is from my own viewpoint and does not represent World Pilgrims as a whole.

World Pilgrims was founded to cultivate greater understanding and cooperation between the three "major" Abrahamic Faiths in Atlanta.  (Let's also be aware that there are many Abrahamic faith traditions like the Baha'i tradition, Rastafarianism Samaritanism and  Druzism among others.) We use this term Abrahamic as a way to bind us to a common ancestor.

Sounds good, no?!  It did to me and it didn't.

I have been open-hearted and respectfully curious of other faith traditions since I was a teenager. Yet there was a tension. I was introduced to Abraham at a very young age.  He was my oldest Jewish relative.  He was the revered ground zero of Judaism. The patriarch of journeys, hospitality, arguing with God and covenants--Jewish-style. He was so Jewish in my first exposure to him and it was such a formative part of my education.  Even when I understood rationally that Abraham was the father of other faiths, his heart was Jewish.

Learning his importance to Christianity was not instinctive. Growing up in the South I had experienced violence and repetitive proselytizing by Christians at an early age. As early as 1st grade, I was confronted by accusations of murdering Jesus and of hiding my horns.  The fear was also reinforced by an education at Hebrew Day School that emphasized a history of persecution. It was confusing.  Somehow, I knew that this was only a version of Christianity --and that my own tradition had its sharp edges. I considered Christianity am erratic and more powerful daughter of Judaism. I was open but closed or rather I had quite the obstacle to travail.

I never really considered Christianity's connection to Abraham except I assumed he was some distant relative. 

When thinking of Islam, the few negative messages I received early on seemed more like caricatures and thus someone inherently untrustworthy teachings.  While it would not be until much later that I would understand more than just what is covered in a High School World Religions class, I knew ever since I read Genesis that Ishmael and Isaac were brothers who loved their father enough to bury him together.  Their estrangement seemed to be due to misunderstandings and their parents poor choices.  But with a clear link to Abraham, it made the separation painful, yet still hopeful.

In my traditional education, Abraham was the Jewish father.  His path was the Jewish one, embracing Isaac and expelling Ishmael.  Learning that the binding of Abraham's son was told different on the Qu'ran illuminated that there was a different claim on Abraham.

It's complicated to claim the same father when all of us have grown up thinking we are the favorite.  Can we give that fantasy up? The myths of triumphalism that can be found in all faith traditions are comforting on the surface but they force us to give up something far more valuable than "God's favorite" status or Abraham's only beloved child. 

And it is the act of confronting and overcoming those limited stories and early teachings that can lead us to discover what the more valuable understanding is.  And that is a wisdom worth  pursuing...