by Michal Ner-David, Jewish Advisor, Jerusalem
The past year in Israel, but especially in Jerusalem, has been horrifying. First there was the kidnapping and murder of three Jewish young men on their way home from school, then Operation “Protective Edge”, then the murder of an Arab teenager by a Jewish gang, and then an unleashing of racism and violence–sometimes deadly–coming from both sides that included an the attack on a synagogue in Har-Nof, Jerusalem. At times I ask myself why I am still living here. And then I think of People like Pastor Josh Thomas.
Josh is the executive director of Kids4Peace. I met Josh when I was about 15 when I was volunteering at a summer camp with Kids4Peace. After being a camper in 2004, when I was ten years old, I decided to come back as a shepherd (counselor). Josh has been an inspiration to me since that summer. I now work for Kids4Peace and am a “Jewish Faith Advisor” for the “Leap” group, which is made up of kids in seventh grade, participating in the second year programming of Kids4Peace. This year we have about 50 kids participating, a nearly 100% continuation of the kids from the year before. The Kids4Peace community has grown to 1,800 participants, staff members and volunteers. True to their commitment to “faith in peace,” Kids4Peace children and staff demonstrate great courage in the midst of conflict – refusing to be enemies, choosing to be friends. If anyone can bring peace to the world it is people involved in projects like this one.
My interview with Josh was scheduled for 6pm Jerusalem time. I sat at my computer for a few minutes before Skyping him. I saw a post on FaceBook about a recent attack in Jerusalem, I decided to add a question to my list. Dealing with Jerusalem and peace right now is like playing with fire. So, why focus your work on Jerusalem? I then proceeded to call Josh on Skype.
“The situation here is all very upsetting, What motivates you to keep going?” I asked.
His answer is a good example of why I find him inspiring: “I realized that we are Creating a community. We are Motivating people to set an example of social change”, he says. “That is what keeps me going. Nowhere else do I know of a place where people of such different religious and political beliefs can come together”.
“Peacemaking and peacebuilding are not foreign concepts to me. I grew up in an environment where this was always talked about. But you didn’t grow up with it. So what inspires you to become apart of this movement of social change?” I asked him.
Josh grew up in Scranton, Pennsylvania, once a coal mining town, in a Congregationalist Christian community that he describes as “a very conservative, very small town, and therefore a very small world.” In college he started creating a more critical approach to life than the one he had growing up in a small town. A professor he worked with was going to work in Bosnia to study the impact of war and violence on the kids in Bosnia growing up after the conflict in the 90’s. He went with him, and this was a life-altering experience. “I was really struck by the way religion and violence were intertwined in Bosnia. I started asking BIGGER questions”.|
“So when did you become an Episcopalian Christian?” I ask.
“I was drawn into the Episcopal Church in college, a community of spiritual seekers who were very accepting and in search of an accepting community.”
“And how did all these things–social change and the Church–come together?” I ask.
“Bosnia made me think about how I could reform religions from the inside, to seek change. To bring the voice of peace. I then stayed in college for two extra years as the campus Chaplain. Everything started coming together.”
After college Josh went to Seminary and only then was truly exposed to the world of interfaith. Josh went to Seminary in NYC across the street from a Jewish Seminary (JTS – Jewish Theological Seminary), where they sometimes studied together. He also took classes on Zen meditation. Josh went through his studies with the following question in mind: “How does one do religious education in a multi-faith world?” He says he felt he had “an opportunity to be a person of influence from within a religious tradition.”
Josh does not work with a localized congregation in his pastoral work. “My congregation is spread around ten different time zones, three religions, three languages, and many cultures. I feel like I am the Pastor of Kids4Peace.”
I feel that way too. This past summer Josh came to visit us at camp for a few days and I stayed up with him until late at night discussing all sorts of faith based issues both in Kids4Peace and my personal life. Not only do I see Josh as the spiritual leader of Kids4Peace, but he is definitely one of my personal spiritual guides as well.
What I love about Kids4Peace is that we are not asking people to give up their faiths to work towards peace; rather, we want them to work on peace together. “Bringing together peoples’ hopes and dreams with the practicality of their own religion. This is definitely a main goal of ours at Kids4Peace,” Josh explained to me.
Sometimes in living in a country where reading the news and hearing about a faith, or cultural based violent attack becomes a “normal” thing, you begin to ask questions, Have we made an influence? Have we made a change?
I asked Josh what he thinks about this. He answered: “Visiting Jerusalem after a summer of violence and seeing the community grow, and seeing that power…. In Buddhism they talk about the power of the Thanga, an energy that comes from the community. Our Thanga is cookin’. We are the largest and most diverse interfaith youth organization in Jerusalem. We are growing. We are shifting the norm. We are used to growing up apart. Let’s grow up alongside each other. We are on the verge of something very exciting!”
“Why religion?” I wonder aloud. “It is so messy, and causes so much trouble.”
Josh then surprises me with a quote not from the New Testament or the Gospels, but from my very own Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. “Religion’s task is to cultivate disgust for violence and lies, sensitivity to other people’s suffering and the love of peace”.
He continued: “Peace remains a theological vision of the way the world is supposed to be–according to Christianity. It is the gift that Jesus gives to the people. He wants them to believe that it is something that is present. Kids4Peace’s responsibility is to keep peace ALIVE! Peace is one of the names of God in Islam; we want to bring to life those places where the way the world should be enters the world as it is.”
Coming back to the subject of Jerusalem, I asked, “But isn’t dealing with Jerusalem and peace right now like playing with fire?”
“It is playing with fire,” he says. “The idea of Kids4Peace was born in Jerusalem. It came at a time of violence. It is important to keep it somewhere that the people can actually meet face to face. And it is a city that draws on all three faiths from around the world.”
And finally my last question, the one I have been waiting to ask him. “What is your best tip for a beginning peace activist like myself?”
“Our religions are different. If we want to get beyond ”Kumbaya” and “Hummus”, we have to understand that we are stepping into the world of radical differences. We have to think hard about what we are willing to sacrifice. What are we willing to compromise? At the end of the day, we may not have the same concerns but we just have to — DIVE IN!
“The Kids4Peace methodology has always been–friendships first, conflict next. If I know I love this person, how do I hold the love together with the other things? My beliefs? My religion? If we can do that well, then we have succeeded!”
I want to thank Josh for inspiring me and opening so many doors in the world of social change. I believe, like Josh, that slowly we are on the path to success.
Michal, Jewish Israeli Counselor (Left) with her co-advisor, Monatser, a muslim Palestinian (center), and Fr. Josh Thomas, Executive director of Kids4Peace