The past two summers, I found myself coming home from Kids4Peace camp with the same question: Why religion?
Religion creates all of the problems in the world, I find myself thinking again and again. Let it go, forget about it, it only causes pain and suffering. Yet I always find myself coming back to it. Why?
Maybe because it is simply how I grew up, or maybe because it makes me feel good, like being part of something greater than myself, part of a community. Regardless of the reason, its impact on my life is undeniable. Whether I am joining my parents for a Friday night prayer service at their small community synagogue, or lighting the candles that sign the beginning of the Sabbath in my new apartment, I always get a tingly feeling inside.
I volunteer for an organization called Kids4Peace. After being a camper in this program as a kid, now as an adult I have been volunteering for over 3 years. Alongside my childhood in the Jewish-American-Israeli world of West Jerusalem, Kids4Peace is like my second home, and it has opened up doors to a different understanding of religion then I would have, had I not been a part of Kids4Peace.
Kids4Peace has changed my life in many ways by challenging my view of the world and widening my perspective on the way I feel about religion in particular. I came to an understanding that religion is our common ground, and not what divides us.
When I was younger, I felt that religion was a tool; a tool that I was given to create groups in the world in order to differentiate between me and them, right and wrong, good and bad. Essentially, I felt that religion was a tool for me to create “the other”.
Since having been a part of Kids4Peace– the perspective I hold now has changed. I still believe that religion is a tool, however, this tool can and should be used to draw people together instead of tearing them apart. We should dare to build friendships with people who are different from us in religion, skin color, and even cultural practices. That way we can grow to be more tolerant and accepting of those who are different than us, realizing that even though we may not have the same perspective on ideas of “normal” or “right”, being open-minded enough to both listen and share with others is the key for letting religion draw us together. We should dare to LOVE everyone, including “the other”, and then we should dare to keep that love even when facing our differences that sometimes challenge our own beliefs. With the goal of love in mind, we can use religion as a tool to help us grow together, and closer to each other, rather than apart.
In Kids4Peace we work on creating, building and maintaining friendships. It’s always friendship first, conflict second. Kids4Peace’s methodology, which over the years has become my own methodology as well, is that if I am friends with this person, if I care about this person, if I love this person, then I need to learn how to hold that love together even when things like difference in belief, religion, and culture make it challenging to see this person as similar to you. If I have done this – I have succeeded!
I see the world and humanity as whole, as a body with immense potential to build, create and love. We just need to be guided by the right people, and be willing to open ourselves up to new and different opportunities.
In Judaism we have a well known saying “ואהבת לרעך כמוך” (“Love thy neighbor as thyself”), (-Leviticus , Chapter 9, verse 8). Rabbi Akiva’s interpretation of this verse is that we should love our neighbor as we love ourselves. Thanks to a good friend, whom I met this past summer while working together at camp, I have come to a recent understanding that perhaps Rabbi Akiva had it all wrong. We should love our neighbor as themselves and not as ourselves because maybe being equal to one another does not necessarily mean being the same. Perhaps instead equal means having the same right to and capacity for life, love and happiness, no matter the differences in our beliefs and practices of what life, love and happiness means. My neighbor may not be like me, therefore I cannot love him as I love myself, but I can grow to accept and love him/her as him/herself.
At Kids4Peace we work very hard on making sure everyone feels equal. Every single kid gets equal attention from the staff no matter what is their religious or cultural background. This experience has allowed me to come to my own understanding that we must see each kid based on who they are as an individual, not based on the judgements or stereotypes of their religion or culture. This way we can learn to see past the boundaries of differences and learn to love one another as individuals having their own unique experience.
So why religion?
Religion is a tool I was given by my parents and by God. But Kids4Peace has taught me how to use it , to help build a better world: a society with a better future, a society which doesn’t love their neighbors as who they themselves are, but as who their neighbors are, a society that loves the other because they are different, and not in spite of that.
I wish everyone a year of peace, love and understanding.
A shanah tovah u’metukah.
A good and sweet year.