Walking Together in Jerusalem: Toward a Shared Practice of Holiness

This article originally appeared in the Times of Israel Blog


In the shadow of the ancient walls of the Old City of Jerusalem, on a sunny day in April, I am leading a small group of prophets down a pathway into the Kidron Valley, and then up the slopes of the Mount of Olives. I call them “prophets,” but these women and men in their twenties are not in old-fashioned robes or unkempt beards, nor roaring dire warnings about the end of time. Rather, their appearance is quite ordinary for these days in Jerusalem. Some of the Jewish men wear yarmulkes, some of the Muslim women wear the hijab; all see themselves deeply connected to their traditions. These are not misfits or anomalies, or foreign tourists or pilgrims, but native sons and daughters of today’s Al-Quds/Yerushalayim.

Over the years, I have guided hundreds of visitors of many faiths who have come to Jerusalem, but this group is totally different. I realize that this moment, these young companions, this journey in the shadow of a wounded and torn Jerusalem, will remain in my memory for the rest of my life. In their decision to walk together in the public sphere of Jerusalem, I am witnessing a divinely human courage, a sacred prophetic vocation, a conscious choice to take action and to step out into a society not yet ready for holiness.

Anyone not familiar with the ugliness and alienation, with the fear and loathing of the “other” that scars the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in its present form, will find it hard to understand how walking together can be miraculous. But a miracle it is, and I know that I am privileged beyond words to see it.

The young Palestinian and Israeli activists who have chosen to walk on this path, on this April afternoon, are participants in a program called “Dialogue to Action,” an initiative of the Kids4Peace movement. I have been asked to lead this pioneer group in a shared walk into the holy places of Jerusalem’s contested, wounded, and dangerous public sphere. The question we are asking together is: “What is holiness, and how can we live it, together, in this time of most unholy violence, rage and terror?”

“Holiness,” like “peace,” is ideally a practice, not a product. In Jerusalem, however, in these days, “holiness” seems still imprisoned in an externalized ontology. It is a divine “power” or “substance,” or a divinely gifted “place,” jealously guarded and viciously fought over, rather than the freely embraced and liberating “practice of the divine presence” that it should be. Strangely, Jerusalem may be among the last human societies to awaken to the essential humanity of holiness.

While there is abundant loyalty to the three monotheisms among Jerusalem’s inhabitants, the practice of humanism toward the “other” is not their guiding principle. In public discourse and on the streets of the city, one sees more zealotry for religious and political “messianisms” than empathy and an inclusive spiritual vision of the future. When holiness and humanism are totally alienated like this, the result is crippling. As the activist and contemplative Thomas Merton wisely wrote in Life and Holiness, if we devote ourselves only to a “cult of other worldliness,” we are not able to act responsibly in the world of humanity. Holiness must be practiced in the here and now, and with “others,” not just those like us.

In Palestine and Israel, the past hundred years have been one long conflict. The children of the last generation of this violent century still live in constant fear of enemies too grotesque and too intimate to name, and in constantly disappointed hope that some new political regime will bring about an impossible peace.

And here, today, on the slopes below the looming walls of Jerusalem, I walk together with this very “last generation.” The “Dialogue to Action” project is proactive, confronting helpless disappointment with an intelligent practice of hope. The miracle is not only that we are walking together, but also that these young prophets have refused to continue the narrative of despair and hatred. They are in the process of forging a new language of holiness in the public sphere.

In 1957, the great historian of religion, Mircea Eliade, in the closing chapter of The Sacred and the Profane, challenged the theologians of the future to take up the quest for an authentic theology and practice of holiness after the collapse of secular modernism. Eliade’s “future” is now, and we are the theologians who must dare to respond to that challenge. It is fitting that Jerusalem should be one of the first contexts for this response, and that it should come in the form of an interfaith pilgrimage to truth, not a single-faith crusade of coercion.

New realities require new language. To live together, to walk together, rather than to be separated by fear and loathing – this will require rewriting the religious narrative of Jerusalem in a way no less radical than a political revolution. This revolution, though, is one of new attitude and inner orientation, not of more power and more defeat. The young people committing themselves to the “Dialogue to Action” program, are living examples of what the philosopher James Carse has called an “infinite game” – that is, a process of engagement and discourse that goes beyond the “winner/loser” imperatives required in a “finite game.” We might call the “Dialogue to Action” initiative an “infinite process” that will continue to grow and become more inclusive, widening the boundaries of social and theological possibility, even as its participants push against the physical boundaries of checkpoints and forbidden zones.

To walk an infinite process in a very finite city is physically and mentally dangerous. Each holy place that this group visits has been marked in recent months by the spilled blood of Israeli and Palestinian victims. Life in the public sphere in Jerusalem today is a “finite game,” if there ever was one. Winners take all, and celebrate their victories with demonstrations of unbridled zealotry, while the defeated suffer constant humiliation, abuse and despair. The idea of a public narrative that is not based on “winners” and “losers” is perceived as downright threatening to the status quo. A week ago, these same young Palestinians and Israelis were together in another part of town, just walking and talking on the sidewalk, when some anonymous fear-monger, shocked to see Jews and Arabs peacefully sharing the same public space, called the police. The “men in blue” in fact arrived, and questioned the group. Then, satisfied that this was not some new strain of “interfaith terrorism,” the police drove away.

Not all encounters are so relatively benign. Rocks have been thrown; threats are being made. There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that there will be an increasing scrutiny of and increasing hostility toward the “Dialogue to Action” participants. Their unique dedication to each other and to their shared path will not be tolerated by societies committed to bottomless hatred and total separation between Jews and Arabs. Already the interrogations and shunning have begun. This is where the truly holy vocation of these contemporary prophets of peace emerges into the light of day.

Rabbi Abraham Heschel, the Jewish theologian who walked with Martin Luther King during the civil rights movement, wrote that a true prophet does not foretell the future, but rather tells forth the truth. It is in this sense that these young Israeli and Palestinian companions, walking through Jerusalem together, are prophets. Participants in “Dialogue to Action” are not trying to predict what will become of their societies, or of their narratives, or of the city they all love. Rather, they are trying, with all their hearts, to speak truth to their societies, and to each other. The truth they speak echoes the practice of compassion they have undertaken in their daily lives, and reflects the path of spiritual humanism they are walking together. This is a courageous and holy truth, and it will be heard.

Change on the Ground

by Yakir, DTA Project Director

Dialogue to Action (DTA), the new initiative of Kids4Peace International, was created in order to ensure that in addition to speaking and having dialogue, we area also actively working together to create real change on the ground. During the last several months, 12 participants from each of the three Abrahamic faiths, Palestinians and Israelis are creating change in their own lives, but furthermore they are demanding to walk together in the public sphere of Jerusalem, influencing a wider audience.

ahmed 1
Today, 2 of the participants, Ahmed and Oren, decided to take the next step and begin their own project. After months of discussions and preparations they found a unique place, on a rooftop of the old city of Jerusalem, at the intersection of the Jewish, the Muslim and the Armenian quarters of the city. This roof is neglected – filled with garbage, drugs and security cameras. They decided to make their dream a reality and to make this unique corner of the roof a place for dialogue and meeting between Palestinians and Israelis. For their first step, they found some volunteers, a Jewish gardener, Ultra-Orthodox Jews and Palestinians who care. After getting permission from the Palestinian owner of the roof, we went up to the roof with garbage bags and started cleaning. In the middle of this hot day. we were collecting history through the garbage, broken glass, and dust, and replacing it with seeds of love. On the roof we saw Ultra-Orthodox settlers walking around us, trying to understand why a group of Palestinians and Israelis are smiling together. From the Muslim windows I saw faces of people who have seen too much pain, wondering what will happen now.Ahmed 3
But now Oren and Ahmed are already planning the next step. After getting permission, next week, a group of Graffiti artists, from both Israeli and Palestinian backgrounds, will come together to create graffiti for peace and tolerance. This will be only days before the Jerusalem national day, when hundreds of provocative and violent settlers will march in the Muslim quarter and will shout racist statements against Arabs and Islam. Our people hope that they will encounter this graffiti. Oren and Ahmed hope to use this location as a place where they can invite Jews, Christians and Muslims who want to live together to come to the roof, and to have dialogue and do change.ahmed 2

In addition to Ahmed and Oren, 5 of their friends will join, each contributing their knowledge and their activism. The rest of the group will be involved in other kinds of activism. Today, walking on the roof of the old city, I felt proud. I love these two young men so deeply, and I am worried. Last week one of the main Palestinian activists for peace was murdered by Palestinians and we all know that he will not be the last. I pray God to keep alive and safe my amazing Dialogue to Action angels.

K4P Launches Jerusalem “Dialogue to Action” Initiative

New Project for Young Adults Focuses on Social Change

Kids4Peace is excited to announce the Dialogue to Action Initiative, a new project in Jerusalem designed to engage young adults (age 18-25) in activism for social change.

“After 13 years of interfaith youth programming, Kids4Peace is ready to take the next step,” Executive Director Fr. Josh Thomas said.  “Our community is demanding more from us.”

“The years after high school are the most challenging ones, as youth move into military service, university and employment.  It is our responsibility to stand with them, to face these challenges, and find together the path of peace.”

Yakir ThumbnailDr. Yakir Englander, former director of Kids4Peace in Jerusalem, has been appointed as Project Director for the 2015-2016 pilot year.  Englander is completing three years in the USA as Fulbright Scholar and visiting instructor at Northwestern and Harvard Universities.

“It’s time now to bring the voice of Kids4Peace back into our communities,” Englander said. “To develop deep relationships with people on both sides of Jerusalem, so we can bring a change – not only in small ways, but in ways that echo through the broader society.”

Donate to the Dialogue to Action Initiative 

Kids4Peace International, 110 Maryland Ave NE, Suite 205, Washington, DC 20002.



Program Overview

Kids4Peace began in 2002, amid the worst violence of the Second Intifada. In the face of conflict and against all odds, twelve Jerusalem families – Jewish, Christian and Muslim – came together. Over the last 13 years, Kids4Peace has built a strong interfaith community that stretches across Jerusalem and neighboring West Bank cities.  Even during last summer’s fighting in Gaza, the Kids4Peace community held together, through prayer and honest conversation.

In the face of escalating violence and widespread fear, Kids4Peace remains a sign of hope.

Our signature program, Pathways to Peace, is a six-year year-round continuum of learning for youth age 12-18. Through summer camps, after-school activities, and community projects, Palestinian and Israeli youth meet to explore religion, culture, identity and leadership.

With a foundation of respect and trust, our oldest alumni are asking a new question: How do we move from Dialogue to Action?

  • How can a community of Palestinians and Israelis in Jerusalem work together to change the reality on the ground?
  • What are the obstacles to peace? And where can we make a difference?
  • What are the unique challenges and opportunities for an interfaith organization, where religion is at the center?

These young adults are demanding something more.

They are committed to the difficult and courageous work ahead, and they are asking for skills, community, mentorship, and the leadership of people from within their societies who have walked this path of nonviolent change.

In response, Kids4Peace is launching Dialogue to Action – a new initiative for young adults (18-25). The project will be rooted in a heritage of faith-based activism and nonviolent social change, drawing on the wisdom of spiritual teachers and the passions of young adults themselves.

Dialogue to Action will provide training, guidance, mentorship and support to a community of young peace activists, as they develop their own strategies for change.

The years from age 18-25 are complex ones. Most Israeli Jews begin military service and most Palestinians begin university studies. In both contexts, youth are under enormous pressure to support their own “side” – often against the interests of the other. How do peacemakers navigate these realities? What supports to do they need, in order to be agents of change?

Kids4Peace received a research grant from the US Institute of Peace to study the challenges which young adults face, as they make this transition.   The results of this research will inform the design of the Dialogue to Action project in its pilot year, with three components:

  • Young Adult Programs: Design and implement strategies to engage at least 24 Kids4Peace alumni and other peers, which will include (a) training in nonviolent action and (b) coaching to design social action projects that respond the most urgent realities of Jerusalem (such as the rise in racist attitudes, dynamics at the checkpoints, or anti-normalization campaigns). Throughout the process, facilitators will lead conversations about the personal and societal costs they are facing as peace activists and will offer practical and spiritual resources to support the participants.
  • Public Scholarship: Create a body of writing and teaching on the themes of interfaith
    peace activism, nonviolence and faith-based social change in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Through blogging, lectures in faith communities, and public events, Kids4Peace will bring religion into the forefront of conversations about peace and provide the theoretical and theological context for the Young Adult Programs.
  • Community Engagement: Develop relationships with key political, religious and civil society leaders. Host town hall meetings and other forums, in which young adults can challenge their leaders and advocate for change.

At the end of this pilot year, Kids4Peace will have created a platform for Israeli and Palestinian young adults to effectively work for nonviolent social change – both in joint projects, and within their own communities.


Project Director
Dr. Yakir Englander

Kids4Peace is pleased to appoint Dr. Yakir Englander as the Project Director. Yakir served as Director of Kids4Peace in Jerusalem during its formative years and is a respected scholar, activist and public intellectual. He earned a PhD from Hebrew University and taught as a Fulbright Scholar at Northwestern University and as a visiting scholar at Harvard Divinity School.

His recent writings in IslamiCommentary and the Huffington Post touch the sensitive human dimensions of the conflict, while charting a courageous and passionate course for action.   As Project Director, Yakir will give vision and direction to the program, speak and write for the public, and directly coach the young adult participants, in partnership with Palestinian colleagues.   He will engage consultants to offer trainings in nonviolence and forge partnerships necessary for effective social action. In addition to his work in Jerusalem, Yakir will engage key stakeholders in the USA, including clergy, congregations, political leaders and religious movements.