Rabbi in Cairo Day 1
Report on Trip to Egypt/Qatar with Interfaith Delegation Sponsored by the National Peace Foundation and the Islamic Society of North America
Rabbi Brian Walt
Day 1 May 17,2009
What an amazing day we spent today in Cairo. We started the day attending a service at the Coptic Church and ended in the home of an Egyptian family attending the meeting of a large mostly women’s spiritual society dedicated to a universal spirituality. Between these two bookends, we visited several beautiful mosques, a shrine to the granddaughter of the prophet, Mohamed, and visited the Ben Ezra synagogue where the Cairo genizah was discovered at the end of the 19th century. We also had lunch with an Egyptian businessman who met us by chance? He showed us around the church and the museum and then invited us to his office for lunch.
Many personal highlights:
It such a privilege to see the Mosques with Imam Fawzi and Mohammed Elsanousi. Even when it wasn’t clear that non-Muslims should enter the shrine, they didn’t hesitate in insisting that we should come with them. It was the first time in my life that I witnessed Muslim prayer up close with a clear and beautiful explanation of the meaning of the prayers. Both the Imam and Mohammed are such men of integrity and generosity. As we stood in a huge 14th century mosque and watched a man chant verses from the Quaran that reverberated throughout the space, I could feel the transcendent power of the prayer. During the day the Imam answered many questions about his religious practice and his beliefs.
At the Coptic Church I was struck by the way the worshippers invested their hearts and souls in the prayer. One very precious scene was when one of the priests entered in civilian garb with his 2 small children, a boy and a girl. As he approached the altar at the front of the church, his two children, cute as anything, bowed with him. He had to remind his son to stand up he was so lost in the full prostration before the altar. He then lovingly took his kids to a seat and told them to sit quietly and he disappeared behind the curtain and changed in his elaborate priestly robes. Later in the service when they offered the Eucharist he came out with the wine (juice) and offered it to the worshippers who filed by after getting the bread from another priest. I noticed a woman whisper something in his ear and he offered her and her daughter three spoonfuls of juice. I assume she asked for a special blessing for her family. Once he completed his priestly duties, he returned to his kids and was so loving to them. As a rabbi I was touched by this man in a similar role and the way he balanced his duties to his community and his family.
The visit to the synagogue was quite challenging. There is intense security here. We were accompanied by a security guard all day, as there have been attacks on tourists over the past years and some recently. They are also on a particularly high alert because of Obama’s upcoming address to the Muslim world in Cairo on June 4. It is not safe for me to wear a kippah in public and I need to be discreet with the use of Hebrew and with talk about Israel. The synagogue was very beautiful but the official guide distorted several details about Judaism and provided us with very little explanation about the importance of this space or about the history of the Jews of Egypt. I was angry that that the synagogue was a museum and that Jews didn’t control the space. Of course the amazing, for the most part, positive history of the relationship between Jews and Muslims was not even mentioned, nor the sad events around the founding of Israel that ended a many centuries long history of Jews in Egypt. At dinner tonight I shared my feelings with the group and am very grateful for their empathy and support.
It feels like Egyptian society is sitting on a volcano. There is such a heavy presence of security everywhere. The people are so loving and welcoming but there is clearly a sense of unrest that could explode at any moment.
The evening event with the women’s spiritual group was such an unexpected blessing. This 100-150 strong women’s spiritual group meets weekly. The group is dedicated to a spirituality that transcends the boundaries of any religious system. They believe that Mohammed did not intend to create religion but rather came to share teachings. Based on the teachings of the father of the two leaders of the group, they believe that if all human beings move beyond the illusions of our lives we would connect with the God within and around us. They were so eager to hear from us and I wanted to cry as I explained the Jewish teachings about the Divine in each human being and expressed my hope that Israelis and Palestinians could see the Divine in one another like Jacob and Esau in the Torah. All the members of our group shared their religious beliefs and they were so strengthened by the visit, as were we.
What a remarkable first day topped off by a passionate, difficult and important discussion between us about the Middle East conflict during our 11:00 PM! dinner.
The group is incredible and we are learning so much from one another. It is truly a privilege to be in a group with Muslims and Christians. I will write more about the other members of the group in my next email. In one day I have learned so much about Islam and understood how little I know about Islam aside from the distortions we read in the press and hear from our leaders. I am so blessed to have this opportunity.