Praying For Peace

With the high holy days of Rosh Hashanah beginning at sunset today, and Yom Kippur coming Oct. 1, Rabbi Peter Schaktman of Temple Emanu-El celebrates the rights of the individual while teaching peace and tolerance

Friday - September 22, 2006
By Chad Pata
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The rabbi enjoys a ‘pretend’ lunch with preschoolers Abby Polzin, Keean Scholly-Bromwell, Max Roth and Kyra Hufano-Kravetz
The rabbi enjoys a ‘pretend’ lunch with preschoolers Abby
Polzin, Keean Scholly-Bromwell, Max Roth and Kyra

Throughout history we humans have built walls to separate ourselves from those that differ from us. Americans build them today to keep out Mexicans just as the Chinese did more than 2,000 years ago to keep out Mongols.

Isolationism, however, may not be the answer in the modern world where divergent ideas have led to increased tensions. Take the example of Rabbi Peter Schaktman, the new rabbi of Temple Emanu-El in Nuuanu.

Upon graduating from Oberlin College in Ohio, Schaktman moved to Israel where he would attend his first year of rabbinical school. Before enrolling in the studies that would become his life’s work, he felt he had more important things to take on.

He signed on with a group named Interns for Peace that placed Jewish volunteers into Arab villages within Israel to assist in community service. Not for a few hours a week, but to live among them for a period of almost two years.

“It was during the 1982 war in Lebanon, so it was a tough time to be doing Arab/Jewish relations,” says Schaktman, who has been visiting Israel since high school.

“But it was very important to me at the time since my understanding of the Jewish commitment involved something called Tikkun Olan, which loosely translated means ‘the repair of the world.‘Before I could teach others about this I needed to demonstrate to myself that I was willing to invest my own body and my own self into this kind of work.”

So there he was, a meek Jewish kid from New York City, living among those who were supposed to be sworn to destroy him and his kind. But what he found might surprise those who think there is no way to resolve the Jewish/Arab disagreements.

“At first I was very nervous, very skeptical and I felt like a real sort of stranger,” says Schaktman. “By the time I was done my favorite place in Israel was that village. That’s where I felt safest, that’s where my community was, it was a wonderful place to live.”

His work there in Kfar Qara involved organizing bilateral projects ranging from school field trips with Arab and Jewish kids to construction projects with mixed workers. Most impressively, it was the Arabs who paid for Schaktman to stay and help in the community.

While the actions helped heal wounds in this wartorn community, in some ways it may have been just the idea of the work that helped change some Israelis’paradigm.

“It meant so much not just to the Arabs we lived among, but also to the Jews we met outside of the village,” says Schaktman. “They couldn’t believe it was possible for Jews to live in an Arab village and be happy and be safe.”

Despite these steps that he and many others took to help aid relations within Israel, the situation as it stands now does not give him much hope.

“The thing with the Middle East, and Israel in particular, is that at any given point you sort of think that this is the worst it can get,” says Schaktman, “it can only get better after this, and then it gets worse.

“I want to believe that there is a camp in the Palestinian community that really wants to make peace with the state of Israel and work in cooperation with it. I do believe there are some people who have that feeling. But with the behavior of the Palestinians, there seems to be no partner on the other side. I come to this from a very dovish point of view and am now feeling great despair.”

Interns for Peace still operates in Israel, where it has 200 volunteers engaging 80,000 Israelis in inter-community projects. While they are helping individuals appreciate diversity, the overall problem of peace is going to take something more, according to Schaktman.

“Things in the Middle East are often not how they appear to our Western eyes,” says Schaktman.

“I don’t think anyone in the West could have predicted Sadat’s overture to Israel (referring to Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s approaching of Israel with a peace agreement in 1977 after four years of war). It happened sort of out of nowhere because, in Middle Eastern time, the gong struck. No one saw it coming, and I am hopeful that in some way that will happen with this, that at some point it will all just turn around.”

His concerns with the Holy Land aside, Schaktman has some big responsibilities here in his new home in the Islands. He recently has taken over as the only congregational rabbi on Oahu, serving more than 250 families at Temple Emanu-El in Nuuanu Valley.

He came here originally to serve as the interim rabbi while the Temple sought a replacement for Rabbi Avi Magid when he stepped down for health reasons last July. But after extensive research, the temple came

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