Celebrating Commonalities: Why a Palestinian Muslim Sang at our Shabbat Services
One Friday evening, something remarkable and beautiful happened at my congregation. I’d never seen it before, but I hope I’ll see it many times again.
That night, a Palestinian Muslim participated in our Shabbat evening service. He didn’t just speak; he sang. But he didn’t just sing; he sang in Arabic. And he didn’t just sing in Arabic; he sang our ancient Hebrew prayers in Arabic.
Alaa Ali is a popular singer and songwriter who lives in Ramallah, across the Green Line in the West Bank. His fans include countless Palestinians – and me. Alaa came to us with his friend Michael Ochs, a Jewish-American singer and songwriter. Both are well-known, Alaa in the West Bank and Gaza, and Michael here in the United States and Europe.
Rather than present a “sermon in song,” Michael and Alaa agreed to be part of our prayers – not only by joining in the ancient recitations but by adding their own translated lines in Arabic and Hebrew. We opened the evening with Hinei Mah Tov, “How good it is for brothers and sisters to sit together.” We sang first in Hebrew, and then Alaa taught us to sing it in Arabic. We all knew what the song was about, and we knew the words in Hebrew, so when Alaa sang it in Arabic, the prayer embedded in this simple tune started to become true: There we were, Jew and Arab, creating layers of harmony in languages that have been at war with each other seemingly forever. It was spellbinding.
When we reached the Bar’chu, our “call to worship,” Michael and Alaa sang in Hebrew, Arabic and English. This time, their prayer focused on the essence of the Bar’chu: We live in a world that never promises only success and well-being; it is in both the highs and the lows of experience that character and gratitude are formed, and our challenge is never to despair of life’s goodness, no matter what it throws our way. They sang:
Thank You for the sorrow, the times I had to borrow
When my heart was hollow, all my tears and quarrels
Thank You for my madness, all my pain and sadness
Without it I would be less, without it I would not be as blessed
Together – 200 American Jews and one Palestinian Muslim – we learned what sacred community is really about.
Perhaps most powerful was the evening’s prayer for healing and wholeness. As always, we shared aloud the names of those about whom we are concerned. We even called it Mi Shebeirach, invoking “the One who blesses” to help us and our loved ones through difficult times. But instead of singing the melody familiar in our congregation, Alaa chanted a dozen lines in Arabic, which Michael translated. In doing so, they created a transcendent moment during which Alaa served as our spiritual guide and support, asking God to help us:
May you find peace from your pain
Before you feel the pain in your chest, my heart aches
If I could, I would carry your burden, I would carry your pain
How could I leave you to face this time alone
I will never leave you to suffer or face your pain alone
May you find peace from your pain
How many times have we sung the words of Mi Shebeirach? It is often a point in our service when so many of us truly connect – with each other and with something beyond ourselves. Through Alaa and Michael’s prayer, those connections seemed stronger than ever, silently and powerfully expanding our wishes for wholeness to every Israeli and Palestinian.
Next, they led us in our prayer for peace. Invoking the image of stones – which bring to mind the struggle and enmity between Palestinians and Israelis, and are typically not a symbol of peace but of defiance – Alaa and Michael, in their heartfelt plea, asked that we put down our stones and take one another’s hands:
So lay me down
Build a path
Walk on me as brothers
Let me be
Your common ground
Lay me down
And hold on to each other
If ever we felt the tug of our tradition pleading with us to embrace our neighbor in love, to beat our swords into ploughshares, and to look into our brother’s eyes and see the face of God, this was that moment. The mingling of cultures, music, and religious made it an extraordinary evening in every way. Alaa and Michael showed us that not only can it be done, it can be done sensitively and beautifully.
It was also an evening that should not be so extraordinary at all. After all, Judaism and Islam share so many values, especially when it comes to human life. Throughout the service, we affirmed all that we share, reinvigorating our hope that, just as God is One, so too can the men and women of this planet also be one.
Of course, the differences between us have not magically disappeared; they remain. There always is time to argue, to hammer away at our people’s disparate dreams. But when there is so much we hold in common, shouldn’t we find time to celebrate those things, too?
Rabbi Billy Dreskin is the spiritual leader of Woodlands Community Temple in White Plains, N.Y. If you’re interested in in creating such a service in your own congregation, contact Rabbi Dreskin by email.