• While it is admirable to do this in Montreal, think of the scope of the challenge doing this in the Holy Land!

    Little would please Yehuda Stolov more than to have
    Montreal become a source of support for an Israel-based interfaith group that
    eschews politics and fully embraces common humanity.

    That’s how Stolov, a soft-spoken and articulate Jerusalemite, characterized
    the Interfaith Encounter Association (IEA), which, since he began it 11 years
    ago, has had only one real item on its agenda: to have Jews, Muslims and other
    faiths who live side-by-side in Israel and over the Green Line get to know each
    other as friends, not foes.

    “When you live a few metres from another, prejudices can go away quite
    quickly,” Stolov recently told a small gathering at Chevra Kadisha B’nai Jacob
    synagogue. “It begins with starting to walk together along the same path.”

    Stolov, who holds degrees in physics and wrote a PhD thesis on Rabbi Nachman
    of Bratslav, has no illusions that IEA has the elusive formula for political
    peace in a part of the world seemingly destined to be permanently beset by

    But it’s not political peace that IEA, an Israeli non-governmental
    organization, seeks, he explained. Just the more human peace between neighbours
    that can, one tiny fragment of trust after another, set the stage for the
    “mechanisms of change” that peace requires.

    IEA accomplishes this by holding “encounter” sessions, on an approximately
    monthly basis, with organized groups of neighbours of different faiths.

     “It is an existential dialogue, where we talk from the perspective of
    our religious and cultural traditions,” Stolov said. “We talk about
    similarities between the religions, as well as differences.

    “There’s an air of intimacy about it. The idea is that the relationship between
    all of us develops over time for the larger community.”

    This is explained on IEA’s website, interfaith-encounter.org: “We believe that, rather than
    being a cause of the problem, religion can and should be a source of the
    solution for conflicts that exist in the region and beyond.”

    Besides the interfaith encounters, IEA projects include weekend retreats,
    sports and artistic activities, as well as interfaith encounters geared
    exclusively for women, youth and even Israelis and Palestinians.

    “We hold regular interfaith meetings and conferences in co-operation with
    Palestinian organizations, with the objective to build sustainable peace
    between two nations on a people-to-people level,” IEA literature says.

    “Because we take an inter-religious, non-political approach, we are able to
    engage in the process people from all parts of the political spectrum and their
    respective societies and build deep and sustainable conversation and relations
    between them.”

    Stolov acknowledged that IEA is by no means the only dialogue group for Jews
    and Muslims, but his organization’s focus is on dialogue, primarily within
    Israel and between neighbours, and that’s what makes the difference. The number
    of IEA groups in Israel is now approaching 50, with 200 programs and 4,000
    participants in 2010.

    At his talk, Stolov ran a brief video (also viewable on the website) showing
    the success of one encounter group of Jews in Carmiel and Muslims in adjacent
    Majdal Krum in northern Israel.

    Says one Muslim woman in the video: “There is so much in common and
    differences are so little.”

    Since its founding in 2001, IEA has won several awards, including one from
    UNESCO for working toward a “culture of peace,” and the Prize for Humanity from
    the Immortal Chaplains Foundation. Most recently, it won an award for
    “transparency” of its organizational structure.

    Stolov said IEA, which has an annual budget of $100,000, receives no
    government support and derives its income mostly from private sources and
    individuals. It therefore faces ongoing funding challenges.

    A couple of “friends of IEA” contacts exist in Chicago and Italy, but
    financial support from elsewhere is meagre. In the past, IEA has received
    nominal amounts from groups including the Church of Sweden, and in Canada, from
    the Networking for Peace Group funded through CIDA (the Canadian International
    Development Agency).

    “It is our biggest obstacle,” Stolov said, “but we are trying to do better.”