A Jewish Montreal man travelled to the Vatican earlier this month, where he had an audience with Pope Francis.
Stephen Hecht founded the Montreal-based non-profit Million Peacemakers four years ago, following a career in business.
He travels around the world promoting a practical and simple method of resolving conflicts between people. He believes that solving the world’s big problems begins at the grassroots level, be it within families, companies or communities.
Hecht was asked to address an international conference on Religions and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which was held in Vatican City from March 7-9.
The conference brought together 350 representatives of different faiths, non-governmental organizations and the United Nations to discuss the role that religious communities might play in the implementation of the UN’s SDGs, which were adopted in 2015.
While at the conference, Hecht met with the pontiff and left him with a Spanish copy of his book, Nonflict: The Art of Everyday Peacemaking, which explains the three-step process that Million Peacemakers has developed.
How did a graduate of Herzliah High School who has been involved in Jewish community life for decades end up at the Holy See?
It began 10 years ago when Hecht organized an interfaith event in his role as the education chair of the Quebec chapter of Young Presidents’ Organization (YPO), an international group of young CEOs.
“I always wondered about the biblical verse, ‘Love thy neighbour as thyself.’ ” he said at the conference. “How can you love your neighbour if you don’t know them?”
He brought the YPO members to a Catholic church, a mosque and an Orthodox synagogue, all located within a kilometre of each other. The imam, who was asked about the killing of innocents in the name of Islam, replied that they should be talking about what the three religions have in common and “maybe the differences can take care of themselves,” Hecht recalled.
By the end of the evening, everyone was holding hands and praying for peace as “children of Abraham.”
Hecht was inspired to learn about the theory of conflict resolution, but found the books on the subject to be too academic.
Soon after, he was introduced to Israeli psychologist Amir Kfir, who for many years led peacebuilding programs for Israelis and Arabs.
Together, they ran the first Nonflict workshops in 2012, when 700 Canadian YPO members and their families were trained over a two-week period in how to resolve personal conflicts.
Hecht decided the method had to be applied to a larger canvas. He has been absorbed with the Israeli-Palestinian situation since he spent four months in Israel as 15-year-old Herzliah student in 1973.
“I decided to get out of my comfort zone as a Canadian Jew and, along with my wife and stepson, visited a women’s co-op of Palestinian activists in the Kalandia refugee camp on the other side of the wall in the West Bank,” he said.
He did not get a warm reception. The 84-year-old founder of the group brusquely asked why Canada did not accept Palestine as a state in the UN.
Hecht told her that, “All I and the people I meet know about you is what we hear in the media. Would you be willing to share your true stories that I can share?”
The 15 women present did just that. Hecht used the Nonflict tools he developed and was shocked at how positively their four hours together ended: he convinced the participants to engage with 15 Jewish-Israeli women in dialogue.
“At that point, I realized I had in my hand a gift to the world and I needed to do whatever I could to share it,” said Hecht, who co-founded Million Peacemakers with Kfir.
Their goal is to recruit a million people in “co-creating a culture of peace in the world.” Over 145,000 people in 23 countries have so far been trained in the process.
Million Peacemakers focuses on families and youth, believing that’s where the seeds of peaceful co-existence are planted. Hecht asked the clergy at the Vatican conference to consider coaching couples about to wed in the Nonflict method.
Hecht’s other major interest is the McGill University-based International Community Action Network, which brings together Israelis (Jewish and Arab), Palestinians, Jordanians and Syrians for a special master’s program in rights-based social work.
For the past five years, he has chaired its advisory board and leads Nonflict retreats with the students. Hecht recalled a 2015 encounter between a Jewish Israeli and a Muslim Syrian, who each saw the other as “the enemy.”
“But when they shared their experiences through the Nonflict way, they discovered that they shared a commonality: they both lost their eldest brother due to conflict. Within 10 minutes, Amit and Adnan became brothers in peace, which they still are to this day.”
Hecht must have made an impression on the Catholic officials: he has been invited back to the Vatican in April for a workshop on the “Path of Nonviolence: Toward a Culture of Peace.”