Shalom Salaam. Two words I never thought I would hear uttered in the same sentence by an Imam. But last week I did. I was in a convention centre in Anaheim, California with around three thousand five hundred people. All from different countries, religions, ethnicities and social backgrounds. The unifying factor was that we are all students of the Kabbalah Centre.
We were all there to celebrate Rosh Hashanah, a festival more traditionally known as the Jewish New Year, but to the Kabbalists of centuries ago and today, the seed of the year for all people.
After the first day of the festival in the evening there was a lecture with a guest speaker. He was a Muslim Imam, highly respected, and in charge of one of the three biggest Muslim communities in the United States. He was introduced on stage by Yehuda Berg, one of the directors of the Kabbalah Centre , a leading Kabbalah instructor and one of the sons of the Rav and Karen Berg the leaders of the Centre. In his introduction Yehuda explained how he and the Imam had met to discuss their respective spiritual beliefs and how they could utilize those to positively impact upon the world.
The Imam began his speech simply with the word shalom followed by salaam. As many of you will be aware both these words mean peace in Hebrew and Arabic respectively. These simple words alone, spoken side by side, by a Muslim Imam on stage with a Jewish (albeit Kabbalist) Rabbi were in themselves extraordinarily moving.
He talked of his meetings with Yehuda and his brother Michael, of the mission that the brothers and their parents shared; the mission of the Kabbalah Centre to promote peace and help bring the end of pain and suffering in the world, through individual change. He discussed the similarities between the holy Quran and the Torah, ultimately of the similarities between Islam and Judaism - two faiths which are almost akin to brothers who instead of being close friends turned into arch enemies. He shared valuable insights from the holy Quran and told of how he had learned from the Kabbalah books written by the Berg family that he had read and been inspired to use some of what he had learnt in sermons to his own congregation.
He was a wonderful orator and true spiritual leader, humble, open to the fact that he may not know everything - that there was wisdom to be learnt and shared from other religions or spiritual schools of thought. He gently urged the importance of all of us students to continue our work, namely the work of becoming better people ourselves so that we could in turn be better citizens of the world and make it a better place. His speech was received by a rapturous audience and deafening applause and cheers.
Afterwards we watched a video of a recent trip by Yehuda Berg to Palestine to not only visit some of the holy sites (the Cave of Machapela and the tomb of Joseph) but also to meet with many of the Palestinian leaders to discuss bringing peace to a notoriously fractious area.
We watched as Palestinian leaders spoke of their desire to be treated with respect but also to treat others with respect 'as we are all the same', we saw grave sites of their family members killed as a result of ongoing fractions with Israel. We felt their frustration, angst and sadness that there could not be peace and that they had to fight. It was incredibly moving and I am not ashamed to admit that I had tears streaming down my face. I doubt I was the only one.
These were people normally shunned and demonized by large parts of the western media and society but here we saw the human beings beyond the media portrayal. And here they were sat alongside their 'enemy' (essentially a Jewish rabbi) talking of their similar values and desires and the need to treat each other with respect and human dignity. Rather than fighting over their differences, they focused on their similarities.
It was incredibly poignant considering that we live in a time where the Islamic world is in great turmoil. It is as though Islam is going through its growing pains on a very public world stage, from the Arab Spring, to civil wars and extremism taking hold of otherwise peaceful Muslim communities across the world, it is easy to forget in the face of all the media reports that there are over 2 billion Muslims across the world and the extremists and preachers of hatred and separation amongst those 2 billion probably make up much less than 1 % of all Muslims.
It is too easy for organisations, many of whom have political agendas, to jump on the stories of the 1%, to publish sensationalised headlines and copy to sell more newspapers but ultimately creating more separation, hatred and fear and often playing right into the hands of the extremists.
The demonization of Islam by the media, by society and by influential governments will cause further separation, lack of understanding and ultimately bloodshed in the world. Our real fear should be against those in power who seek to continue this separation rather than help to end it and bring unity.
Friends often ask me to explain what it is that I have got out of being a student of the Kabbalah centre and what the Centre does. I hope this blog goes to show a mere snippet of the incredible work carried out by the Centre to go towards bringing peace and unity to places where others would allow the hatred, division and separation continue. United we stand, divided we fall.
Ambi Sitham. Kabbalah student since 2008.