Volume 14 Number 2
Cincinnati's Open House
01 April 2001

The Open House centre for Jewish-Arab reconciliation in Ramle, Israel, was established 10 years ago to help heal the deep emotional wounds and distrust among Jews and Arabs. The house was originally the home of a Palestianian family, then of a Jewish family, but it now brings Jewish and Arab children and their parents together to help them understand one another.

When two of those responsible for the Ramle house came to Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1999 to enlist support, they unwittingly planted the seeds for another Open House. The vision and inspiration of Yehezkel Landau, an American-born Jewish immigrant to Israel, and Michail Fanous, an Israeli Christian Arab, captivated a diverse group of Cincinnati residents. They decided to work for dialogue among Jews, Christians and Muslims in their city. They won't have their own house, at least not at the start, but will continue to meet at Hebrew Union College (HUC), an internationally known centre of reformed Judaism which has a Jerusalem branch.

Significantly, Rabbi Ezra Spicehandler, a moving force in this latest Open House effort, was once dean of the HUC Jerusalem campus. Another prime mover is Margaret Rahn, a former Peace Corps volunteer who met Landau at an MRA Agenda for Reconciliation conference in Caux, Switzerland, shortly before he and Fanous arrived in Cincinnati. Rahn emphasizes the vital roles played by other members of the group including the Rev Linda Bartholomew, Canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Danya Karram, an Arab Muslim, Rita Edlin, who is Jewish, and Lou Vera, an ecumenical specialist from the office of the Catholic Archdiocese.

'The Open House effort in Cincinnati continues to move forward,' says Rahn, a graduate student in international ethnic relations. 'Wisdom seems to come out of the mouths of babes in these gatherings as we all feel like novices in the effort, but it does grow more apparent that we were brought together for a reason beyond us.'

Although the US has relatively little ethnic or religious violence, we clearly have much to learn from any country where efforts are under way to promote inter-group healing. So often we Americans talk the talk but fail to walk the walk. We would like others to think that we are the model. But just as we have far to go to solve our racial problems, we have by no means bridged the gaps in understanding among our religious groups.

'Some people may wonder why we are involved in reconciliation between people who are not at war,' says Margaret Rahn. 'But there is temporal prejudice and scapegoating. There are feelings among the Palestinians [in America] that they've lost their home.'

Rahn says that with its current scant resources the Cincinnati Open House won't be able to provide much financial support for its Ramle model, though they hope to in future. 'But they [Landau and Fanous] are grateful that we're trying to reflect their philosophy and keeping them in our prayers and thoughts.' Just as the Cincinnati group takes Ramle as its model, so it may show other American cities what they can do.

Rahn says the group has set a meeting for 29 April to expand its ranks and plan for a larger community gathering next fall. The group also hopes to organize exchange trips with Open House, Ramle. Other goals include an annual citywide interfaith forum and the establishment of an interfaith youth group. Members of the group visualize eventually spinning off into small circles sponsoring culture-fests and other activities. In a report on a meeting of the group Rahn writes: 'Our vision is to conduct interfaith activities and dialogues which locally mirror the guiding belief of Open House of Ramle... that dialogue and positive interactive experiences with others of different faiths can reduce misunderstandings and misperceptions of the other, and thus cultivate harmonious and productive interfaith relationships.'

I'm reminded of the story I heard about a white woman in Jackson, Mississippi. She was said to have proclaimed that if an African-American family ever moved next door to her she would move. One did. The result was a friendship so strong that she and her new neighbours exchanged house keys. Fear often fades with dialogue and mutual understanding.

Robert Webb is a former columnist and editorial writer for 'The Cincinnati Enquirer'. He lives in Alexandria, Va, USA.
by Robert Webb

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