By Orna Dickman, Haaretz Correspondent
Coexistence between Arabs and Jews can be a supreme challenge. Or it can be a party.
In fact, a moveable feast.
Adhering to the belief that peace is built on understanding between different cultures, a group of Jews, Muslims, and Christians in Kansas City is organizing an interfaith dinner aimed at building bridges and relationships.
The celebration is modeled on an annual Arab-Jewish "hafla," or party, held outside the mixed Israeli town of Ramle for more than a dozen years, its participants undeterred by the wars and uprisings of the region.
Eric Morgenstern, a volunteer organizer of the Kansas City event, says the Salaam Shalom Celebration, scheduled to take place in Leawood, Kansas on January 30, will be a testament to the power of individual relationships.
The impetus for the Celebration came when members of Kansas City's delegation to the General Assembly of United Jewish Communities visited a restaurant in Ramle last year. While dining at the Ramle eatery, they heard about an annual party which brings Jews and Arabs together, hosted by the restaurant owner, Samir Dabit, and his friend, educator David Leichman of Kibbutz Gezer.
Dabit, originally from Jaffa, and Leichman, originally from Brooklyn, New York, met in 1981, and have thrown haflas promoting peace and coexistence for the past 13 years.
What began as something held in Leichman's backyard on the kibbutz has blossomed and expanded into a huge celebration held in Pinat Shorashim, an educational park on the kibbutz, with some 500 people attending last year's gathering.
The Kansas City metropolitan area has had a unique relationship with Ramle and its surrounding environs for over a decade. Kansas City, Missouri and Ramle are sister cities, as are Leawood, Kansas and the Gezer Regional Council. More than 1,000 Kansas Citians have visited the region in recent years.
Organizers of the Salaam Shalom Celebration will be flying Leichman, Dabit, and Dabit's son-in-law, Fouad Salman, to Kansas City, to take part in the event and to spread the concept that Leichman terms "people dialoguing." The three will also meet with local civic leaders, and are scheduled to attend a clergy breakfast.
Leichman says that the annual parties that he and Dabit host aim to break down barriers and bring about the recognition that, "We are one people, and one community, no matter what part of the community we identify with."
He encourages people to look for the unifying forces that community members have in common, while celebrating their differences. Leichman believes that people can bring peace, and that the concept of "Shlom Bayit," or domestic harmony, can be achieved by people and not necessarily by the government.
'No better way'
Organizers of the events in both Kibbutz Gezer and Kansas City stress that the parties are not sponsored or funded by any organizations, but are the private initiative of people who want to reach out, spend time together, and build relationships.
Dabit noted that Leichman's father helps fund their parties on Kibbutz Gezer. In explaining why he provides the money for the annual haflas, Gil Leichman said he feels that "I can think of no better way to spend my money than to help bring Arabs and Jews together."
According to Morgenstern, the public's response to the Salaam Shalom Celebration has been overwhelmingly positive. In addition to financial donations made by various individuals, Leawood Mayor Peggy Dunn announced that the municipality would be donating the use of the Alpine Lodge at Leawood Ironwoods Park for the event.
The Palestinian-owned Jerusalem Cafe in Kansas City will provide the use of its kitchen, in which Dabit will prepare Middle Eastern cuisine for the event.
In addition to the Middle Eastern cuisine and music that will be offered at the Celebration, Morgenstern said that various discussion topic questions would be introduced, as a means of encouraging people to communicate their ideas on a number of relevant issues, including interfaith relations.
Salman, who works for the United States Agency for International Development for the West Bank and Gaza Strip, said that he is excited about taking part in the Salaam Shalom Celebration, noting that it is very important that Jews, Muslims, and Christians are coming together and acknowledging that certain problems need to be addressed.
"I appreciate the fact that they recognize the problems and want to help," says Salman, stressing that even if various problems aren't solved, dialogue is extremely important.
"The least we can do is talk. Even if we don't agree, we must listen to and respect one another."