It Takes Two Wings to Fly
"I see myself as a bridge between different worlds, bringing awareness to peoples and situations that seem to oppose each other on one level, and yet resonate on a deeper, perhaps hidden level."
-- Eliyahu McLean
-- Eliyahu McLean
Walk along Rehov HaTamid in the Jewish Quarter, overlooking the Kotel on a Friday between 12.00 and 1.30 noon. You will see the pious hurrying to pray at the Kotel. You will hear the imam in the mosque on the Temple Mount preaching to the faithful. And you will see a small group sitting in a circle on the ground in the open area facing the Western Wall and the Temple Mount. Maybe you'll see a Japanese Buddhist priest among them. Maybe you'll see a Sufi sheikh in the circle of Jews and non-Jews. One face you'll see there regularly is Eliyahu Charanamarit McLean.
"We gather here every Friday at this hour since the outbreak of violence in September 2000," 33-year-old McLean says. "We started then with a three-day fast and prayer vigil for healing and mourning the loss of life on every side and we study the holy books of all wisdom traditions.
"We pray for understanding, tolerance and reconciliation between Palestinians and Israelis. Come and join us," he adds with a broad, guileless smile.
McLean's background serves him well as a bridge between warring nations. His mother is a Jew from Brooklyn; his father, a Christian, the son of a Baptist priest. His parents, flower-children of the '60's, met in California. His mother was hitch-hiking to a commune and his father picked her up - in every sense of the word. They raised McLean in Sant Mat, a mystical branch of Sikhism on the Hawaiian Island, Oahu. They gave their son the Punjabi middle name, 'Charanamarit,' meaning 'the pool of nectar at the feet of the Lord." Then, his first name was Olan, akin to the Norse god, Olaf.
" I began searching for my own spiritual identity from a very early age. I could connect with the universal teachings of Sant Mat but I wanted a connection with my own heritage.
"As a young lad, in a search for my identity, I enrolled in a Japanese-language Cultural School that my friends went to. I wondered whether I, too, could become Japanese, but I realized very soon that I was not Japanese.
"When I was twelve, I discovered Judaism when I went to a friend's bar mitzvah in a Reform Temple. The moment I walked into the synagogue, something resounded deep within me, and I knew I'd come home. I made every effort to learn enough Hebrew so that I, too, could be called up to read from the Torah.
"My mother's father, Oscar, flew in from New York for my bar mitzvah and bestowed upon me the most precious gift, my Hebrew name, Eliyahu."
In 1987, McLean came to the one-year Young Judea Program at Beit Riklis, on the Hebrew University's Mount Scopus campus. He spent part of that year living on Kibbutz Gadot in the Galilee, and with an Israeli family on Moshav Liman.
On his return to the University of California at Berkeley in 1988, he became involved in pro-Israel activities, the Israel Action Committee and at the same time started his bridge-building efforts on campus with the Moslem and Arab students.
He returned to Israel in 1990 for a year at Hebrew University, but when his program was cancelled because of the Gulf War in January 1991, and despite his great disillusionment at this time with secular Zionism, McLean stayed. He found a job with Palestinian Moslem construction workers building Jerusalem City Hall on Jaffa Road, living on the site. After his day's work, he would go to the Jewish Quarter in the Old City, a short walk away, to study with Rabbi David Aaron in the Isralite Institute, thereby deepening his spiritual search.
That search continued when he traveled to Egypt for two months and met a West African Sufi who became his spiritual study partner. They taught each other the inner dimensions of Judaism and Islam and McLean went deeply into Islamic practice. However, on his return to Jerusalem, McLean found that his Egyptian sojourn and entry into Islam was but a stepping-stone in his return to and deepening commitment to Judaism. A turning point for him was living on Moshav Me'or Modiin where he was embraced by a community of deeply committed and colorful English-speaking immigrants.
"When I returned to Berkeley in 1991, I got involved with the Aquarian Minyan of Jewish Renewal, and at the same time with Habad. Habad sent me to learn in yeshiva in Crown Heights. I came back to Israel in 1994 and worked as a goat herder in Moshav Yavniel in the north. Those goats helped me return to Jewish practice more than any time I spent in yeshiva. I could appreciate that the practices of Judaism were deeply connected to the Land. Part of my becoming more observant was undergoing circumcision when I was 25 years old. As I became more observant, I started engaging in intimate dialogue both with extremist Moslems and pacifist Sufis."
In 1997, the organization Interns for Peace sent McLean back to Israel. He went to live in Tamra, an Arab village in the Galilee, training to become a professional in the field of Arab-Jewish co-existence, where he worked in local high-schools, bringing together Jewish and Arab students for encounter sessions.
Since that time, McLean has met with many Sufi sheikhs and imams. He has also met with many rabbis and teachers of Judaism, including Rabbi Yitzhak Bar-De'ah, Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Ramat Gan, and Rabbi David Broderman, Chief Rabbi of Savyon. He has traveled extensively, speaking at the UNESCO Conference on Inter-religious dialogue on Culture and Peace, in Tashkent, and for the Israel Interfaith Association at a conference in Pedoulas in Greek Cyprus. He traveled with Sheikh Khalil Elbaz to the Peace Maker gathering held at Aushwitz, bearing witness together with Germans, Poles and Holocaust survivors. "The Sheikh broke down in tears when we came to the site of the Selections," McLean remembers.
McLean's numerous projects include participation in Israeli-Palestinian dialogue in Nablus and Eilat. He is also a regular participant in a study-group of observant Jews and Sufis, "The Path of Abraham." He is current director of the Israel Chapter of the Peace Making Community, "Mevakshei Shalom," which serves as an umbrella for many projects integrating spirituality and reconciliation efforts. Several hundred Christians, Jews, Druse, Moslems and one Native American attended a gathering, "Healing Abraham's Family" that he helped organize in December 2001.
In his work, McLean has developed close relationships both with the Jewish residents of Judea, Samaria and Gaza, with Israeli Peace activists and Palestinian moderates. He even went to a mosque in the Nuseirat refugee camp in Gaza in the spring of 1999.
"I see myself as a bridge between different worlds, bringing awareness to peoples and situations that seem to oppose each other on one level, and yet resonate on a deeper, perhaps hidden level. People ask me, 'Are you right wing or left wing?' I reply, 'It takes two wings to fly... and we can fly when we yearn and work together towards harmony and wholeness, when we speak from the heart and learn to respect each other's differences. Then, true peace can come to all of us who are blessed and destined to share this Holy Land together."
This piece was first published in the Jerusalem Post Magazine,
8 February 2002
8 February 2002