CRT traces its roots to a trip to Israel during the early days of the second Intifada. In January 2001, Andrea (Andy) Blanch and Howard Nelson were part of a spiritual pilgrimage to the Holy Land led by David Less. At that time, newspapers were filled with stories of bombings, and fear was palpable. Those who entered the old city of Jerusalem passed through a gauntlet of armed guards. Most stores were shuttered and the usually bustling streets were virtually empty.
The travelers naturally expected to witness hatred and anger among the parties. But they were surprised to encounter many people of all four Abrahamic faiths who were deeply committed to peace. From Jerusalem to Safed, the group met members of the Israeli peace movement as well as religious leaders working to promote harmonious relationships in their communities. During these meetings, it became clear that these peacemakers were isolated from each other, and that they felt ignored by the rest of the world. Gratefully, they opened their hearts and homes to the group.
“I remember sitting on the plane on the way back, talking about how surprised we were and how most people in the United State didn’t know about this,” Andy said. “We came to the conclusion that we had an obligation to do something to support these peacemakers, and to let people know about what we had seen.” Andy happened to be sitting next to Deborah Mathis, a nationally syndicated columnist. Deborah later wrote a moving column about the group’s experience and the power of believing that peace is possible.
Following this eye-opening trip, Andy and Eliyahu McLean, an orthodox Jewish peacemaker from Jerusalem, were invited to plan a workshop on interfaith peace building for the 2004 World Parliament of Religions Conference in Barcelona. A dozen Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Druze peacemakers from Israel participated in the event. Among tens of thousands of participants, they were the only group composed of mixed religions. “When we walked around the streets of Barcelona, we caused a stir–a Muslim Palestinian sheikh walking with an orthodox Jewish rabbi,” Andy recalls. People had never seen this before. A special public event was organized, and they were interviewed on television. By the end of the week, the peacemakers had recognized that as a group, they had tremendous power to open people’s hearts and minds.
The following year, the peacemakers and their American friends came together in Istanbul, where they coalesced into an organization they named the Abrahamic Reunion. They outlined a plan of action, including shared meals and religious celebrations to show that people from different faiths could live in peace amid the polarization of everyday life within Israel. One telling aspect of the Abrahamic Reunion was the inclusion of women with equal authority to chart the course of the future – an unusual feature in an interfaith group of religious leaders in the Middle East.
By 2006, the interfaith peacemaking activities in Israel had expanded, and it was clear that a formal organizational structure was needed. The Center for Religious Tolerance was developed with one major goal in mind: to find, support, and publicize effective interfaith grassroots peace efforts in areas of conflict. In addition to Howard and Andy, the board of the new organization included a number of individuals who had been attracted by the CRT vision and the work of the peacemakers. Judith Allen, a writer from Seattle, participated in the Istanbul retreat and found a passion for bringing Jewish and Arab women together. Bill Elliot, a businessman and recent graduate of a conflict transformation program, toured Israel with the group and joined the team. Anna Lewis, inspired by the vision of CRT, offered her services to help develop an organizational infrastructure. Robin Saenger, a stained glass artist and community leader, brought new energy and ideas for involving local communities. Together, the group created a model of action based on the belief that people in local communities know better than anyone else what the solutions are to the problems they face.
In order to deepen her understanding about the daily lives and work of the peacemakers, Andy spent months at a time in Israel. During these visits, she was deeply impressed by the people she met and the creative ways they were working to build sustainable peace. One example was a Palestinian woman named Ibtisam Mahameed, who was a founding member of the Abrahamic Reunion. Ibtisam was performing in a two-woman play with a Jewish Israeli woman from Jerusalem, Dorit Bat Shalom, and they wanted to bring the play to the United States. CRT agreed to sponsor them, and “By the Well of Sarah and Hagar” became CRT’s first local event. The play used the Biblical story of Sarah and Hagar as the historical backdrop for a story about two modern women of Israel grappling with the pain of war and loss, and struggling to create a new vision for living together in peace. It was performed in a number of venues across the country, including a standing-room-only audience at New College in Sarasota, Florida. Afterwards, during a discussion with the audience, it was evident that people in the United States were eager to learn about the conflict – and about the possibilities for peace – from the perspective of people most directly involved. The play and CRT received significant attention in the media.
As the relationship with Ibtisam deepened, CRT’s vision of the role of women as peacemakers began to expand. With CRT’s help, Ibtisam secured a grant from the Clark Foundation in England that enabled her to establish the Women Reborn program in her village in northern Israel. Ibtisam knew that women play critical – if often unrecognized – roles in peacebuilding, and that an essential requirement of effective peacework is that all parties must be able to meet as equals. “Women Reborn is about helping Arab-Israeli women gain more influence over their lives within a culture that has traditionally limited their choices,” Blanch says. “It made me realize that there was more for us to do than simply share religious observances.”
Soon after Women Reborn was launched, Andy and Elana Rozenman, another founding member of the Abrahamic Reunion, organized and co-facilitated a two-day women’s interfaith leadership workshop in Amman, Jordan. At that event, women from across the Middle East garnered strength from meeting others involved in similar activities, learning that they were not the only ones struggling to do this kind of work. Andy emerged not only with a sense of being part of a global interfaith network of women, but also with a commitment to try to expand efforts outside of Israel.
During a subsequent visit to Florida, Elana casually asked Andy where in Sarasota did women of different faiths get together to talk. “I had no answer,” Andy said. “Elana told me that if she can do it in Jerusalem, we can do it here.” Hence the Women’s Interfaith Network (WIN) of Sarasota/Bradenton was born. At the first meeting, Jewish, Muslim and Christian women were astounded to find out how little they knew about each other’s lives or religions. Within a few years, WIN’s membership had grown to over 100 women representing dozens of different faith traditions. The founding of WIN heralded the beginning of CRT’s sustained activities in the United States, which now include youth peace building activities, and several women’s interfaith groups. CRT has also supported the development of Peace4Tarpon, a nationally recognized model for building safer, more peaceful communities located in Tarpon Springs, Florida.
Because of her work in Israel, Andy was invited by the United States Institute of Peace to write a book chapter and to participate in a meeting with other women peace builders from across the globe. There she met several women whose work paralleled CRT’s, despite vastly different situations. Hoping both to learn from the successes of these grassroots projects and to link to a global network of activists, CRT created a new “minigrant” program. Each year, small amounts of money are granted to individual peacemakers and to grassroots interfaith peace and social justice projects which are too small to get grants from larger organizations. Through this program, CRT now supports projects in the West Bank, Kenya, Honduras and Ecuador as well as Israel.
CRT remains committed to educating the public about grassroots interfaith peace efforts. With a growing database, budget and website traffic, CRT now reaches thousands of people with a message of hope. CRT also maintains its commitment to putting resources directly in the hands of individual peacemakers. Although activities have expanded to the point of needing a part-time paid administrative assistant, CRT is administered almost completely on a volunteer basis. “Our goal is to support people on the ground who are working for peace and social justice,” Andy said. “They are the ones who are going to change the world.”
How We Work
We believe that changemakers know best what they need for their work to be successful. Our job is to support them in getting those needs met.
CRT’s activities grow from connections we make through a natural networking process. Traveling through a new country, sharing meals with local peacemakers, seeing how the peacemakers live and work, helps us to understand local conditions. People we know introduce us to other people, who introduce us to new ideas, new projects, and new communities.
Through our informal networks, as well as through organizations like the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) and the United Religions Initiative (URI), we identify individuals and groups who have a vision for the future and the energy and passion to create sustainable change. The support we offer might be financial, technical, conceptual, help with grant writing, access to media or policy makers, documentation and evaluation, or networking. But always the goals are set by the changemakers themselves.
In the picture below, CRT director Andy Blanch shares lunch with a Druze woman making bread in the traditional manner.