Interfaith group finds positive news in the ‘real Israel’

Members of the interfaith group gather in Israel. Contributed photo

Not all of the news coming out of the Middle East is bad. Twenty-one representatives from area churches and synagogues decided to create some good news of their own. This interfaith delegation, organized by The Jewish Federation of Sarasota-Manatee, recently spent 10 days in Israel on a mission of good will and cultural understanding.

According to Howard Tevlowitz, executive director of The Jewish Federation of Sarasota-Manatee, “tour participants experienced a reality that we rarely see or hear about in the news.”

The delegation visited historic sites, toured schools and educational centers and met with people from a diversity of backgrounds. Along the way, members of the delegation say they opened up dialogues with people from Muslim, Christian, Baha’i, Druze and Jewish backgrounds who spoke of their faith, the daily challenges they face and their commitment to peace.

The thinking behind this interfaith mission?

“It began as a desire to explore ways to build bridges of understanding and advance a positive model of coexistence here in our community,” says Tevlowitz.

“Israel served as the perfect backdrop, because that’s where our common roots come from. We agreed that in order to truly understand the nuances and complexities of Israel, we needed to be there and experience the real Israel , particularly during Israel ’s Memorial Day and Independence Day — not the Israel we see on TV or read about in the newspapers. We hoped that by sharing, learning and traveling together, we would broaden our understanding of each other.”

Along with Tevlowitz, the participants in the interfaith mission were Deacon Humberto Alvia, Shirley Bascom, Don Gangnagel, Pastor Stephen Gaulke, Father Celestino Gutierrez, Kelly Kirschner, Lynette Miralla, Vicente Medina, the Rev. Tom Pfaff, Pastor Bill Pierson, the Rev. Stephen Plumlee, the Rev. Don Roberts, Rabbi Howard Simon, the Rev. Dr. David Sutton, Joel Swallow, Richard Swier, the Rev. Clay Thomas, Pastor John Walker, Brian Yost and the Rev. Doug Zimmerman.

Tevlowitz says members of the delegation were pleasantly surprised by their candid exchanges of ideas with Muslim, Christian and Jewish Israelis.

“At the Hand In Hand School in Jerusalem, we spoke with Arab and Jewish children who told us that by sharing a classroom together, they have come to know and respect each other,” says Tevlowitz. “This kind of fellowship and human connection is happening throughout Israel, but we rarely see stories like this in the news. Seeing it up close can open your eyes to the fact that, although we come from diverse backgrounds, we can still find ways to form bonds of trust, resolve conflict and establish meaningful ties between communities.

Simon, chairman of the Robert and Esther Heller Israel Advocacy Initiative Committee and a Jewish Federation of Sarasota-Manatee board member, says members of the interfaith group will continue to meet and “apply what we learned in Israel to our lives here at home. We formed a bond of friendship, of trust and of love and we have pledged to continue to work together on behalf of our community and our world.”

For more information about The Jewish Federation of Sarasota-Manatee, call 941-371-4546 or visit