Golan Ben Chorin was appointed as project ambassador for the House of One in Israel in November 2019. The entrepreneurial educator and spiritual inovator was chosen unanimously by the foundation‘s board. Ben Chorin studied Jewish Education in Israel and the USA. Having completed his doctorate in the philosophy of education, he conducted research at the University of Haifa and has worked internationally as a consultant in his field for many years. Ben Chorin was ordained rabbi in 2007 and lives in Haifa, Israel, with his wife and two children. In this interview he is talking about what brought him into interreligous dialogue.
Mr. Ben Chorin, you once said, that you have been involved your entire life with the reality of interfaith connections .
Yes, actually from the moment I was born. My grandfather, Schalom Ben-Chorin, was among the pioneers who reached out from Israel to the German society in the 1950’s. With a father being an Israeli Reform rabbi and my mother maintaining a home open to all, I grew up in a household that embodied interfaith and intra-faith dialogue.
In what way?
I experienced priests and monks and imams and people of other faiths in my parents‘ home. Also, people of different Jewish streams were among their friends and visitors. Both my parents modeled for me the two foundations for this pluralistic worldview, a very strong root in their own Jewish identity and a spiritual curiousity for the richness of human experience. That left a very deep impression on my own approach to the world and when I decided to go into academia, I wrote my doctorate thesis on Jewish Pluralism – how one creates an educational environment that is authentically Jewish and authentically pluralistic.
What do you get out of the exchange with other religions?
We are all in a way captured within our own ways of thinking, seeing and making meaning. As human beings our senses receive a constant flow of information from our surroundings, but our mind filters all this information, deciding on what to focus and what to leave out. More importantly, our mind assigns meaning to the information of which we become conscious. Through the “language of the mind“, our minds tell us stories assigning meaning to our lives. That is how our mind works. Judaism, to me, is a language of meaning making through which I assign meaning to my life. It’s like putting on a lens. My lens is Judaism.
So you are in a way still captured in your own world view?
Sure, but when we interact with other religions or other philosophies, we enrich our own understanding when we learn that someone else has a different approach. That to me is the meaning of pluralism. It is a worldview, an exceptance that I have a truth in which I believe and at the same time other people have their own truths. The more we interact with people of different religions, faiths, politics and worldviews, we gain a richer appreciation and understanding of the complexities of the human experience.
That is not a very common approach nowadays.
To me, that is the way humanity has, and will continue, to move forward. This has been proven throughout history. People manage to break out of what is understood to be true and right. This is what gives us the evolution of science, religion, philosophy. At every given moment we think that we are correct and are doing the best we can, no matter if it is a Christian, a Muslim, a Jew or a Bahai. But when we interact with different perspectives, we can break out and see where we may need to modify, update or change our understanding.
Please give us an example of your interreligious work.
Twelve years ago I founded, HaiFIC, the Haifa Forum for Interfaith Cooperation. It was a public statement which evolved from my private life. The fact that I had friends who were Imam, priests or leaders of the Bahai community was maybe personally rewarding, but we needed to make a public statement. We needed to show our society that there were alternatives to polarization. That friendship, connection and healthy relationships across cultural and religious divides is a reality and can be part of the complexity of life in Israel. This dialogue is our ongoing work together towards a better society. I also established a diverse intra-religious community in Rosh Pina, …
… a town in the north of Israel…
… a pluralistic Jewish community. We didn‘t build a synagogue, but used other platforms to engage people in Judaism and to bring Judaism to the people. For our gatherings of study and prayer we used a communal space in an old winery and established a community garden. In this garden, on the holiday of Sukkot, we built a tabernacle, a temporary structure that according to Jewish tradition reminds us of the wandering of the Jewish people through the desert. The word Sukkah means safe enclosure. In our Sukkah We brought together Muslim, Christian and Jewish children to play, share food and music. In this way a „religious“ institution becomes a place of gathering and breaking down walls. Our Sukka became a place of peace. As a result, a multireligious Kindergarten adopted us a their spiritual home. Christian, Muslim and Jewish children grew up together.
This idea of a community garden connects to the project you are developing with the House of One in Haifa.
Buildings create walls. Walls are boundaries, defining who comes in and who doesn’t. In Israel synagogues, mosques and churches are seen as purely religious places and therefore if you are not an active religious person you would never enter. I wanted to break down those boundaries and still create a physical space that will embody the ideals of the house of one.
That’s when you came up with the idea of a garden.
Many years ago the Haifa municipality donated land to HaiFIC on which we planted trees and dedicated “the Fellowship Grove“. As I became better aquainted with House Of One the ideas merged. Currently, together with a working group of likeminded people from various faith traditions, genders and worldviews, we are working on creating this garden. We envision five outdoor chapels, one for each of the organized religions present in Haifa: Bahai, Druze, Muslim, Christian and Jewish – and then there will be a sixth area, which represents humanity. It might sound very familiar to someone who knows the House of One. Here it is in a setting of nature; it’s completely open. Each of the outdoor chapels will be designed by people of different faith traditions. They will express themselves through the choice of foliage, a structure, maybe a pavilion, maybe a covering, maybe design or art. So when people go through the garden, they are impacted and inspired by various faith traditions.
What else can visitors experience in this garden?
There will be a second layer which will be educational. There will be programs, but also something to create interaction. We are hoping to harness educational technologies into the garden. For example solar-powered billboards where you can leave messages over your phone and somebody can comment on it. It will be like a page of Talmud - a central text on which people comment, argue and exchange ideas. You could actually communicate over time and space just like the Talmud does.
What drew you to the House of One?
When I saw the design of the building, it was to me a great expression of what I believe interfaith work has to be. There are times when interfaith work is missrepresented, to the best of my understanding, as: „Oh, we are all the same“. I don’t agree. We are not all the same. Each person, every faith tradition, reads reality through a different set of lenses therefore our experience is different. House of One embodies the notion, that on the one hand there is one human existence – that’s the lobby, the big area in the middle – but at the same time there are various ways of responding, reacting and even understanding that reality expressed achrtichectually by the unique, indipendant spaces of worship. That is the complexity of interfaith work that I believe in.
You seem to be a very optimistic person.
I see myself as an optimistic realist. I hitch the chariot to the stars. You can’t just be philosophical, detached from the complexities of life. One has to be in the world. That’s why, I am a rabbi. I work with people in this reality and that’s the chariot. When I hook it to the stars that brings in the spiritual elevation. That’s why we can have such beautiful stories to tell.