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Followers of the three great Abrahamic faiths—Judaism, Christianity and Islam, which comprise more than half the world’s 7 billion people—frequently spend more time focusing on their differences than their similarities. But a new Israel-based organization wants to bridge those divides and unite the faiths’ shared heritage through the Hebrew Bible.
Amos Rolnik, a secular Jew, launched the Jerusalem Bible Initiative in late 2012. In the 1960s Rolnik had a chance to meet with Israel’s founding father, David Ben-Gurion. Ben-Gurion told Rolnik that one of his dreams was to see a Bible museum constructed in Israel for all the nations to enjoy. Ben-Gurion, despite being largely known as a progressive secular leader, considered the Bible to be the most important gift the nation of Israel has given to the world.
Raphael Harkham, the Jerusalem Bible Initiative’s communications director, told JNS.org that Ben-Gurion’s wish resonated deeply with Rolnik. After a lengthy career in printing and publishing, Rolnik began a drive to launch several projects that would realize Ben Gurion’s vision; that vision is at the core of the Jerusalem Bible Initiative.
To celebrate Israel’s 50th anniversary, in 1996 Rolnik launched the Children of the World Illustrate the Bible project. With help from the Israeli government, Rolnik was able to collect more than 800,000 paintings by children in 91 countries. The success of this initiative allowed Rolnik to start another organization called Bible Valley, whose goal was to build a Bible Museum in the Holy Land.
In 2006 Rolnik launched the People of the World Inscribe the Bible initiative as part of his Bible Valley organization, aiming to translate verses of the Bible into more than 100 languages. To date, more than 45 countries have hosted the project, and 25 Bibles have been completed.
More recently, Rolnik’s Bible Valley was incorporated into the newly created Jerusalem Bible Initiative, in order to consolidate all the energy and success in the initiatives, and channel it into a global community.
Under this new mission, they launched another project called Tanakh B’Mirshetet (Bible on the Net). It hopes to have people from all over the world select one of the Bible’s 23,127 verses and personalize or dedicate it to someone.
A major component of this project includes a focus on utilizing social media outlets like Facebook for outreach. Since its launch in late 2012, the Jerusalem Bible Initiative has garnered nearly 1,600 “likes.” The initiative’s goal, however, is not just to build an online community, but to also “create a network where we can bring prominent figures from all sides together,” Harkham said.
Harkham believes that the Hebrew Bible can serve as a basis for interfaith dialogue.
“The goal is to have different cultural events, to reassert the Bible’s place in dialogue…There are many things to argue about, [but most people would agree] that the Bible is a great source of contribution to the world,” he said.
With the Israeli Knesset announcing in late 2011 that a Bible Museum will be built in Jerusalem in the coming years, Harkham said that his organization hopes to play a key role in populating the museum with the work of the Jerusalem Bible Initiative.
Despite the organization’s mission of unity, Harkham admitted that outreach efforts can be stymied by leaders of other faiths who may be skeptical of its connection with Judaism and Israel. While the group has generally enjoyed broad support from Christians, especially Evangelical Christian groups, connecting to other Christians and Muslims has at times been difficult.
The divide between the three great faiths is growing more rapidly than ever, especially in the Middle East. According to the Pew Research Center, Christians comprise only 4 percent of the region’s population, down from more than 20 percent a century ago. Like Middle Eastern Jewish refugees in the mid-20th century, Christians today are being driven from their homes throughout the Middle East and North Africa by the revolutions and radicalization of their Muslim neighbors.
Nonetheless, Harkham remains optimistic that focusing on the common bonds between the three Abrahamic faiths will ultimately bring change.
“The Jerusalem Bible Initiative is all about bringing people together,” he said. “In such a tumultuous era, a project like this is needed to highlight that there are things that we can find common ground on.”