Profile in leadership
Rev. Azar Ajaj, pictured here on a recent trip to Norway, is an Evangelical Baptist minister who has worked with Spirit of the Galilee since its inception, building a shared society in northern Israel. (photo provided by Azar Ajaj)
Azar Ajaj: Tiny Baptist community offers 'bridge' to dialogue in Israel
(Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of profiles of Spirit of the Galilee’s faith leaders.)
Rev. Azar Ajaj knows what it’s like to be a minority. After all, he’s an Arab Evangelical Baptist living in Israel.
“As Evangelicals, we are a minority within a minority within a minority,” said Rev. Ajaj, a minister and president of Nazareth Evangelical College.
But Rev. Ajaj believes his tiny community – about 5,000 in all – has a role to play in Israel: bridge builder between Jews, Muslims and Christians.
“This is what I always say; I think we have that potential,” he said. “We touch both sides. We’re Palestinians, but Israelis; We’re Arabs, but not Muslims, we could play a good role in building bridges and bringing people together.”
Spirit of the Galilee could be a means to build those bridges.
Born and raised in Nazareth, in eastern Galilee, Rev. Ajaj, an ordained minister for over 30 years, is currently president of Nazareth Evangelical College.
“As SOG, and especially our leadership program, have been growing, Azar has become one of our closest partners,” said Rabbi Or Zohar, director of SOG. “He is part of the leadership program steering committee, and we have visited his college and community in Nazareth.”
Rev. Ajaj and Rabbi Zohar have been friends for 10 years. They first met at an interfaith conference at Nes Amim.
“We connected,” Rev. Ajaj recalled. “Hearing what he speaks, him hearing what I speak, we felt there was kind of a mutual interest in bringing different religious groups together, maybe having influence in our communities.”
Now the two, through SOG, are actively involved in bringing down walls between religious communities that, according to Rev. Ajaj, simply don’t interact enough.
"It is very important," he said, "that, first of all, for our congregations to see their leaders having healthy relationships. That will lead to them being involved, too.”
Destination b'nai mitzvah
SOG serves families seeking special b'nai mitzvah experiences in Galilee
The Galilee is becoming a destination for American families choosing to hold their kids' b’nai mitzvah in Israel, rivaling the Kotel in Jerusalem.
And Spirit of the Galilee is moving to meet the demand.
"It’s a growing phenomenon," said Rabbi Or Zohar, director of SOG. "We want people who want to celebrate their lifecycle events to come to the Galilee. They can have an experience with us that includes the ceremony and a tour of the Galilee, meeting our partners in the region, spending a day with us volunteering. We’re now going to be offering these kinds of packages."
The Galilee, and neighboring Golan, offer an experience different than anywhere else in Israel. Both regions have several ancient synagogues – in national parks or archaeological sites – which SOG uses as venues for b’nai mitzvah.
"Jews kept living in Israel for hundreds of years after the destruction of the Second Temple; namely, in the Galilee," Rabbi Zohar said. "Judaism thrived in the Galilee and, as we know, the Mishna was written in Tzipori."
The synagogue at Tzipori – a national park – is a popular setting for families choosing to hold their ceremonies in the north.
In addition to the nature and history, "these places tend to be more private and quieter than Jerusalem," Rabbi Zohar said. "The service can also be followed a meal at a good restaurant or an activity in the Galilee or Golan. It’s a good way to connect to the country."
Hilla Hoitash, an Israeli now living in Boston, had her son Aviv’s bar mitzvah at Tzipori in July 2021. She appreciated how Rabbi Zohar worked with Aviv to prepare, and his blending of traditional and contemporary music during the service.
“It was very special for my son, which was most important,” Hoitash said. “He didn’t feel it was too spiritual – we are not religious – but he got it.”
Jose and Karen Castel, of Port Washington, Pennsylvania, planned a bat mitzvah for their granddaughter, Hannah Rivka, 12, during a family trip this summer. This one was held at Ein Keshatot, a restored Byzantine-era synagogue in the Golan.
“It was wonderful; we liked the rabbi right away,” Jose said. “She (Hannah Rivka) was a bit nervous about it, but he put her at ease.”
For more details about SOG b’nai mitzvah packages, contact Rabbi Zohar email@example.com.
Time to take responsibility
According to the Jewish tradition, as we enter the month of Elul, we also enter an in-depth process of individual and community assessment of our lives, our souls and our relationships.
One thing to keep in keep in mind as we enter this special time, leading to Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, is that we are not victims of our circumstances. To the contrary, we are the creators and co-creators of the reality that surrounds us.
This time of year is about taking responsibility. If we are the ones who sometimes break and destroy, then we are also the ones who have the power (and the capacity) to repair, fix and make the world whole – a better place to live.
This is what we aim to do at Spirit of the Galilee: repair, fix, make our corner of the globe a better place for all.
May we all have a meaningful Selichot process.
As Or Sees It
Music from the Galilee
Music for Elul
Achat Sha’alti (One Thing I Ask) is a traditional Selichot prayer sung in the month of Elul and throughout the High Holy Days. The lyrics are from Psalm 27:4:
One thing I ask from the Lord, one thing I desire,
that I might dwell in Your house all the days of my life,
to behold the graciousness of the Lord, and to enter God's sanctuary.
Showcasing the vocals of Feliza Zohar, this is Or and Feliza’s original composition, a single release from last year. It will also be included in their coming album. We hope you enjoy it.
Keep in touch...
There are so many ways to connect with SOG and the rich spiritual and artistic lifestyles for which the Galilee is known: For starters, visit SOG at our website. This is where you can lean more about our organization, hear about our ongoing projects, and get the latest on events, study opportunities and tours of this beautiful region we call home. For late-breaking news, events and responses, like us on Facebook. Rabbi Zohar, an accomplished teacher of kabbalah (Jewish mysticism), runs a school called Hibura. To join his classes, click the link here or in the ad above. Feliza and Or, who for years have been expressing the spirit of the Galilee through their powerful music, have made it available to you online at their website. You can also subscribe to their YouTube channel. We want your feedback, so please email your comments or questions to Rabbi Zohar, firstname.lastname@example.org or U.S. Liaison Lee Chottiner, email@example.com. Until next month, shalom!
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