It’s that time of year when “roundball” finds our favorite teams squaring off as bracket-filled rectangles call to mind an annual mental illness that plagues our country. It’s a malady we welcome known as March Madness.
On a recent trip to Israel, I was reminded that not all madness associated with competing entities is limited to the month of March or concerns collegiate basketball. The craziness that has characterized the attempts of Jews, Muslims and Christians to live together in cooperative ventures is continuous. The full-court press of ongoing tension is only put on temporary hold with the occasional timeout for the benefit of tourists. I was reminded there’s no fast-breaks in the game of international peace.
The graphic evidence of rival loyalties was huge in the little town of Bethlehem. In this sacred place revered by Christians, graffiti-covered wall keeps Jews out while Palestinian Muslims seek to eke out a living. I was struck by the haunting irony of a welcome mat opposite the slogan-laden barrier wall.
But against the backdrop of hostility and division, I also witnessed a reason for hope. The shape of what’s to come included a triangular sign, a rectangular basketball court where “roundball” brings kids of all faiths together. The hope I detected was housed in the historic Jerusalem International YMCA.
Since our hotel was a five-minute walk from the JIY, my wife and I decided to explore. A staff member, Ra’ed, agreed to give us a tour of the complex. The familiar triangle logo greeted us, reminding us of the YMCA’s commitment to body, mind and spirit. Our host told us that the facility’s original design of three distinct structures (including a 175 foot tower that dominates the skyline) symbolized the tri-part motto of the institution. I was intrigued to learn that the JIY was completed in 1933 and designed by the same architect who built the Empire State Building two years earlier.
As I walked through the decades-old facility — it includes a 50-room hotel and restaurant — I was amazed at the timeless beauty. The architecture is an intentional blend of motifs and symbols borrowed from the three Abrahamic faiths. It was obvious this was a place where Christians, Jews and Muslims were welcome. There was a place to pray. There was also a place to play.
The original design included a basketball court and swimming pool (the first in Jerusalem), offering a safe place to exercise the essentials of teamwork as well as strengthen the muscles of friendship. And today, an extensive swim program and a 32-team basketball league continue to build on that original foundation. Teams include participants from all faiths (and no faiths). There is no attempt at proselytizing. There is only an attempt to model love, tolerance and acceptance in a part of the world that is deficient in all three.
At the end of the guided tour, Ra’ed escorted us up to the top of the tower. The view of old Jerusalem was breathtaking. But so was my view of the future. Having been shown how Christians, Jews and Muslims are free to celebrate their beliefs side-by-side intentionally, I was hopeful. What I had just witnessed was music to my ears.
And speaking of music … Before we descended from the “upper room,” the staff member pointed out the carillon bells that crown the imposing tower. He opened the door to a small chamber that shelters the carillon keyboard. Ra’ed insisted I sit down and play something.
I froze. Having taken piano lessons as a kid, my skills are still quite elementary. There was no sheet music and I had nothing memorized. And then out of the blue a melody flowed out of my heart.
Pushing the large levers that strike the huge bells, I managed to play the first line to “Jesus Loves Me.”I’m guessing it was the first time ever that old Sunday school tune rang out over Jerusalem. Wondering if my choice was an acceptable one, I looked up to Ra’ed.
Our Muslim host’s smile reassured me. After all, I was in a place where my faith was as welcomed as his.
Greg Asimakoupoulos is a Wenatchee native living on Mercer Island, where he is the Faith/Values columnist for the Mercer Island Reporter.