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This is what the world wants, don’t we? We want to be able to talk, laugh, drink coffee and become good friends, irrespective of dearly held beliefs. It’s not what the world sees in the news, but everyday there are acts of hospitality and generous friendship that span the separateness of people’s beliefs.

Hosted in a Jewish Home for Shabbat of a Lifetime

Just before Easter/Passover, I had the unique privilege of being in Jerusalem. It is a historic city resounding with the cacophony of competing messages and desires. Our little entourage had the opportunity to take in what is called, “Shabbat of a Lifetime.”

“… Created by a team of Jewish educators with the goal of developing a Shabbat evening program for incoming tourists of all backgrounds to experience an authentic Friday night in Jerusalem. At Shabbat of a Lifetime, we combine the personal touch of home-hospitality with a high standard of professionalism and attention to detail. On the Shabbat of a Lifetime program, one will discover the beauties of Jerusalem, learn about Friday night traditions, and make personal connections with families living in Israel.  Since 2011, nearly 35,000 guests, from over 100 countries, have joined Shabbat of a Lifetime.”

We were hosted by David and his wife, Ayo, in a (small) dinning room holding 17 guests. Our hosts gave us an explanation of how they practice Shabbat (sabbath) with typical prayers and practices, but quickly moved us into a raucous discussion.

I am not sure what I expected; maybe something more about what it means to be Orthodox, or a discussion about their typical practice of daily faith, or what Shabbat means to this family. Instead the topic of discussion for the evening was free speech: for or against, and why. Was this David’s innate lawyer coming out?

Imagine 17 tourists from various places, faiths, and perspectives. One after another we stumbled to give an answer that maintained good humour and etiquette (we are Canadian after all!). At one point David noticed that a batch of us were “together” and asked what our connection was.  One friend said we are from the same church, a baptist church – to which I was quick to distinguish “but not Westboro Baptist” (the church famous for its anti-Semetic and anti-everything stances).

Did you hear the one about the Jew-hating christian who was welcomed to share Shabbat in a Jewish home?

Megan Phelps-Roper in a previous life, picketing the Oscars. (photo credit: CC BY-SA k763, Flickr)

Little did I know that a few persons later, there would be a former member of Westboro Baptist sitting at the table. Megan Phelps-Roper was in town, and staying with David & Ayo to give a few talks in Israel. The The Times of Israel reported:

“Megan Phelps-Roper grew up believing she would arrive in Israel at the end of days to witness the rapture of the Second Coming. She hated Jews and homosexuals, celebrated terror attacks and famine, and picketed the funerals of United States soldiers killed in Iraq.

Instead, she’ll be arriving in Israel next week as the guest of David Abitbol, the Jew who saved her soul by engaging her online. Abitbol and Phelps-Roper — who was recently featured in The New Yorker and described her experience in a TED talk viewed 2 million times — will be speaking together to audiences in Israel for the first time.”

What was surprisingly providential is that I had just seen Megan’s Ted Talk the week before my trip to Israel.  I wasn’t expecting to meet her in person, nor was I expecting to be hosted in the home of the person who by grace, wit, and theological sharpness, would be so instrumental to Megan’s exit from Westboro. (For more see The New Yorker article: Unfollow: How a prized daughter of the Westboro Baptist Church came to question its beliefs).