The first thing the rabbi did in the conference room of the Lebanese-American businessman in Troy was read a poem in a language almost nobody understood.
Alon Goshen-Gottstein sang it, actually, in Hebrew, keeping time by tapping a plastic wine glass on a long hardwood table.
It stretched on for some time, as though someone at a baseball game decided to throw in the other three verses of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” but the 28 people sitting and standing and peering from the lobby listened patiently.
The poem was about hope, which they had, even if the world seems to offer more and more reasons to lose it.
Goshen-Gottstein, 59, wants to build a large and graceful edifice in Jerusalem where adherents of the major faiths will pray together, study together, learn to understand one another, and bring tranquility and harmony to our overwrought planet.
It’s a somewhat ambitious goal, he conceded, and a lot to ask of one building and a few people, but “I think God wants it. I think God wants religions to move from their isolation.”
Besides, nothing else has worked.
Pick a continent. Unless it has penguins on it, or perhaps kangaroos, it has violence and bloodshed and strife.
Goshen-Gottstein does not believe that is how we are meant to live. Neither does his host from last week, Kamal Shouhayib.
A grateful immigrant
Shouhayib, 70, arrived in New York 50 years ago from a resort city in Lebanon called Aley. He took a train to Houghton in the dead of winter and enrolled at Michigan Tech.
From there, he became a civil engineer, a real estate developer, and Troy’s Distinguished Citizen of the Year for 2003. He owns office parks, apartments, 5,000 mobile home sites and a fierce loyalty to the country where he and his family have thrived.
At the same time, he retains strong ties to Lebanon, which makes every chaotic thing that happens in the region a personal wound and Goshen-Gottstein a potential salve.
“Nothing worthwhile can be achieved by one individual,” he will tell you, so he invited a wide assortment of his friends and their friends to listen to the rabbi and perhaps write a check to the already active Elijah Interfaith Institute, which would oversee the futuristic campus called the Center of HOPE.
At the far end of the table, reasonable but pointed comments came from Howard Brown, the regional board president of the Jewish advocacy group AJC.
“Once people sit down together, a lot of walls fall away,” Goshen-Gottstein said. Or at the very least, you figure out where the walls are.
High cost, high potential
The Center of HOPE — as in House of Prayer and Education — would have classrooms, a museum, a pilgrims’ center and parallel prayer spaces for all of the major faiths.
The cost would be almost unthinkable and the difficulties immense.
Across the various forms of Judaism, “Our clergy don’t even know each other,” said the AJC’s Brown, to which former Troy mayor Jeanne Stine responded, “Isn’t that too bad!”
Yes, but it points out the difficulty of getting lions, lambs and sheep-shearers to exist in harmony and share a cafeteria.
For now, Goshen-Gottstein is thinking small; he needs $30,000 to match a grant to hire a strategic planning company. He has scaled down his approach over the years, if not his ambition: support in major cities first, then the rumble of bulldozers in Jerusalem.
“Bad religion is leading people to a loss of hope,” he said. “That means good religion should give people hope.”
There were nods, and later, a few donations. Later still, there was dessert —baklava for those with Middle Eastern preferences, and also brownies.
At the rabbi’s table, and at Shouhayib’s, there was room for everyone.