Visions of Neve Shalom

Tantur gives Notre Dame a foothold in the Holy Land — a crossroads of learning, a place to resolve differences and maybe a gateway to peace. There’s a model in the neighborhood.

Author: Andy Fuller

Gridlock is the worst.

It’s what we’re all thinking as we inch along westward during rush hour traffic in Jerusalem. We creep downhill on an eight-lane highway about three miles southwest of the Old City, the afternoon sun beaming through the windshield so brightly that neither the visors nor our sunglasses are effective. The sun has been relentless during our time in Israel, and our driver, Daniel Schwake, has the air conditioning on high for the benefit of his passengers from the Midwestern United States.

Schwake (pronounced SHVAH-kuh) is the executive director of the newly termed University of Notre Dame at Tantur, and his bout with traffic today is our fault. We came here a week ago as Notre Dame communicators — a writer, photographer and videographer — looking to understand the University’s evolving presence in the Holy Land. We leave as stewards of a unique story in American higher education. Our trip to Schwake’s home this afternoon will round out our time, and our flight tonight out of Tel Aviv’s Ben-Gurion Airport means our host is driving at a time of day when he’s normally still at the office.

For first-timers in Israel, rush hour is a chance to take in more of our surroundings. You can see a lot but also miss a lot in the Holy Land if you’re here just a week. Take this section of Jerusalem, which features the renovated Teddy Stadium, the 30-year-old, 30,000-seat home to four Israeli soccer clubs. Around it, steel and glass rise high above the horizon — huge, important office buildings and luxury hotels tower over the more biblical and historic sites that in turn dwarf their modern counterparts with their own significance: the Dome of the Rock, the Mount of Olives, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. It’s a fascinating contrast that doesn’t come through in many photographs of the city.

The slow progress also allows more time for conversation, both about our point of origin on this car ride, the 40-acre campus the University operates at Tantur, and our destination, Schwake’s home in a community called Neve Shalom, which in Hebrew means “oasis of peace,” a rural community of Jews, Christians and Muslims. Both are places where careful headway is preferable to a quicker pace.

Schwake is the son of an Arab mother and a German father. Born and raised in Galilee, he left Israel to study in Germany, earning bachelor’s and professional degrees in business from the University of Münster, and a doctorate in economics from the University of Duisburg-Essen. He met his wife, Silke, during a pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago in Spain. Prior to Tantur, his career consisted mainly of prestigious consulting roles at Deloitte and Oliver Wyman, where he built his reputation by helping major corporations reorganize, plan and restructure.

As a high-level troubleshooter, he is the kind of person who seems to enjoy the process as much as the result, or at least doesn’t shy away from complex issues. “How do you take on a very complicated problem?” he asks. “You structure it in a way that it becomes a little less complicated, less complex, so you can solve it. You put together a framework, and delineate pieces of that framework to different people that are working for you or with you, and you know that these tiny bits of pieces of a puzzle can be solved.”

Schwake is still tackling big problems, though not always of the kind he faced as a consultant. Where he lives, the challenges represent generations of struggle primarily between two groups of neighbors, Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel. Neve Shalom — Wahat al-Salam in Arabic — is an intentional community, and the only one of its kind in this country: Its residents have chosen to live in a place where they can dialogue with neighbors from other ethnic and religious groups and confront those problems directly.

“In Israel, you have cities like Haifa and Jerusalem, where you have Jewish people, and their neighbors could be Arabs,” Schwake explains. “But when people moved there, they didn’t necessarily say, ‘I’m going to live in Haifa, because I want to intermingle with the Arab population.’ Whereas people who come to Neve Shalom, they think in that way.”

Traffic is moving now, and the scenery has changed. Gone are the skyscrapers and busy highways, and in their place are magnificent valleys and gorges, small villages and vineyards. Schwake describes how Neve Shalom was established by Father Bruno Hussar, O.P., a convert who was raised Jewish. Hussar started the community as a way to convene interfaith dialogue.

“It’s an interesting parallel to Tantur,” Schwake says, “bringing people together for discourse. Of course Tantur was built much more quickly while Neve Shalom grew much more gradually.”

The latter was founded in 1970 on land donated to Hussar by a Trappist monastery near Latrun, Israel. At first, the Dominican priest and a small group of settlers moved into the ruins of a Crusader fortress. Two years later, around the time Tantur officially opened its doors, Neve Shalom relocated to a hill neighboring the monastery, the site of heavy fighting during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. Latrun’s strategic location between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv made it a coveted piece of geography. Schwake reflects on this as we drive up the hill. “I don’t know exactly how many men died fighting here,” he says. “But too many.”

The fact that this relatively remote piece of land was the site of so much bloodshed between Muslims, Christians and Jews — casualty estimates number in the thousands — makes Neve Shalom an ironic, or perhaps perfect, place to work for peace in the present. Today the village sits within a narrow strip of no man’s land between the borders established in the 1949 Armistice Agreements; it’s neither in Israel nor in the West Bank according to that treaty.

I quickly get the sense that neutrality, and even equality, are taken seriously here in the face of the prevailing counterforces outside. It’s evident as we walk around the village. The Neve Shalom School for Peace calls itself “bi-national,” a nod to the identities of the Palestinian and Israeli children who attend it. Lessons are taught in Hebrew and Arabic. Next we pass by an interfaith center, where rites of Christianity, Judaism and Islam are practiced. Interfaith celebrations and observances are the norm, whether during Ramadan, Hanukkah or Holy Week.


Daniel Schwake near his home in the community of Neve Shalom outside Tel Aviv. Photography by Matt Cashore ’94

We head down a trail to the Neve Shalom Cemetery, where many trees have memorial plaques affixed to them, honoring ethnic and religious groups who risked their own lives to save people different from themselves. One commemorates Arabs who worked to save Jews during the Holocaust; another is for Armenians who saved Jews; still another for Jews who saved Armenians; and more. Father Hussar and other founders of the community are buried here.

Residents who remain from those early days live with a broken heart, Schwake says.

“This generation had its peak [in the early 1990s] when the Oslo agreement was working out, when it seemed as if the dream of the two-state solution was going to work,” he says. “And people in Neve Shalom tell me they had parties; they were celebrating that this was actually working out. And then, boom, it didn’t work. So this generation, I think, is completely disheartened. They see everything basically through that perspective — that it didn’t work out. Everything else is just mediocre ambition. Because that great dream we had didn’t work out.”

The generation that followed dwells in a no man’s land of its own, Schwake adds, possessing neither the early optimism nor current despair of their parents.

“And then there are the ones who are just raising kids now, who see Neve Shalom as a contrast to what is happening in Israel,” he says. “Everywhere else the poles are becoming farther and farther apart. Neve Shalom is a place where you learn it’s OK to speak Arabic. It’s OK for your kids to play with Jewish girls or boys. It’s a more open generation that is not completely disheartened, but also doesn’t have this very big dream. They’re living in the day. We just want to live together.”

That vision of a common life, difficult as it can be, attracted the Schwake family: Daniel, Silke and their two young sons.

“When we were living in Germany, we were figuring we would come back [to Israel] to live,” he explains. “And we thought we wanted a place that is a contrast to what is happening . . . a place where it is completely normal to know both sides, and not fall into one of the bubbles and not come out of it.”

To those who are seeking to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — and soon — this approach of simply seeking productive coexistence probably looks like gridlock. But maybe it’s more accurately a breaking down of the complex problem into smaller, more manageable ones. Even many of the Schwakes’ neighbors try to press matters through lengthy discussions long into the night, believing that one side will eventually persuade the other — and that, should this happen on a large-enough scale, change will come.

Not that there’s anything wrong with honest dialogue. The school, for example, fosters discourse in a style that sometimes encourages heated exchanges so that a deeper conversation can ensue. Schwake says he’s all for talking, but wonders if the goal is correct.

“This is not a crossword puzzle,” he says. “You can’t solve this problem. The only thing we can do is, we can evolve. We can become better. We can be in a better position than we are today. But we can’t reach this sort of optimum where everybody is happy. That’s not how the world works. It’s too complicated a problem to think about it like that.”

Back at Tantur, the issue is less a knot to untie than a story to be told. When the Tantur Ecumenical Institute opened its doors in 1972, it was seen as an expression of the Second Vatican Council’s call for interreligious engagement. Pope Paul VI commissioned Notre Dame’s president, Father Theodore M. Hesburgh, CSC, to create there a place for study and scholarly dialogue — between Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians in particular. The institute marks its origins with the historic 1964 embrace between Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople on the Mount of Olives, the first formal encounter between leaders of the two churches in more than 900 years. Today the Vatican still owns the land on which Tantur operates and leases it to Notre Dame, which operates it under the auspices of the Office of Mission Engagement and Church Affairs. It remains one of the major ways in which the University and the Vatican collaborate.

Over time, Tantur’s role as Notre Dame’s foothold in the Middle East meant the addition of far-flung responsibilities. Undergraduates began to arrive in the 1980s through study-abroad programs, and over time Tantur acquired convener status among factions in the region, including those on opposite sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In 2014, the University created the Jerusalem Global Gateway — part of Notre Dame International’s global strategy to engage with scholars, organizations and religious and civic leaders in the region and raise their awareness of relevant scholarship and initiatives back on campus in Indiana. The Gateway and Ecumenical Institute share the same facilities, and recently began operating under the banner of the University of Notre Dame at Tantur.

TanturcashoreUniversity of Notre Dame at Tantur.

Once Notre Dame began to develop this evolving structure of its presence on Jerusalem’s outskirts — Tantur stands along the road that leads north from Bethlehem — it hired Schwake to lead the effort, using the tools he had acquired in international consulting.

“All of that is something I bring with me, and that’s really helpful,” he says of his first year on the job. “But I’ve mostly worked with financial institutions, and consulting companies, and coming here, this is three things. It’s a Church institution, it’s an academic institution, and in a way, it’s a mini guest house.”

Tantur hosts scholars, clergy and lay people from all over the world. These groups form a somewhat unlikely community as they interact during meal times and prayer and pilgrimage. But it works. The varied aims and objectives of the place and its guests mix together to create personal warmth and productive dynamism. It seems odd to put it this way, some 6,000 miles away from the main campus, but Tantur feels . . . well, it feels a lot like Notre Dame.

Yet as Tantur’s mission evolves, the roles played by the institute and the gateway need to cohere in new ways. During our visit, Schwake gave us a tour of the grounds and buildings designed nearly 50 years ago by Frank Montana, then the head of Notre Dame’s architecture program. At our first stop, the institute’s original charter hit us front and center. Tantur’s massive library is still considered one of the largest repositories of Christian theology in the Middle East. From the main floor, Schwake paused with us at a railing to survey the lower level. “Many people . . . who understand architecture stand here and say, ‘Wow.’”

Yet the library also offers an instructive microcosm of the work ahead. “It’s the question that everybody who has a library has, I think: In modern times, what is a library for?” he asked, mostly rhetorically. “We need to work with the main campus and the appropriate faculty to determine what we want to do with this space. Are we going to focus on theology? Are we going to expand?”

The path forward at Tantur, library and all, is more a question of form than function. As Schwake described it, the University is seeking less to change the original charter of the institute, and more to “reinforce the link back to the University.” In practice that means building on its existing reputation, programs, facilities and geographical advantages. Notre Dame undergraduates have been coming here in greater numbers, mostly studying at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at Bethlehem University, but Schwake sees opportunities for collaboration with other institutions across the region, too.

Tantur’s unusual reputation as a safe haven for contentious political discussions offers one example. In the ’90s, former Israeli and Palestinian combatants met here for conferences on fostering peace. Such a role could be a great fit for the University going forward, given its academic programs in global affairs and peace studies, but maintaining nonpartisanship in this part of the world is not easy, especially when relationships with governing authorities matter a great deal. Steps must be taken cautiously, and progress may resemble Jerusalem at rush hour. That suits Schwake: Better to move prudently on solid footing than to undo a misstep, he says.

From the library we strolled through a beautiful courtyard and into the building that houses guest rooms, a chapel, a lecture room, common space and the kitchen and dining room. We visited the kitchen as the staff began to prepare the evening meal, using oil pressed from olives grown on site. We took the moment to thank them for their excellent work during our stay (we had made quick work of the falafel in particular) before following Schwake up to the roof.

The view gave us a sense of the significance of Tantur’s location. To the south is Bethlehem, just beyond a security wall Israel erected in the early 2000s. Beyond that is the Herodium, King Herod’s palace and burial ground. Though it stands some five miles away, the hilltop fortress dominates the landscape and is as imposing as the ruler who built it. If one were to draw a straight line between the Herodium and Tantur, it would bisect the traditional site of the shepherd’s fields in the biblical account of Jesus’ birth, about halfway between the two locations.

Off to the east is Har Homa, an Israeli settlement, a descriptor that implies that such communities are nascent or temporary. The reality is quite the opposite.

Northward lies the hill where you’ll find the ruins of the Church of the Seat of Mary. Tradition holds that the Blessed Virgin rested there on her way into Bethlehem. Next door is Mar Elias Monastery, where the prophet Elijah is thought to have rested after escaping from Jezebel. Tantur, too, prides itself as a place of rest for its visitors.  

“There is a clear distance between here and the outside,” Schwake said. “They can experience Jerusalem, they can experience Bethlehem, but they can come back to this place at the end of the day — an oasis, let’s call it — with its safety and security. They can study here, they can learn here, they can build up relationships and be part of our Tantur community.”

Our week in Israel passed in a blink — as good a reminder as any that time is marked differently here. For Schwake, this means that in the face of several millennia of history, the job of helping to craft Notre Dame’s changing niche here may not take that long. The evolution of Israeli-Palestinian relations will take more time, but as long as progress is being made, one senses that people like Schwake will be content with that.

Our taxi ride to the airport, just 20 miles from Neve Shalom, is quick. We arrive in plenty of time to make it through the vaunted Israeli airport security lines. Gridlock to be sure, but then the pilgrims who traveled to Jerusalem centuries ago would block out months for the journey. That thought makes the prospect of a 12-hour flight to New York a little more palatable. At least there won’t be traffic.

Andy Fuller is director of strategic content in the Office of Public Affairs and Communications at Notre Dame. Read more of the multimedia stories about the University in the Holy Land that he produced with Matt Cashore ’94 and Tony Fuller here.