An update from two volunteers’ semester in Bethlehem

Last February, John and Barbara Fritsche traded their downtown Chicago condo for a small apartment in the bustling center of Bethlehem.
They’d wake every morning to the sounds of church bells, calls to prayer, and shop-owners hawking their goods. They found themselves immersed in an energy that even downtown Chicago can’t rival.
A lifetime of experience in arts and education (John) and legal work (Barbara) combined with a shared passion for Middle East peace led them to volunteer at Dar al-Kalima University of Arts and Culture for the semester.
During his days on campus, you could find John with his sleeves rolled up, sporting an apron spattered with clay. A retired education and ceramics professor, John Fritsche assisted in the ceramics classes and led assessment workshops for faculty. He spent time with students both problem-solving techniques and listening to their hopes and dreams.
“These students are so hungry for opportunity,” he shared. “As students, some have already launched small businesses and are here to hone their craft. We get to support them in both ventures.”
After teaching, John often joined students for tea in their homes, glimpsing their world beyond the classroom. As he and Barbara discovered, hospitality marked their daily interactions with Palestinians.
On Barbara’s last day in Bethlehem, she shared a 5-hour meal with Nuha Khoury, the Academic Dean of Dar al-Kalima. The perfect end to a semester filled with meaningful work and even more impactful relationships. Over the last 4 months, Barbara applied her 35+ years as a general practice attorney as she worked directly with college’s administration. With Nuha, she developed policies and procedures to be used by students, staff, administrators and faculty. She also gave tours of the college to English speaking visitors.
As a runner, Barbara was immediately struck by the lack of freedom of movement in Bethlehem. She’d start each day, jogging through the winding streets of Old Bethlehem, only to be confronted by ever-present separation wall that surrounds the city on three sides.
In her first week there, she noted that not only physical barriers limited movement. She met a Bethlehemite whose family member died in Jerusalem, yet she could not get permissions to attend the funeral just 6 miles away. Throughout the weeks and months that would follow, she and John would be reminded of the ways the occupation threatens to restrict not only Palestinians’ freedom of movement but also their freedom to simply exist. Despite these hard revelations, they clung to Rev. Mitri Raheb’s definition of hope: “Hope is when you know the world may end tomorrow, but you continue to plant olive trees.”
This is the work they were privileged to join. “It was truly an amazing and incredibly rewarding experience. We are forever changed,” Barbara shared.
You can read Barbara’s account of her time in Bethlehem on her blog.

Nuha Khoury with Barbara Fritsche

Play presents Mary through eyes of today’s Bethlehemites

“This is a play that’s so important because it celebrates our Palestinian women. And we need to celebrate our Palestinian women,” shared a father, with his arms around his two sons.

Dr. Victoria Rue recounts this memorable response to her play, Maryam: A Woman of Bethlehem.

The play, based on interviews with 30+ Bethlehem residents asks the question, “Who is Mary/Maryam in 21st c. Bethlehem?” Is she an emblem? A guide? Significant at all?

Interviewees represented a breadth of experiences and perspectives from both Christians and Muslims, including those of an Islamic scholar, a gender studies professor, a Christian theologian, a housekeeper, non-profit workers, junior high students, and college students.

Dr. Victoria Rue, professor of religious studies at San Jose State University, received a Fulbright to teach at Dar al-Kalima University and work with students to create and perform Maryam. From the beginning, Dr. Rue hoped this would be a “bridge-building play” that emphasized connections between Muslims and Christians, men and women. Throughout the life of the play, this hope was realized. From casting to translating, performance venues to audience reception, the play created a platform for an exchange of stories, beliefs and traditions around the central figure of Mary.

First, the play was performed by two Muslim women who, in their personal lives, vary in their relationship to religious and cultural tradition. One of the actresses wears a hijab, a head-covering, while the other does not. Because the two actresses perform twenty two characters in the play, they present a range of Christians’ perspectives of Mary. So, the actresses steeped themselves in the experiences and beliefs of their Christian neighbors.

Victoria Rue, far right, with cast, musicians and translator

Dr. Rue, in turn, also dug deeply into the Quran’s account of Mary, which gives far more detail about her childhood than the Biblical account. The Qur’an, in fact, has an entire chapter/sura named “Maryam.”

Audience members who came from a diverse range of religious and cultural backgrounds also had the opportunity to share their reactions after each performance, in a Q & A session. Here are some of those responses:

“I think the play says Maryam is in everyone.” -Bethlehem University student

“The play gave many opinions that as a Muslim I didn’t know before.  This makes me accept these different points of view in my community.  These points of view exist in the community— like the atheist —and we are neglecting them, neglecting this reality.  Also, we cannot assume that all Christians or all Muslims think the same. They have many points of view. Like this play.” -Birzeit University student

“This play teaches us to stay in our homelands and don’t leave it, stay and not emigrate. Also, to face the occupation.” -A young person in Jenin refugee camp

“For me this play reflects the reality. You are not saying anything that you created. This is the real situation, but in a very subjective way.” Old man at Al Hakawati Theatre, E. Jerusalem

“Before the play Mary was something untouchable and significant, and after the play, I felt that any woman who is doing exceptional things, or doing things differently, could be Mary. -A woman at Al Kasabeh Theatre

Throughout the interview process, Dr. Rue also discovered connections that surfaced from today’s Palestinians to a far more ancient culture.

“Perhaps my biggest “aha” moment, Dr. Rue shares, “was learning that the symbolic roots of Mary are more ancient than the individual Mary/Maryam in Palestinian culture,” For example, she learned that the Milk Grotto, a pilgrimage site where legend holds that while nursing baby Jesus in a cave, Mary spilt a drop of her milk, turning the rock milky white. For centuries, Muslim and Christian women have come to this site in search of improving their fertility or lactation.

Yet, this region’s history of mystical milk predates Muslim, Christian, even Jewish tradition. Historic records of Canaan’s popular fertility goddess, Astarte, also reference milk as a symbol of fertility- and its uses in religious ritual. Throughout the Bible, we also see references to pre-Hebrew Canaan as a land “flowing with milk and honey,” an ancient reference to this female deity.

The play also bridges ancient and contemporary.

One of the actresses, Dalia observed how the play touched on issues surrounding the difficulty of being a woman in Palestine today. She remarked, “I never thought of myself as a feminist, but this play, in a very unexpected way, gets at issues of feminism using a religious figure.”

Maryam also touches on an underlying reality that affects all Palestinians, women and men: the occupation. One of the characters in the play, Layla reflects on how the occupation reintroduces and emphasizes violence and patriarchy in Palestinian society. To guard against the effects of the occupation, Layla expresses her resolve,

“What I want to help create is a society of resurrected men and women who feel that they can bring who they are to the world without having to pray to a statue, or hide or be ashamed.  To be brave enough to be who you are—that’s the slap in the face to the occupation, to society, to everything that tells you that you are sh**. And we are told we are sh**.”

“Maryam” actresses run lines with the stage manager

Perhaps this is one of the greatest gifts of the play. In listening to a multitude of Palestinians’ perspectives on the life-giving figure of Mary/Maryam, we glimpse the interior worlds of a people whose dignity is constantly threatened. We become witnesses to a tender resilience.

Since January 2019, the play has debuted at eight different venues including theaters, universities and community centers across the West Bank and in Israel- from East Jerusalem, to Nablus, Ramallah, Jenin, Jifna and of course, Bethlehem.

Dr. Rue dreams of bringing this play to the States, perhaps the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, whose director is Palestinian. Rue expresses a willingness to bring the work to a variety of venues, stating, “however this play can contribute to Americans’ knowledge that there is a beautiful culture called Palestine, and a beautiful people called Palestinian.”

About Victoria Rue, PhD

Victoria Rue is a feminist theologian and a writer, director and teacher of theatre. She received her Ph.D. from the Graduate Theological Union in New York and wrote her dissertation on how feminist theatre enacts feminist theology. Dr. Rue has taught in the fields of Religious Studies and Theology for fifteen years. She has taught at the Pacific School of Religion, Starr King School for the Ministry, the California Institute for Integral Studies and St. Lawrence University. She is currently a lecturer in the Women Studies and Comparative Religious Studies Department of San Jose State University. Victoria’s book, Acting Religious: Theatre as Pedagogy in Religious Studies, was published in 2005 by Pilgrim Press. Dr. Rue is also an ordained Catholic priest.






Serving up hope, one dish at a time

For most of us, food is a thing of heritage, connecting us to the kitchens of our childhood, our grandparents. Even for those of us with a survival-only relationship to food, we all have that one dish or holiday treat, that reminds us from where we came and where we’ve been.

Food is about connections- to people and places, past and present. We have always used food to establish our identity. What we eat is deeply ingrained in who we are.

Yet, you and I probably don’t think of food as a way to affirm our very existence.

However, for Ellia Khair, a young chef from Beit Sahour, Palestine, cooking is just that- a way to preserve cultural identity.

Palestinians like Ellia are increasingly separated from loved ones by the separation wall that snakes around growing Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Shared cuisine is one way to re-establish connections to family, to heritage.

For Ellia, it’s also a source of deep passion. Ellia has loved sweets since he was a child. He will debate anyone about the best sweet shops in Bethlehem. When he decided to pursue culinary arts professionally, there was no doubt about where he would study.

“Everyone knows Dar al-Kalima University. It has a great reputation,” Ellia shared.

While at Dar al-Kalima, Ellia discovered the long history of Palestinian cuisine. He was also introduced to a wide range of international cuisines. Chef Ellia graduated with a diploma in Culinary Arts from Dar al-Kalima in 2015, and continued his training at the Royal Academy in Jordan, Bethlehem University, and the Dubai Chocolate Academy.

When you give to Bright Stars, you open up a world of opportunity for creative leaders like Ellia. 

He particularly enjoys combining Palestinian and Arab flavors with European techniques and dishes. This fusion approach won him an invitation to represent Palestine and at the International Couscous Festival in Sicily, Italy.

Today, Chef Ellia is the Executive Chef at the newly-opened Paradise Premium Hotel in Bethlehem. In the Paradise kitchen, he hones his signature cuisine, which he calls “Arabic-Italian.” Guests of the hotel enjoy freekeh salads loaded with seafood and Italian cheeses, chocolates laced with cardamom, and kanafe pastries drenched in caramel.

Serving perhaps his most famous client yet, Chef Ellia concocted a Palestinian-Italian fusion dish, “maqlouba rissoto” for Pope Francis during his visit to Jerusalem!

“Dar al-Kalima put me on the path to culinary arts and allowed me to develop these important culinary skills, which I use every day,” the chef shared.

Chef Ellia is just one example of the impact of Dar al-Kalima.  

Will you make a gift today? By partnering with us, you will empower graduates like Ellia to retain their heritage- and share it with the world. Their food, their stories will not be lost.

In this season of Lent, we position our hearts to listen to God. We remember that God speaks through others, particularly the marginalized and oppressed. We are grateful for each of you who take time to listen to the stories of our Palestinian brothers and sisters. We hope that you hear God’s voice in these stories, that you see his redemption at work. We invite you to be his hands and feet.


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African American pastor witnesses shared struggle- and hope- in Palestine

I recently returned from a Bright Stars trip to Palestine. Allow me to share my take-aways with you-

Although I previously visited Israel, this trip was different.

During the past trip, we mainly focused on historic and Biblical sites in Israel.

During this trip, however, we spent much of our time in and around Bethlehem, Palestine. In this walled-off city, we had the opportunity to interact with many families in the region and to listen to the everyday struggles of Palestinian people. We also witnessed, first hand, the hope that resides in the dreams and talent of the youth.  We visited local schools and colleges, attended cultural performances, and enjoyed laughter-filled moments with these young people.

We saw worlds that were supposed to be separate, come together.

One Friday when I was in Bethlehem, I wandered the streets looking for a barber to trim my beard.  As I stopped at a local shop, the barber asked me if I would be okay waiting for 30 minutes, until their prayer time ended.  I watched as young and old men gathered in the square, kneeling and praying. I had never witnessed a Muslim call to prayer. Across that same square, amidst the Muslim call to prayer, pilgrims and worshippers gathered to visit the Church of the Nativity, the believed site of Jesus’ birth.

After the prayers ended, I sat down in the barber’s chair. In the midst of this mundane task of getting my beard trimmed, I contemplated the rich intersections of those who live in Bethlehem. Intersections of religions, intersections of hope and pain, intersections of oppression and determination.

As an African American pastor, I don’t presume to know the depth or breadth of the Palestinian experience, but I walked away sensing a deep connection to the struggle of Black America. A shared struggle of oppression and liberation, hope and determination. Even as I recall watching Palestinians wait in line at a crowded checkpoint, a refrain from a familiar gospel song comes to mind, “Deep in my heart, I do believe, that we shall overcome someday.” This is the shared cry of a people longing to be free.

By Rev. Everett Mitchell

Everett Mitchell is the Senior Pastor of Christ the Solid Rock Baptist Church in Madison, WI. He was formerly Assistant District Attorney of Dane County, Wisconsin.

Rev. Mitchell and Rev. Raheb spoke together in Madison, WI last May on this shared struggle of African Americans and Palestinians. View the video here-

Why the pope’s UAE visit matters to us

On February 5, Pope Francis held a historic mass in Abu Dhabi. This visit coincided with the pope’s signing, along with with Sheikh Al Azhar, Ahmed al Tayyeb, a document committed to building “Human Fraternity.” This gathering of the western and Arab world’s most prominent religious leaders was preceded by a 2-day “Conference on Human Fraternity” that brought together 600 religious leaders and influencers including Christians of all denominations, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs and Jains. Our president, Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb was one of few religious leaders from Palestine invited to this important event.

Here are his reflections-

The pope’s visit to the United Arab Emirates should not be underestimated. His signing of the ‘Human Fraternity’ Document with Sheikh al-Azhar, the highest religious authority in the Arab world, is significant. It was the first papal visit to the gulf region. The mass was the largest public gathering to take place in the country, with over 35,000 in attendance inside the stadium and over 100,000 gathered outside. Both religious leaders delivered bold and timely messages, given the current context of religious extremism and fundamentalism.

For us at Dar al-Kalima University of Arts and Culture, the conference that preceded the signing of the document provided a key opportunity to meet many of the 600 international and influential religious leaders. Many of these leaders are our friends and partners. The event is important for our work on two ways. First, in 2014 we launched our own document “From the Nile to the Euphrates: The call for Faith and Citizenship.” This document calls on Christian and Muslim academics to engage in their communities and work towards society where all members have equal citizenship. Five years later, we are encouraged to see this “Human Fraternity” document, building on the same ideas.

Second, two years ago we launched a network of Christian seminaries and Muslim religious colleges. The first of its kind, this network challenges religious faculty to engage in interfaith dialogue. Thus, the event in the UAE is an important sign on this journey of strengthening Christian-Muslim relations and affirms our efforts in this regard. Still, we recognize that we have not reached our goal. Rather, we see this as an important milestone in a long journey.

Dar al-Kalima University is committed to “walk the talk” by creating the conditions for just, inclusive societies in the Middle East- societies based on genuine freedom and equal citizenship. In our upcoming conference this October, we will address the theme “Towards inclusive societies in the Middle East.” We expect to bring together 70 leading scholars from the region and beyond to work on the theological framework required for this vision. At this annual conference, participants will wrestle with issues related to religious plurality, gender justice, political diversity, and social cohesion. The event of last week was historic indeed.

But to change the course of history in the Middle East, we need to roll up our sleeves. For Bright Stars of Bethlehem, vision is action. This vision of inclusivity drives our work in Bethlehem, Palestine, the Middle East and beyond. For all who partner with us, thank you.

by Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb
Related Article: Why the Events Surrounding Pope Francis’ UAE Visit Were So Important by Dr. James Zogby.

Meet Hannah!

We are delighted to introduce Hannah, a Young Adults in Global Mission volunteer who is serving part-time with Dar al-Kalima University of Arts and Culture! Young Adults in Global Mission, a program of the ELCA, sends 70 young people from ages 21 – 29 to nearly a dozen country placements, including to Jerusalem and the West Bank. Volunteers with the YAGM program live and serve for one year alongside ELCA companion churches.

Hannah arrived to her placement in Jerusalem and the West Bank in August, along with 6 other young adults from the YAGM program. She serves both with the Dar al-Kalima School and at the Dar al-Kalima University, teaching English and math in the school and preparing English- language publications for the University. She has also volunteered with Bright Stars of Bethlehem in the past as a part of the Bridges of Hope program. We are excited to continue to work alongside her! She’ll be sharing updates about our programs and reflections on her own experiences in Bethlehem. We’ll be sharing snippets from her blog, Yalla, Hannah here.

First, we thought we’d let her introduce herself in her own words:

About Hannah

I grew up in Milton, Washington, a small town about 30 miles south of Seattle. There, in the house that always smells of Tide laundry detergent, my parents raised my younger brother and I to respect others, to push ourselves, and to explore the world around us. They also raised us in the faith, as a part of Mountain View Lutheran Church; that faith, and the family that raised me in it, became the strong backbone of my life.

After graduating from high school, I moved to Nashville, Tennessee (of all places) to study music at Vanderbilt University. Little did I know how much my life would change over the course of the next four years. While music still remains a passion of mine, and I stayed involved with music all through college, I discovered that my vocation, my calling, lay somewhere else entirely.

My freshman year of college, I took a History of Islam course. I realized that although the Middle East and Islam featured prominently in the news throughout my childhood, I knew little about the region and even less about the religion. I found myself entranced by the complexity, the nuance, the shades of gray that define so many issues in the region. By the end of the year I had changed my major to Middle Eastern Studies. Quite simply, I was hooked.

Looking back on it, I can now see the traces of this interest even earlier in my life. One of my first introductions to the Middle East was through my faith and the archaeological study Bible given to me by my parents at a young age. Long before I knew I would one day study abroad there, I was more interested in traveling to Jordan than to Paris. I have long been drawn to the history of the land we call holy and the ways that history affects the Biblical stories I know so well. I have never felt God’s presence so strongly as when I changed my major and set myself on a journey to learn more about this region and its diverse and beautiful people.

I am seeking real connection and relationships with the people with whom I will be living and serving. I want to live alongside them, to understand how they live, to be a part of that life, to know them intimately and deeply. The D.C. policy world can be a bit of an “ivory tower” of wannabe white saviors hoping to “fix” the Middle East and its problems, despite their often good intentions. With every fiber of my being, I want to avoid this orientalist impulse in my own life. I want to get back to the people, to ground myself in the reality of daily life and in strong relationships with real human beings.

Here is an excerpt from her most recent blog post:

“The Forty Days”

You might not believe it, since the image of the Middle East most people have in their heads involves sweltering heat and rolling sand, but it gets quite cold here. Not as cold, perhaps, as the -66 windchill the Midwestern United States is experiencing right now, but cold enough. With houses designed to draw heat out during the summer and no indoor heating, the temperature is often the same chilly 50 degrees inside that it is outside, if not cooler.

We’ve entered what Palestinians call “al-muraba’ia,” “the forty days,” the coldest days of the year. Thunderstorms blow in from the Mediterranean, dumping rain and sleet and hail on the hills of Jerusalem before pacifying in the Jordan River Valley. Wind sneaks in through the windows, making candles and electricity alike flicker. From Christmas until the middle of February, we will wear extra layers and huddle around space heaters for warmth, piling thick fleece blankets on our beds. Then, the warmth will return, spring will break out, and we will move on.

It seems particularly fitting that these days number forty, and that they are coming now, of all times.

Forty is a significant number in the story of God and Her people: forty days and nights of the catastrophic flood, forty years of wandering in the desert, forty days of fasting and temptation in the wilderness. Forty days of darkness and cold in this Holy Land after the business and excitement of the Christmas season.

I feel it deep in my bones, these forty days.

To put it simply, these forty days are hitting me hard. I knew that a year of global service wouldn’t be easy, but it turns out that knowing it wouldn’t be easy doesn’t make it easier. Read the full post here.

Dar al-Kalima honors legacy of female photographer

Narrow streets and alleyways have long been the playgrounds of Palestinian children.

Since 1948, the constantly constricting boundaries of Palestinian Territories have swallowed up much of the public gathering spaces. Today’s Palestinian kids are accustomed to playing in the winding alleyways that connect the mazes of homes. For their ancestors, this hasn’t always been the case.

Alexandra Sophie Handal, grew up listening to stories of her ancestors exploring West Jerusalem parks and roaming its neighborhoods freely, before they were forced to exile in 1948. These areas, of course, are now off-limits to her ancestors. She also discovered during recent visits, that many parts are even off-limits to those who live there now.

Ms. Handall, this year’s first place winner of Dar al-Kalima University’s Karimeh Abboud Award, captures the increasingly restricted nature of her ancestor’s homeland. Launched in 2016 by Dar al Kalima University, the award honors its namesake, Karimeh Abboud, the first professional female photographer in Palestine. The award restores a forgotten past of and brings that legacy into present by honoring current Palestinian photographers in Palestine and the Diaspora.

Ms. Handals’ winning photograph entitled “No Parking Without Permission, Jerusalem,” was created during a number of walks through West Jerusalem neighborhoods. Handal explored the the same alleys and streets where her ancestors played, streets that inhabited stories of her childhood. Handal depicts these street scenes as framed by various barriers – fences, gates, and bushes— highlighting both the distance and the closeness of the Palestinian people to these areas. Ms. Handal’s own exilic existence has taken her to diverse corners of the world. Born in Haiti, raised in the Dominican Republic, educated in the United States and Europe, she now resides in Germany. This constant displacement has given fueled her artistic inspiration.

“I have experienced no other form of belonging but that of an outsider. However, what this meant transformed over time from being a space of alienation to one of novelty, where new imaginings are possible.”

New imaginings. New possibilities. This is what Bright Stars of Bethlehem is all about.

Advent Greetings from Bethlehem

Our President and Founder of Dar al-Kalima University, Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb bring us a Christmas advent greeting from Bethlehem.

Corporate Executive Turns to Art after Bright Stars Leadership Trip

Stephen Kingsberry fervently pursued art in his youth, but he eventually set aside his talents for a career as corporate executive. Participating in the Bright Stars of Bethlehem 2017 Leadership Program in Palestine, Stephen’s love for art was reawakened as he witnessed the struggle of people living under occupation. Equally inspired by the amazing talents of students and faculty of Dar al Kalima University for Arts and Culture in Bethlehem, Kingsberry set out to make sense of what he witnessed in Palestine. Like many first time visitors to the region, he left overwhelmed and determined to do something.

He returned home with new direction and purpose. He became an advocate for peace and returned to making art. He began a new body of work titled, “Burden of Palestine.” Kingsberry is currently exhibiting this series of copper reliefs at CCAC’s Edward Loper Sr. Gallery in Willmington, Delaware. In this first solo show of his, Kingsberry set out to “to inform people about the struggles of the Palestinians living under occupation.” He hopes that by describing, through his art, what he witnessed, that he might be able to promote awareness and peace.

Works in this exhibit highlight harsh realities like discriminatory Israeli laws against children and challenges posed by the Separation Wall. Other works speak to the spiritual significance of Kingsberry’s visit, like “The Baptism of Christ in the Jordan River.”

“We are excited to show Stephen’s compelling copper pieces in CCAC’s Edward Loper Sr. Gallery,” said the the gallery’s Executive Director, H. Raye Jones Avery. “It’s an exhibit that will undoubtedly draw strong responses from viewers and, hopefully, stimulate conversation and even action.”

While Stephen’s response to the Leadership Program might seem dramatic, most participants describe their experience as deeply moving and transformative. If you are interested in a deep dive educational  program about Israel andPalestine and are motivated to apply what you learn,

Artist Stephen Kingsberry with his piece, “The Burden of Palestine”


This is the LAST month to register for the 2019 Leadership Program. View full trip brochure HERE.

There is no substitute for seeing for yourself. Plus, you’ll deepen connections with others who are also committed to justice.

For more information on Stephen Kingsberry’s work, visit