Category Archives: News from Abwoon Network

Stories from the Circle: The Aramaic Jesus in War-torn Bosnia

(This is the fourth in an ongoing series of stories featuring people worldwide who are sharing Neil Douglas-Klotz’s Aramaic Jesus and Desert Wisdom-related work. Our newest profile spotlights Murshida Sophia Gita Onnen, a long-time dance leader and founder of the German network for the Dances.  Editor’s note: If you are offering Neil’s work as part of your dance outreach, please contact Sharon at  We’d love to feature your story in this space.)


It was 1989 and Sophia Gita Onnen didn’t know what had just happened.  She had traveled to Switzerland to participate in a Dances of Universal Peace (DUP) retreat with Neil Douglas-Klotz and Kamas A Miller.   This was her first DUP experience.   Just a few short hours after arriving, Sophia found herself in a dance circle chanting the Aramaic words of Jesus for the first time in her life.

“And without knowing anything about any of this,” she recalls,   “I was touched to the Gita_09_Lanzarote_90 copydepths of my being by the sound, the vibration, breathing, the singing and the dancing.”

Sophia knew instinctively that she had come home to her soul – a common experience for individuals who dance and chant the words of Yeshua in his indigenous language for the first time. Without knowing the message behind the words, their vibration nevertheless tunes and refines the soul.

By the next year, 1990, Sophia had immersed herself in the Aramaic. Happily, like the countless other Aramaic newbies around te world, she also now had a visual “take-away,” from dance retreats she could go to at any time for spiritual nourishment.

Neil’s first book, Prayers of the Cosmos, the Aramaic renderings of The Lord’s Prayer and the Beatitudes, had just been published. It quickly became her constant companion.

pocorigsmallThe book’s cover – Robert Lentz’s “Christ of the Desert,” –worked as an excellent spiritual practice.  (Lentz’s icon appeared on the original cover of the book.)   When Sophia would icon-gaze — stare with soft eyes into the luminous eyes of this dark-skinned Middle Eastern Yeshua — she recalls,  “I felt that the Aramaic Jesus on the book was giving me the message, ‘you are blessed, just the way you are. ‘ From then onwards, no matter what her mood might be on any given day, “this was ‘home’ to me.”

For past 20 years, Sophia has been bringing that same  “blessed home” energy to a total of more than 500 traumatized refugee women –women arriving in small groups to become part of her dance circles twice a year in Tuzla, Bosnia.

The women are victims of the 1992-1995 Bosnia-Herzegovina conflict. Since 1996, Sophia has combined her Gestalt therapy training with the Aramaic and Sufi Soulwork to bring healing to these hurting individuals.  Many of them lived through a massacre in Srbrenica, a town where their husbands and sons were shot to death and buried in mass graves; it was a place of horror, where their daughters were confined to rape camps. Incredibly, during those short three years, an estimated 50,000-60,000 women were held in rape camps by Bosnian Serb forces.

According to, the Bosnian war is considered to be the worst act of genocide since the Nazi regime’s   destruction of more than six million Jews. The ethnic genocidal massacre claimed the lives of 100,000 people, 80 percent of them Muslim.

Sophia started working with survivors after learning of their plight from her Swiss dance mureed Maria Muller.  Maria had been asked to bring the dances to Bosnia by the Swiss charity AMICA CH.  “Maria invited me to join her because she felt that my background as a Gestalt therapist would be helpful in working with these women.”

When the two arrived, they discovered a group of women “traumatized and desperate.  They didn’t want to live,” said Sophia.  Ever so slowly and gently,  she and Maria offered up their dance-medicine, “breath by breath, step by step.”

“As they were Muslims, we mostly used Arabic songs and dances.”  Little by little, the healing began working its spiritual magic. The two women next introduced the Aramaic Prayer and the Beatitudes, again witnessing the healing power of Yeshua’s teachings.

Gita Sophia and friends from Bosnia and England

Gita Sophia and friends from Bosnia and England

In Sophia’s words, “The first Beatitude ‘Alaha Ruhau,’—God is Breath/Spirit and the second, ‘Healed are those in emotional turmoil, wandering…they shall be united inside in love — helped to offer them the encouragement to keep doing, to start all over again, breath by breath, step by step. It was this unconditional love and the compassion that they needed very much.”

Sophia adds that the women’s willingness to sing and dance in the original mother tongue of Jesus “was great for them.  To feel the oneness of body, heart and soul – to view Jesus as psychotherapist was a truly cosmic approach. It felt to them like coming home, to themselves, their bodies, to earth, to the here and now of their lives, joyful, in community.”

The third phase of the dance retreats have involved introducing Neil’s dances honoring the DivineMother/Father of the Cosmos. “Through them, the women’s  horizons opened and widened to the concepts of living on a Sacred Earth and being sacred themselves.”

As a result of these retreats,  there are now several dance meetings in Bosnia as well as trainings, lead by Sophia’s students there.

Sophia’s Bosnian work is just one part of her extensive involvement with the Aramaic dances. Since attending her first dance retreat in 1989, Sophia Gita Onnen has plunged into the Dances of Universal Peace wholeheartedly, even to the extent of abandoning her career.

“The dances got me deeply,” she said.  She left her therapy practice in 1990 and traveled to Lama Foundation to be a part of Neil’s retreats. Lama was the first of many she attended during the following year. She stayed with dance community members in New Mexico, California and Missouri. Between retreats and dance meetings, she began translating Prayers of the Cosmos into German (which was subsequently published by Knauer Verlag).

Back in Germany in 1991, Sophia resumed her therapy work only to give it up again. When the German edition of Neil’s book came out, invitations began coming for her to teach the Aramaic. The calls would take her all over Germany, as well as Switzerland, Austria, the Czech Republic, and Russia. The rest is history.

She has never looked back.  And now, here is where her path has brought her: She has served as the director of the Ruhaniat European Summer School in Germany, as an initiator in the Dervish Healing Order, as a spiritual guide to many mureeds and as a danceSaadi&Gita909 copy mentor.

“I have so much gratitude to Saadi for being my friend and guide for the past 26 years.”

But there is a sense of déjà vu for Sophia, as she reads the daily news reporting on thousands of refugees from Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, the Balkans and African who are entering Europe seeking new homes. “They are like the Bosnian women and children, arriving with simply their breath and the hope to be welcomed and to receive help for beginning new lives.”

She reflects, “Life goes on and there is so much to do.”

Stories from the Circle: Experiencing ‘Saba Ana’–the Delight of the Universe

By Sharon Abercrombie

(This is the third of an ongoing series of stories featuring people worldwide who are sharing Neil Douglas-Klotz’s Aramaic Jesus and Desert Wisdom-related work.  Our current profile highlights Munira Elizabeth Reed, executive director of the Shalem Center in Worthington, Ohio, near Columbus. Since 1998, Munira has been turning this midwestern city into the American outreach headquarters for local, national and international Aramaic spirituality retreats).

It was 1997 and Elizabeth Reed assumed she was set for life. A United Methodist minister since the early 1980’s, she had served a brief pastorship before moving into administrative programming around women’s issues and Christian leadership training for the West Ohio Conference of the UMC. In 1992, with a Ph.D. counseling and spirituality degree from Union Institute in Cincinnati, Elizabeth began directing a counseling ministry for her conference at the Shalem Center located in the heart of central Ohio.

Munira_150Things were moving along right on track. That is, until a day in 1997 when a recent friend came to town for a visit and gave her hostess something new to think about. She happened to be an intuitive whose observations had always proved to be remarkably accurate, said Elizabeth.

During one particularly animated, lively discussion around religion, Elizabeth’s friend predicted that “something good was going to happen” to widen her spiritual path. Such as? Elizabeth countered. What more could there possibly be? She appreciated the progressiveness of the Methodist church. Its blessings had included imparting an  enduring/endearing model of Jesus as seen through the Social Gospel and it had given her valuable insights from studying the historical-critical method of Scriptural analysis.

It was strong on feminism. It cared about Nature and the environment — three issues Elizabeth Reed had championed since age 15, back in her hometown of West Point, Georgia, when she left the Southern Baptists for the United Methodists.

The Methodists gave her the opportunity to serve on youth councils as a young woman. When she later decided to go into the ministry, the Candler School of Theology welcomed her and the 59 other women into its seminary of 600 students.

But still, she was intrigued by her guest’s prediction. Curious enough, in fact, that Elizabeth vowed to remain totally open to the unexpected. She didn’t have to wait for long. The next year, 1998, Elizabeth went to Indianapolis to attend a conference sponsored by the Association of Humanistic Psychology.  Conferences such as these were annual events, since she was required to get CEU’s every year to maintain her counseling certification.

“This time, I decided to just go with an intuitive draw rather than responding to a known ‘guru on the circuit’  about workshops. One entitled “Middle Eastern Views of Personality” sounded good to her.  It certainly proved to be so.

“My life changed when I walked through that door.” Her head buzzed with new information. Her heart grew wings.

That momentous day, Neil Douglas-Klotz, the presenter, talked about psychology, theology, body somatics, and

Munira and Saadi

Elizabeth Reed and Neil Douglas-Klotz

directspiritual experience.  He combined his presentations with guitar playing and chanting. He taught his audience the Aramaic words for the Lord’s Prayer. He got them out of their seats into a dancing circle.

Elizabeth recalls having “a visceral  experience where everything came together for me. He was teaching us how to heal our cosmological split.” And of course, like many other people who experience the Aramaic way of looking at the Universe and spirituality, Elizabeth “bought up every brochure, book, tape on the table.” Back home in Ohio, she told her partner, MJ, “Wherever he’s teaching in North America, I’m going.” Swept along by Elizabeth’s enthusiasm, MJ said she wanted to go too.

A few months later, they traveled to hear him in Quebec.   When Neil announced that he was searching for a non-profit to lend support to his USA work, Elizabeth took the proposal to her Shalem board right away. The board said yes. Result: the last 16 years of her life have turned into a whirlwind juggling of her paid counseling work, with volunteer Abwoon Aramaic work.  “When I get involved, I get involved very quickly.”

A scant few months following Quebec, Elizabeth arranged for Neil to come to Columbus for the first in a series of annual public workshops, which still happen every October, and sometimes April. She learned to play guitar and drum. She plunged into the study of Ruhaniat Sufism.

In 2007, she wrote a book for other Aramaic students, entitled Abwoon Circles: Starting a Local Group, to help people who wanted to organize regular meetings around Aramaic Jesus practices, meditations and dances.

Always the idea person, Elizabeth, now Sufi Munira, approached Neil in 2006 about his starting a three-year ongoing

training program for individuals who wanted to lead their own Aramaic and Desert Wisdom gatherings. Dubbed the Aramaic Interspiritual Leadership Program, (AILP) groups grew in the USA, the UK and Germany . The last AILP concluded this past April.

A new program on healing will begin in early November in Columbus, the first of  a three-year ongoing series, with the sessions co-lead by Neil and his wife, Natalia Lapteva.  The program at Proctor Conference Center in London, Ohio will be preceded by a public weekend October 24-26, in Columbus, entitled “Thousands of Ways to Kneel and Kiss the Ground.

Rev. Elizabeth Reed sharing the Aramaic work in Guadalajara, Mexico, September 2014

Rev. Elizabeth Reed sharing the Aramaic work in Guadalajara, Mexico, September 2014

Munira’s own dance and retreat work is currently taking her far and wide, from Mexico, to North Carolina, and back to Ohio. As this blog goes to press, she recently returned from Guadalajara, Mexico, where she and Pennsylvania dance leader Yasmin Haut co-faciliated an Aramaic Lord’s Prayer Retreat.

She will catch up on work at the Shalem Center, then spend next weekend doing an outreach Dances appearance at a college student event in Delaware, Ohio, followed by a stint the next night at an Enneagram conference in Dayton. The next week she will focus her twice-monthly Aramaic Yeshua and Sufism group, a class which looks at the relationship of the Aramaic Yeshua and word meanings from Semitic languages, and Middle Eastern Spiritual practices.

“One interesting dynamic of this group has been when the discussion is responsive to, say one week predominantly Sufi focus and another time predominantly by liberal/progressive Roman Catholic and other Christian concerns and passions,” she said.

During our luncheon interview conducted shortly before Munira left for a Lama Dance Camp retreat in New Mexico, I asked her a question which probably every “convert” to Universal Sufism lives with:  Where does one’s ‘old’, former religion fit into the path their new spirituality has taken them?

She thought for a moment before responding: There is always some place where you will bump up against the limits of one religion, she said.  “One religious path is just not wide enough. The light of truth is in all paths. We need this universality, to put the whole picture into perspective. I guess you could say that I’m a post-Methodist. Methodism is who I am. It birthed me into the person I became back when I was 15, and for that I have a great gratitude.

What does she love most about teaching and Dance leading? “When I see people having the real experience of seeing the Divine in another person’s eyes, people experiencing ‘Saba Ana,’ the delight of the Universe, it’s like being a child. You see someone get what you’ve felt yourself.”

Stories from the Circle: Dancing in the Presence of the Divine

By Sharon Abercrombie

(This is the second in an ongoing series of stories featuring people worldwide who are sharing Neil Douglas-Klotz’s Aramaic Jesus and Desert Wisdom-related work. Our newest profile spotlights Br. Joe Kilikevice, a Dominican friar based in Oak Park, Illinois. If you have a related experience to share with us, please contact Sharon at


Dominican Brother Joe Kilikevice has been dancing in Sufi circles since the late 1960’s.

He credits a 1965 Roman Catholic document coming out of the Second Vatican Council for setting him on the path of his life’s work. Nostra Aetate, (“In Our Time,) is a groundbreaking paper that stresses the religious bond shared by Jews and Catholics and calls for the church to dialogue with other world religions.

By 1983, Br. Joe was bringing the Dances of Universal Peace, particularly the Aramaic words of Jesus, to the art-as-meditation class he was teaching in Oakland, California.

Since then he has been leading “The Lord’s Prayer,” “The Beatitudes,” the “I Am” sayings of John and other dances created by Neil Douglas-Klotz . He has introduced them into his own Catholic tradition to Dominican high schools and colleges throughout the United States. He has brought them to interfaith groups, both in the Midwest and abroad.     “I wouldn’t be here but for that document,” said Br. Joe during a recent phone interview.

“Work” is probably too thin a word to describe Br. Joe’s ministry. For those of us who have danced with Joe Kilikevice at Plano, Illinois and in other retreat settings, “passionate dedication” is more like it.

Br. Joe discovered the dances during a retreat in San Jose, California more than 40 years ago. “Let’s go Sufi dancing,” Jshemsomeone suggested. A DUP North American Journal story from 2011 notes that Br. Joe hadn’t a clue as to what Sufi dancing might be, but he decided it would be a good idea to ‘get off the mountain’ for a few hours.”  He piled into a crowded station wagon with the rest of his friends.

The dance experience that evening touched him deeply.  For the first time, this life-long Catholic and Dominican brother realized that “you don’t have to give up your own faith tradition to be enriched by the traditions of other people.”
A couple of years later, back in Chicago, he located another dance meeting.  This one was fine, too, but he wished it had included more dancing and less talking.

His wish came true in 1983, when Br. Joe moved to Oakland California.  Matthew Fox, a Dominican colleague had recently moved his Creation Spirituality master’s program from Mundelein College in Chicago to Holy Names College. Fox invited his old friend to resume teaching the art-as-meditation class he had previously taught at Mundelein.   It didn’t take long for Br. Joe to discover the stunning smorgasbord of dance meetings throughout the Bay Area.

That’s how he met Neil-Douglas-Klotz. One Saturday morning, Joe Kilikevice found himself in San Francisco’s Precita Park with Neil and six other dancers, chanting and moving to “Abwoon d’bashmaya.” Precita Park is right across the street from Mentorgarten, the home of Murshid Samuel Lewis. Murshid brought the first Dances forward during the late 1960’s, so there has always been a lot of baraka living in that park.

Br. Joe doesn’t recall who the other dancers were that day. But Br. Joe does remember the power of the Lord’s Prayer, transliterated by Neil into Aramaic, the language Jesus/Yeshua spoke. “We were trying out the first four lines.  I was immediately struck by their sense of timelessness.”  Jesus/Yeshua was there in the midst of the circle, beyond the English or Latin words this Dominican had been praying all of his life.

Br. Joe immediately brought the dance back to his Holy Names classroom. In subsequent years, he would become a co-retreat leader with Neil and Kamae Miller, and would then branch out with his own interfaith retreat ministry. In  1993, he founded the Shem Center, an interfaith spirituality center located in Oak Park.

His work took another significant turn in 2000 when Dominican Sisters Pat Brady and Gina Fleming invited Br. Joe to lead dances at a high school retreat, to represent “the diversity of ways Dominicans preach.  They knew of my work and thought the students would both enjoy and benefit from a contemporary way a Dominican was claiming a centuries-long tradition of praying with the body. Dominicans have always brought the body into prayer with bowing, prostrating, and processing,” said Br. Joe. Two years later, when these student conferences were expanded into Dominican college venues, Br. Joe became a regular presenter there, also, in schools coast to coast.

In 2010, the Conference organizers awarded him the Sister Pat Brady award for “extraordinary service and contributions in furthering the traditions and charism of the Dominican Order.” Sr. Pat Brady praised Br. Joe for “encouraging each of us to realize the power of dance and music as a medium of peace and harmony. Brother Joe has taught us that world understanding begins with a willing, open and accepting heart. He has truly released the Spirit in each of us.”

This writer contacted both Sisters Mary Soher, and Gina Fleming, the current organizers for the student preaching conferences to gauge reactions to Br. Joe’s work. Except for occasional liturgical dance within many Catholic liturgies and prayer services, Catholics do not ordinarily dance. But Br. Joe gets them on their feet in short order.

After a day of dancing, “it ‘s not uncommon for a student to linger a bit after my session to thank me for what they experienced,’ recalls Br. Joe. “I can tell that they have been deeply moved and often can’t find the words to say so.”

Mary Soher contributed her take on the student experiences. “Something magical happens,” said Soher, an Adrian Dominican. “He teaches them to really be in the present moment, to be in the presence of the Divine with each other.  If they are carrying grief, sadness or stress, the dances provide a body-soul-mind break for them.”

Soher said she has witnessed the dances as a vehicle for helping to build bonds and strengthening community among the young people.

For Amityville Dominican Sr. Gina Fleming, Br. Joe’s dance leading has been “a deeply prayerful experience.  Asking us to look into each other’s eyes has touched me deeply.” His teachings have given her a better understanding of the Muslim religion, she said.

And as for the Aramaic, “it’s a part of me now,” said Fleming. “Studying the words of Jesus in His original language, “awakens you to a different way of thinking.”

Stories from the Circle: River’s Edge

Seven years ago Neil Douglas-Klotz launched his first Aramaic Interspiritual Leadership Program.  AILP was designed for dance leaders, therapists, ministers, and teachers who wanted to deeply immerse themselves in the insights, teachings and dances from Neil’s Native Middle Eastern Tradition,  Aramaic and Genesis Meditations work.

Today over 150  individuals from the U.S., Europe, and South America have completed the three and a half year AILP trainings held in Ohio, the UK and Germany.  So what have they learned and how are they sharing this work? We’ll begin finding out with this issue in a brand new blog at Abwoon Network ( from entitled “Stories from the Circle.” It will recount the experiences, not only of AILP graduates, but hopefully, our many other old-timers, as well.

Ellen Bush, Eileen Taj  Pappalardo, and Sharon Nurjehan Abercrombie,  editor for this new dance experience blog, are graduates of AILP One. The following account is our collective memory of what it was like to conduct three ten-minute introductory “prayer services” using the first line of the Aramaic Lord’s Prayer, “Abwoon d’bwashmaya,”during a weekend retreat at River’s Edge in Cleveland, Ohio. River’s Edge is a Catholic environmental and wellness center operated by the Sisters of St. Joseph.

We had been tapped to serve as the “opening act” for Brian Swimme, renowned mathematical cosmologist. Brian is a protégé of ecozoic theologian, Fr. Thomas Berry, (1914-2009) author of “The Great Work.” In 1992, Brian and his beloved mentor co-authored  “The Universe Story” (see his website at:

A 2012 northern California Emmy Award winner for his DVD documentary, “The Journey of the Universe,” Brian serves on Brian-Swimmethe faculty at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco. He taught Ellen and me when we were both graduate students in Matthew Fox’s Creation Spirituality Program at Holy Names University in Oakland during the early 1990’s. Neil was one of our teachers there, too, at the same time!

So for starters, this awesome opportunity seemed to be one of those “coming full-circle” type of  adventures. We would be using what we had learned and had built upon from each of them. We would be scooping into the depths of Neil’s spiritual work to illuminate Brian’s scientific cosmological teachings.

Our assignment that weekend of June 29, 2012, was to set the tone for 180 retreatants, bringing spirituality and science together back to,  “the first primordial flaring forth of the Universe,” in the words of Brian and Thomas.

And as Neil, hearkening back to Yeshua’s prayer, would say,  “Oh mother-father-birther of the cosmos, you create all that moves in light…”your Name shines everywhere.”

We had three, separate,  ten-minute segments to accomplish this, and carry the group forward.  Initially, this was a pretty scary proposition for us  ‘unknowns,’–  providing the opening act for a brilliant, ’rockstar’ cosmologist.

As Ellen recalls, we “needed to create some kind of container space for ‘Abwoon’ to live.”  And it needed to happen quickly within a vast, crowded room full of people, most of whom had never experienced the Dances of Universal Peace before. Or knew anything about the Aramaic language for that matter.

We considered the daunting prospect of getting the group into ten or 12 concentric dance circles amidst the muddle of chairs.  Given our time frame, though, furniture moving was simply not an option. We would have to keep this project very simple. We therefore decided to  embark upon what a California dance friend, and fellow AILP student,  Richard McMurtry, refers to as “pew dancing” – Simply standing, and moving back and forth in place.

So ultimately, we decided to present an introductory, seated guided meditation on  the opening Friday night session that would set the stage for Brian’s talks.  I led off, drawing upon Saadi’s powerful “caravan” meditation. This is the one where he has us envisioning being part of a camel caravan, falling in line behind the beloved ancestors who have gone before us in wisdom, and traveling back to the beginning of Creation.

camelstunisia_njlWe embarked from a Middle Eastern desert, our camels’ favorite environment, then moved  magically to a palm-tree lined beach.  Our trek took us into a mountainous landscape of sparkling snow, followed with a quick side jaunt to a North Carolina meadow filled with spring flowers, bees, butterflies and flitting birds. As our camels prepared to take off into space, we passed a plain filled with grazing dinosaurs.  Then came the floating outwards into the Cosmos, past our sun. our moon, and distant galaxies, until we reached the Original Source.

With Taj’s frame drum, and my open tuned guitar, we lead a breath practice, intoning the sacred phrase, ‘ABWOON.’ We explained the word, and introduced the chant.

The next day, we resumed the chant, this time with Ellen leading another breath practice. On morning three, Taj reviewed the original meditation, with her frame drum calling up  — “the heartbeat of the Universe.”

We concluded by having Ellen teach the Prayer movements in place. Within minutes, 180 individuals were dancing Abwoon, “totally free of any self consciousness,”  said Taj.

It had all come together.  In looking back Taj observed, that “We took them into that deep place to find the central harmony by chanting the separate sounds in the Aramaic word, ‘Abwoon.’ This is what  united every person in the room.”

Everyone seemed captivated, and moved easily into each phase of our process, without resistance, she added.

Said Ellen: “We carved out the Aramaic words and moved into vibration of Creation. We were not just talking about cosmology, here. We were able to set the tone like a spoken prayer could never have done.” Yes.

Our featured speaker, Brian Swimme, was there with us, through every breath, intoning, singing and movement. “I felt it in his body language,” said Ellen. Which included a twinkle in his eye, a broad smile, and at the conclusion of each session, a fervent ‘thank you.

Meanwhile, one sister from the River’s Edge staff marveled to us ‘unknowns’ that we had provided a whole new experience she had never dreamt could happen. “I’ve never seen anything like this,” she said. And she was smiling, too. By then, so were we.

(For further information, or to share a report, please contact the blog editor, Sharon Nur Jehan Abercrombie at