A Mission Of Coexistence

May 22, 2013

Clergy return from interfaith trip to Israel with stories, new insights

By Maayan Jaffe

A GROUP of Jewish and Christian clergy with one African-American imam returned last week from a 10-day mission to Israel. The trip, organized by the Institute for Jewish and Christian Studies and the Baltimore Jewish Council, an agency of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, provided an intensive examination of the complex history of the land of Israel.

“Jews, Christians and Muslims belong to traditions with deep roots to a land considered holy by all three communities. This study group came together to explore how and why this place is sacred to each, to confront the dangerous ways in which our religious communities have inflamed tensions and to find more constructive appr-oaches to patterns of hostility deeply etched into our history,” explained Dr. Christopher M. Leighton, an ordained Presbyterian minister and executive director of ICJS.

That mission was certainly accomplished.

Rabbi Dana Saroken was among the group of rabbis who took part in the experience. Rabbi Saroken said the trip “exceeded my expectations. I could never have imagined a trip being as powerful in so many different ways.”

Rabbi Saroken has been to Israel many times. She said she loves Israel deeply and was moved by the fact that she could see the country in such a profoundly different way, through the eyes of her Christian and Muslim colleagues.

“I was able to visit sites and places — holy places — that I passed by hundreds of times before but never explored,” she said.

Leighton expressed similar sentiments. He said that most Israel tours are religion-based, meaning that they are run from the perspective of one religious tradition. Participants see the holy sites and meet with figures that reflect that worldview. On this trip, he said, there was “much richer conversations and inquiry” because of the meshing of the faiths.

The tour included a stop, for ins-tance, at Yemin Orde Youth Aliyah Village, one of Israel’s most innovative educational institutions specializing in integrating Ethiopian youth into Israeli society. The group went to Beit Hagefen, an Arab-Jewish community center in Haifa for a dialogue about coexistence. They learned from top military officials about the balance of power on Israel’s northern border and had a guided visit of Christian holy sites such as Tabgha and Capernaum. They even visited Ramallah on a tour with the Palestinian prime minister.

“I experienced a vast openness of life and vitality, a place of welcome, a place of hope,  a place of promise, even in light of the reality that surrounds it’s borders,” said Chaplain J. Joseph Hart, executive director of GBMC’s Center for Spiritual Support Training.

All of it was intriguing. Some of it, according to Imam Derek Amin of the Muslim Community Cultural Center of Baltimore, was “disturbing.”

The imam said he expected to see something tragic when he visited Ramallah, and his expectations were met. He described a community living in poverty in comparison with its neighbors in cities like Jerusalem. He also was devastated by the site of the security wall.

“Anytime you see people coming through a wall — having to show a pass to move freely within the society of their birth, that is disturbing,” said Imam Amin.

He said Israel might be justified in building the fence, but that doesn’t change the disturbance.

“This does not get to who is right or wrong,” said Imam Amin. “It just tells you, the people are not free.”

And while, as Leighton put it, there were often variant opinions about the situation — among all the members — the trip proved what he already knew to be true about Israel: “This is not a land where quick fixes will work, but where exaggerated expectations generate deeper frustrations, and where there is no elbow room in which to work out differences. We discovered we have to talk less and listen more.”

And that also meant to one another.

Rabbi Saroken said what was most striking to her was that she was traveling with a group of neighbors, people engaged in similar work to her in the same neighborhoods who she had little or no interaction with before this program. She said that will change now.

“I feel like I have a whole new group of colleagues and friends, people I can reach out to and people who will be part of my life journey — and my congregation’s life journey —
because of the connections built on the trip,” she said.

Imam Amin felt similarly. He said he feels that he not only forged new friendships, but that “this is the beginning of long and productive relationships.”

The group will continue to meet, to debrief and work on how to use the information they gained in Israel to educate their places of worship. In addition, Leighton said there are plans to work on a curriculum or report about the Middle East — understandings and misunderstandings.

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