The Revd Ann Rigby-Jones is Superintendent Minister of the Wirral Methodist Circuit. Ann participated in CCJ’s 2018 Yad Vashem Seminar at the International School of Holocaust Studies.
It was only after I had returned home that I began to understand what a privilege it had been to attend CCJ’s seminar at Yad Vashem. My party, made up of nineteen other clerics, had met beforehand in London with Rob Thompson to look over our programme and establish ties with each other; ties that would deepen with the intensity of the experience to come.
Osteoporosis and osteoarthritis have affected my mobility and balance for some time and I was unable to stand for long periods and or walk very far. Consequently, I decided to use a wheel chair throughout the trip. My new, lightweight chair gave me accessibility, ease and independence. I knew I could manage on my own in case people were unable to help me. I was determined not be a nuisance but some how reach the Western Wall after negotiating the uneven, crowded and challenging streets of Old Jerusalem.
Throughout the trip, I was treated as an able equal and was wheeled, accompanied and encouraged throughout the activities and events we faced together. And yes, I prayed at the Western Wall where Jesus the Jew from Nazareth stood centuries before and where countless others have stood since. Kind hands guided me and hearts full of patience and love held me and supported me as if I were a treasure and through those hands, I experienced the grace of God.
Many of the lectures and museum exhibits we heard and saw were distressing and challenging. Experts guided us through a myriad of facts and historical events as we wrestled with the horror that was the Shoah. Its enormity was too much for the human mind to comprehend but an individual’s story, a keepsake, a photograph or a toy were enough to catch a glimpse of people and communities swept away by the Nazi dogma. I felt shame most days when I saw what a civilized Christian society was able to inflict on a people in order to ensure their complete annihilation. It seemed to me that the Shoah was created by a perfect storm. In the void left by the departure of empathy and justice, evil dwelt. I saw my own life through a clearer lens and my loved ones became all the more precious to me.
Albania was not a country that I had spent much time thinking about, however it came to symbolize to me the courage displayed by many in their efforts to save Jewish families. Albania was the only country affected by the Second World War that had a larger Jewish community after the war than before. The Besa, a national moral code, encouraged hospitality for strangers who soon became friends. Such positive stories added to the emotional rollercoaster ride that many experienced during their trip.
A visit to an orthodox synagogue and an invitation to a Shabbat meal gave us an experience of contemporary Jewish life as did sessions on antisemitism. Antisemitism has become headline news in Britain. I found it difficult to work out what was true and what was false. I began to realize that a key to avoiding offensive language to any group of people was accuracy and empathy. Truth can be elusive and fake news can be deceptive but accuracy could be a guiding rule.
People asked me about the seminar on my return home. I found it impossible to give a sound bite and often wondered what I could tell them that they would understand. Even a visit to the Jerusalem War Cemetery to lay wreaths on the 100th anniversary of the Armistice was extraordinary. However after a few days back in England I found that I could not stop talking about Jerusalem.
I planned to speak about the seminar at a Methodist Circuit Meeting, a District Synod and at a business lunch. But there was something more. Now I found that I responded differently to overstated generalizations about ‘the Jews’ and the accusation that ‘Jews killed Jesus’ that often came from Christian colleagues. I may well have indulged in such generalizations myself in the past but now they jarred in my hearing. I was becoming sensitized to the inaccuracies and offence caused by such statements. That would be a lasting legacy of this trip.
I had seen the world from another’s view; the view of the Jewish people who had been persecuted and near exterminated for no reason other than a cultural norm and the need for a scapegoat, and it was frightening. It was because of this experience that I will support the work of the Council of Christians and Jews in the future. It is only through conversation and listening to each other that we can learn what it is to walk in each others’ shoes; to treat each other as part of a common humanity, united by a common religious heritage.