For the past 20 years I’ve visited Israel on family holidays and special occasions, at times meeting relatives and friends or just lying in the Eilat sun. But nothing prepared me for the remarkable 9-day journey hosted by St George’s College Jerusalem called ‘Sharing Perspectives: Jews, Christians, Muslims – Three Faiths in Conversation.’
From the moment we arrived at this walled, white-stoned East Jerusalem-based Anglican compound built in the mid-1800s not far from Damascus Gate, we were warmly greeted by the College Dean, Reverend Richard Sewell, who formerly had served in the Diocese of Southwark. At the Opening Reception before dinner, looking around at the recently arrived, somewhat travel-weary faces of fellow participants, and noticing the unfamiliar Jerusalem Cross, I realised this could be an experience deep into the unknown – and must confess to having had a bit of apprehension.
Our cohort would be a total of 29 participants, which included Richard and 2 more SGC staff, a local Jewish tour guide specializing in multi-faith education and 3 senior facilitators from abroad who had organised the programme and recruited most of the participants.
By nationality, the largest contingent was from the UK, then Canada, with a handful from the USA and one hearty priest from New Zealand. The cohort itself was comprised of 11 Christians, 8 Muslims and 3 Jews, though the diversity by denomination was equally interesting.
So what made this so special an experience?
The tour combined extensive travel in and around Jerusalem, through Judea & Samaria and included a visit to Old Jaffa/ South Tel Aviv. Educationally, it was steeped in archaeology, history and Biblical reference and was supplemented in the evenings by high-quality, locally-based speakers in areas of inter-religious dialogue, peace building, politics and social action.
The most valuable aspect to me was increasing my sense of religious literacy in a welcoming atmosphere of exploration and discovery. Usually this involved sharing knowledge, as well as acknowledging our need for greater understanding. It didn’t take long for the group to relax and befriend each other.
Part of the evening programme also explored the complexity and nuance of the Israeli-Palestinian struggle, conveying the politicised and polarising identity narratives and how they’ve been taken up by both sides – and by groups around the world.
Our daytime travels in Jerusalem included: the Haram al Sharif, Western Wall Plaza, Ofel Excavations & Church of the Holy Sepulcher, as well as the Mount of Olives, Garden of Gethsemane, Via Dolorosa, Jewish Quarter, Mt Zion and Yad VaShem. Outside of Jerusalem the tour included Wadi Qelt (to see a 6th century monastery carved into the rock face), a Bedouin hospitality tent, Nazareth, Mount of Beatitudes, Tiberias, Bethlehem, Hebron and Old Jaffa. We also visited the Dheisheh Palestinian Refugee Camp and met settlers in Kfar Etzion.
Finally, and perhaps the most rewarding part of the tour involved opportunities to observe the worship services of each of the three faiths, culminating in a Friday night Shabbat dinner at the home of the local Jewish tour guide.
Both in Israel and in the West Bank during our trip, there were incidents of religiously and politically-directed violence, as well as a horrific tragedy which occurred overseas. We woke in Jerusalem on Friday morning 15 March to news of the brutal, unconscionable massacre of 50 Muslims praying at mosques in Christ Church, New Zealand. Since one of our cohort was a priest from Auckland, it made our inter-religious dialogue and peace building efforts all the more poignant.
One would also have to mention that on several of the panel discussions, the Palestinian who had been invited couldn’t participate due to an Anti-Normalization Policy. In effect the opportunity for dialogue was being suppressed by political pressures – which doesn’t bode well for the future.
Perhaps the best part of the study tour for me were many occasions when we disembarked from our bus into the parking lots full of single-faith pilgrim travellers, and simply were seen together as a mixed faith group – smiling, talking, walking side by side – which surprisingly drew frequent comments of appreciation from casual onlookers.
The close of the conference and the journey home gave pause for much reflection. How many times have I been to Israel and never wandered beyond my comfort zone?
Yet I drew solace from the deeply meaningful friendships formed with senior colleagues from the Christian & Muslim traditions willing to share and explain the intimacy of their faith, its history and ritual while acting as gracious hosts in their places of worship. The Jewish participants reciprocated in kind, giving us all the opportunity to find points and pathways of spirituality which we share in common even though our theologies differ so significantly.
Rabbi Jeff Berger