Marie DeGrace of Roseland, a Roman Catholic and member of Notre Dame Church in North Caldwell, always wanted to go to Israel.
This past January, she got her wish when she joined an ecumenical trip organized by Congregation Agudath Israel of West Essex in nearby Caldwell and her own church. The journey marked the 90th anniversary of Agudath Israel and the 50th anniversary of Notre Dame Parish.
“The minute I heard about this trip, I knew it would be ideal,” she said in a telephone interview shortly after returning. “We all understood that we would understand better our own heritages and contribute to each other’s understanding of what we would see.”
During the Jan. 29-Feb. 6 visit, Rabbi Alan Silverstein of Agudath Israel and Father Anthony Randazzo of Notre Dame took turns offering religious insight. The trip was led by an Israeli tour guide who could speak to the interests of both religions. Of the 34 mission members, 11 were Jewish, the rest Christian.
Susan Werk, Agudath Israel’s education director, also facilitated discussions, often at the end of the day, to help the group process the experience.
The itinerary focused on Jewish and Christian holy sites and brought the travelers to the Galilee, Modi’in, the Negev, and Jerusalem.
“I thought it would be a new and different experience to see Israel through a Christian and Jewish lens, especially with neighbors, with people who live in the community,” said Agudath Israel member Joan Bronspiegel Dickman of North Caldwell. She said she also signed on to acquire “a new understanding of what Israel and these sites mean for them and their religion and their spiritual journeys.”
Dickman is also director of early childhood and family engagement at the Partnership for Jewish Learning and Life.
“The ethos of modern Zionism,” said Silverstein, “is to go from the Tanach to the Palmach” — from biblical days to the State of Israel’s founding — “but this trip forced us to focus on Jewish history of the first century, the time when Jesus lived and when the Jews were moving from biblical Judaism into rabbinic Judaism.”
The idea for the trip came from Randazzo, who had been to Israel twice before.
“It’s been a dream of mine,” he said. “We’ve built strong bonds between our Jewish and Catholic communities, and Israel is our common homeland, the origins of both of our faiths.
“And we each want to know more about each other — our stories and symbols.”
The trip, one-and-a-half years in the planning, included joint observance of each congregation’s Sabbath.
“We want to move beyond tolerance to love and respect,” said Randazzo. “We are not just tolerating each other’s beliefs, mores, and traditions. We are coming to love one another.” He commented on the “fellowship around the table” as participants shared meals throughout Israel, and their common love for prayer.
The two clergy have worked closely together for more than a decade, and have joined each other’s congregations for worship, social action projects, civic engagement, and study. Joining together for the visit to Israel, said Silverstein, “takes it to a whole new level.”
Most of the Jewish participants had been to Israel before; for most of the Christians, it was their first visit.
“For the first-timers, there was a sense of the overwhelmingly awesome nature of being in religious sites,” said Silverstein. “For the Christians, they see Israel as a Holy Land because Jesus had his religious experiences there. Jews see Israel as the place of our patriarchs’ and matriarchs’ spiritual experiences, but it’s also so much more. It’s a place the Jewish people have shaped and have put Jewish values into action. And so many of us have family there,” he said.
For each side, the presence of the other changed the nature of the trip.
“People were not just respectful of one another’s religious experiences but were inspired seeing the sites through each other’s eyes,” said Silverstein.
“I’ll never hear Scripture in the same way again,” agreed DeGrace. “It will always be richer in the future for having gone on this trip.”
“It was wonderful to share Shabbat together, to celebrate Havdala together, to eat meals and explore together, and then to go to mass on Sunday together,” said Dickman. “I’ve never been to mass. To share this with new friends in Jerusalem was really a great experience.”
A reunion dinner for the group is planned for Friday, March 9.