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Mission possible
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Mission possible

Tears, laughter, pledges for action on a New Jersey coalition’s interfaith trip to Israel

Offering prayers at the Western Wall are, from left, the Rev. Reginald Osborne of Bethel World Outreach Ministries, Rabbi Matthew Gewirtz, and the Rev. Steven Davis of Calvary Gospel Church in Newark. Photo by Andrew Silow-Carroll
Offering prayers at the Western Wall are, from left, the Rev. Reginald Osborne of Bethel World Outreach Ministries, Rabbi Matthew Gewirtz, and the Rev. Steven Davis of Calvary Gospel Church in Newark. Photo by Andrew Silow-Carroll

JERUSALEM — For the Jews, Muslims, and Christians on a New Jersey interfaith mission to Israel, the low point of their weeklong trip was perhaps a visit to the Aida refugee camp on the outskirts of Bethlehem. The towering security wall, the anti-Israel graffiti, and the unsmiling children were grim reminders of the ongoing enmity between the children of Abraham.

The high point was — well, take your pick: a tearful group prayer as many of the participants got their first glimpse of Jerusalem; a Friday evening synagogue service in which a rabbi, an imam, and an Episcopal bishop all offered words from the bima; or perhaps a raucous ceremony, held at Jerusalem’s YMCA, where they were invited to join in welcoming Arab volunteers into an Orthodox-run emergency medical corps.

Despite the realities of religious and political strife they encountered in the Holy Land, nearly all of the 33 participants on the Roots of Faith mission, organized by the Newark Interfaith Coalition for Hope & Peace, focused on such bonding events in an emotional summing-up meeting in Jerusalem on Oct. 21, the last day of their seven-day trip.

“Grateful, grateful, grateful — those are the words flowing from my heart,” said Denise Davis, whose husband, the Rev. Steven Davis, is pastor of Calvary Gospel Church in Newark. “I am grateful for the differences among us and grateful that God allowed us to be here together.”

“There’s a saying: The more you learn, the more you earn,” said Fateen Ziyad, the fire director of the City of Newark and member of the Waris cultural center and mosque in Irvington. “I came here with the effort and interest possibly of learning — not just learning from books and [my] own experience, but learning from others. I’ve found hope and a lifelong connection of friendship [here], and thank you all for that.”

Barbara Hochberg, director of the Early Childhood Center at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, summed up what she learned in a word: “Trust,” she said. “Without trust you can’t learn, you can’t speak, you can’t work with each other.”

Hope, friendship, trust — those were just a few of the goals of the four clergy who dreamed up the trip: Rabbi Matthew Gewirtz of B’nai Jeshurun; the Rt. Rev. Mark Beckwith, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Newark; the Rev. Bob Morris, executive director of the Interweave spirituality center; and Imam W. Deen Shareef, who heads the Irvington mosque and is convener of the Council of Imams in New Jersey.

The four sit on the steering committee of the coalition, formed in 2007 to address gang violence in Newark. The coalition brings attention and resources to struggling Newark neighborhoods, fosters dialogue among current and former gang members, and mentors community organizers.

When the rabbi suggested the trip, his fellow clergy wanted assurances that it would connect with their work in New Jersey.

“They bought into it when they realized the important connection between the work on the trip and the work at home,” said Gewirtz. “We could learn from grassroots community organizations [in Israel] that are working from the bottom up to make peace between unlikely potential partners, and the Israelis and Palestinians might learn from the way we work with gangs in bringing peace to the City of Newark.”

The clergy also hoped the experience would turn trip participants into what Gewirtz called a “cadre of lieutenants” for the coalition. “Out of the 33 on the trip, 20 were not active,” Gewirtz said after the trip. “Now I would guess that 15 of those will be.”

With the help of resource people in Israel and volunteers from their various houses of worship, the clergy worked out an itinerary that would include Muslim, Jewish, and Christian holy sites; worship at Rosh HaAyin’s Reform synagogue Bavat Ayin and East Jerusalem’s St. George’s Cathedral; and a series of meetings with Israeli and Palestinian peace, reconciliation, and interfaith groups.

The group was evenly apportioned among the three faiths, and included as many whites as African-Americans. The Jews were members and staff of B’nai Jeshurun, old associates of Gewirtz’s, and a newspaper editor who learned to shed a lot of his skepticism over the course of the week.

In addition to Davis and the quartet of organizers, clergy included Pastor Reggie Osborne of the nondenominational Bethel World Outreach Ministries in Newark, the Rev. Brent Bates of the Episcopal Grace Church in Newark; and Imam Abu Muslimah of the Islamic Center of East Orange.

Few knew each other before planning for the trip began. Divided by faith, living in separate neighborhoods, nodding politely across racial and religious barriers, there were no guarantees that they would bond.

That proposition was tested within minutes of the group’s arrival at Ben-Gurion Airport. While most breezed through security and customs, two of the Muslim women — Sutanah Whitfield and Hassana Shaw — were detained for questioning. As the delay grew to almost three hours, participants milled nervously near an airport coffee stand, chatting, speculating, commiserating.

The hugs and applause that greeted the two as they emerged from security, smiling widely, set the tone for the rest of the trip. Sheila Trapp, wife of Imam Abu Muslimah, acknowledged that she had expected that her husband, who wears a robe-like galabiyya and white skull cap, would be detained. “At the beginning of this week I wondered, would you all have waited?” she said on the last day. “And now I know that you would have waited.”

“What would probably have taken a few days occurred [at that moment]: a bonding among us all, as we all shared a worry for Sutanah and Hassana, who I might add, are probably two of the gentlest souls on earth,” wrote Linda Levi, a past president of B’nai Jeshurun who served as chair of the mission. “Immediately, without planning, a bond formed that grew during a seven-day journey that was life-changing for every person.”

‘Enough tears’

The itinerary included two overnights in the Galilee and four in Jerusalem, with packed days of site visits — St. Peter’s church at Capernaum, the Jewish and Roman archaeological digs at Tsippori — and meetings with Israeli and Palestinian activists.

For Gewirtz, who describes himself as an avid Zionist and has led numerous synagogue trips to Israel, the political differences that emerged were to be expected but painful nonetheless. As a member of the coalition, he said. “I realized we had not spent enough time talking about [the Middle East] and our different points of view and narratives,” he said. “That’s when you fall back on trust to work these things out, when you have a real relationship and are really friends.”

The Oct. 19 agenda laid bare both those differences and the possibility for overcoming them. It began with presentations by Gershon Baskin and Hanna Siniora, respectively the Israeli and Palestinian cofounders of the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information. In his presentation, Baskin urged the Israeli government to do more in jumpstarting negotiations with the Palestinian Authority, and insisted that there was a constituency for peace on both sides.

From there the group drove to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem; crossing through the towering security wall that divides Jerusalem from the West Bank, they were joined by Sami Awad, executive director of the Holy Land Trust, a Palestinian nonprofit that promotes nonviolence. After lunch at nearby Shepherd’s Field, another Palestinian man led the group on a sobering walking tour of the nearby refugee camp, established after the 1948 war for Arabs who insisted on their right to return to homes in what became Israel.

The guide’s account of the refugee issue was frankly one-sided, and in describing the wall that all but surrounds the neighborhood of blocky three- and four-story buildings, he made no mention of the conflict or the terrorism that preceded the wall’s construction. If any of the week’s events would expose the divide among the Jews, Muslims, and Christians on the trip, this would be it.

Perhaps sensing this, Awad offered the group some advice. “This is not about you siding with one side or the other, but siding with peace,” he said. “Don’t go out of here with sympathy with one group of another — we have enough tears. What we need are the voices of religious leaders who can stand up and speak up for the political decisions that will make peace in this land.”

The tears would flow again, however, as the group continued to Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust authority, for a wrenching afternoon that included talks on the Jewish significance of the Shoa, a surprise presentation to museum staff, a tour of the museum, and an emotional ceremony in the museum’s synagogue.

For many on the trip, the Yad Vashem visit would prove the week’s emotional pivot. Shareef would later recall the display case filled with the shoes of Shoa victims. “Every Muslim, when he or she goes into the masjid [mosque], we take off our shoes,” he said. “We do that to enter into a place of life, or haya. And in that [other] place you saw there were people taking their shoes off to go into a place of death.”

“I had a better understanding of Israel and why it is so important” to the Jews, said Maryam Mitchell-Finney, a Muslim, after the Yad Vashem visit. “I may not be convinced that it justifies some of [the Israelis’] actions, but I understand them better.”

The weirdest gathering’

Nearly every day of the trip ended with a debriefing session. In these increasingly intimate discussions, which often began with a song or wordless niggun led by the Jewish musician Matt Turk, the members talked about what they had gotten out of the day’s experiences.

But more than one observer, inside the group and without, spoke about the impact they were having on the Israelis and tourists who saw blacks and whites, bare-headed Jews and women in hijab headscarves, all chatting, laughing, and singing together in lines, restaurants, and hotel lobbies.

“For Israelis, just seeing you walking down the street is a model of what’s possible,” said Rabbi Marc Rosenstein, an American immigrant to Israel and administrator at Hebrew Union College who served as the trip’s scholar-in-residence.

Other Israelis said similar things at two of the evening events: Shabbat services in Rosh HaAyin, which included dinner in the homes of the Israeli congregants, and the induction ceremony for the United Hatzalah medical corps.

In inducting the new Arab ambucycle drivers, Eli Beer, an Orthodox Jew and Hatzalah’s founder, invited Gewirtz, Beckwith, Shareef, and Ziyad to each make remarks. In a babel of English, Hebrew, and Arabic, all sides could be seen enjoying a celebration of erstwhile religious antagonists coming together in common cause.

“What you are doing is the reason why we are here and why this interfaith group was formed,” Shareef told the Jewish and Arab medics.

Added Beer, in what the audience took as high praise, “This is the weirdest gathering you can ever imagine.”

In the week’s last formal session, the participants discussed next steps, wary that the energy of the trip would dissipate once they were back in Jersey. They spoke of a mentoring program matching congregants with inner-city youth, and becoming a resource for others planning interfaith trips to Israel.

Beckwith recalled the words of Sheikh Ghassan Manasra, a Sufi Muslim who directs a peace and dialogue center in Nazareth. “He said, ‘Reconciliation is the biggest truth.’ I was so inspired by that, and will bring that back with me in a new and vital way.

“This trip was an invitation for me to go deeper into my own Christianity, my own particularity, but also to appreciate the differences,” said the bishop. “Those differences have created a unity that feels miraculous to me.”

“I know the counter-trends are so terrible,” said Morris, “but when the future begins to poke its head out, it’s always marginal groups who are behind it. As Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Fear not, little flock, it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.’”

A few days after the trip, Gewirtz said he was disappointed that there were one or two on the trip who seemed unmoved by the experience, or still wary of dialogue.

But the mission far exceeded his expectations.

“We’re not going to fix what’s broken [in Israel], but we can make an impact at home,” he said. “The secret is not just being pro your own truth, but pro someone else’s truth.”

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