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Pilgrimmage to Israel bonds 43 Charlotte Christians, Jews

By Tim Funk
tfunk@charlotteobserver.com

Temple Beth El and Myers Park Baptist Church were born days apart 70 years ago, and for decades they have marched side by side promoting social justice and interfaith understanding.

But in March, these two congregations embarked on a new, potentially tense chapter in their relationship: Together, 43 of their members – 20 Jews, 23 Christians – took a 10-day trip to Israel, a holy land for both religions but for different and sometimes divisive reasons.

They traveled by bus and by foot to ancient places they’d heard about since they were children in synagogues and sanctuaries.

Masada. Galilee. Jerusalem.

I was with them, privileged to witness spiritually intimate moments that can change lives – and communities.

Three months later, much still resonates. The transformed travelers say their trip was a prelude in a bigger journey. Their goals: Increase the city’s interfaith dialogue, encourage Christians, Jews and Muslims to go together to the Holy Land, and invite Charlotteans to join a nuanced exploration of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Just last week, the two congregations launched “Mishpachah: Interfaith Conversations on the Holy Land.” In Yiddish, Mishpachah means family.

In the coming months, they’ll bring in speakers, watch documentaries, discuss books, and cover topics ranging from Jesus as Jew to the many meanings of the word Israel.

In the spring, they hope to invite the public to a speech in Charlotte by Sami Awad – an Arab Christian leader who spoke passionately to the group in Bethlehem on the West Bank about his non-violent push for the creation of an independent Palestinian state.

There are other things stirring: Rabbi Judy Schindler of Temple Beth El, who proposed and helped lead the trip, says a few Protestant churches in Charlotte have expressed an interest in being part of future tours. She and leaders at Myers Park Baptist are already planning a second visit in 2015.

Schindler has another hope: She’d like to start a local Muslim-Jewish dialogue that could evolve into trips to Israel by members of all three faiths.

“I want people to see Israel as their history and as a holy land for all of them,” she told me. “It is so beautiful and so powerful and so sacred. And for most people who travel there, it is their trip of a lifetime.”

The Rev. Steve Shoemaker, a former pastor of Myers Park Baptist who led the trip with Schindler, says interfaith travel – and the efforts back home that follow – can help tear down walls of fear and prejudice and replace them with bridges of understanding and cooperation.

“Religious communities for too long have read their sacred scriptures within the isolation of their own community,” he says.

Since the group’s return, these Jews and Christians have worshiped side-by-side, traded emails, and enjoyed meals together.

A lasting legacy

Back in March, a few hours before the long flight home, the group gathered at a restaurant in an Arab village, said prayers in Hebrew and English, feasted on baba ganoush and tabbouleh, and spoke of their time together.

Bobbie Campbell, who attends Myers Park Baptist, said she felt like a different person after 10 days.

“I really love you all,” she told the group. “Where have you been all my life?”

Back in Charlotte, Campbell says she seeks out articles and books about the Middle East. And she’s a leader on the committee that launched the “Mishpachah” effort.

“Our trip has stayed with me more than any other I’ve taken,” she says. “And I’ve lived abroad twice.”

Even Schindler, who has lived in Israel and visited it more than a dozen times over 32 years, has been affected by the trip in new ways.

For the first time, she found herself visiting Christian sites that were never of interest before. Christians believe Jesus is the Messiah. Jews still await the Messiah and Jesus has no part in their faith.

“Jesus was always the Other,” she says. “Because of the trip, I can now look at a stained glass window, see a picture of Jesus, and have a much greater appreciation of how (Christians) see him. In the past, I might have said, ‘That’s not my story.’ Now I would try to understand how it is someone else’s story and maybe explore the Jewish roots of Jesus.”

Making memories

For members of Temple Beth El, a Reform Jewish synagogue, the trip to Israel was a return ticket to their ancestral home, a Promised Land from God that has become a modern Jewish state. For those at Myers Park Baptist, it was a chance to not only see some of the places mentioned in the Old Testament (the Jews’ Hebrew Bible), but also to walk in the footsteps of Jesus.

For all of these pilgrims, the hope was that seeing the sacred sites together would not only enrich their own personal faith, but also leave them with a better understanding of each others’ ways, beliefs and histories.

From Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and many points in between, Naftali, our Yeminite tour bus driver, kept us mobile; Doron, our Israeli tour guide, kept us informed; and the two clergy – Schindler and Shoemaker – kept us enthralled with their running commentary on all things Jewish and Christian.

And along the way, in hushed churches, on grand mountaintops, in ancient places told of in the Bible, I got to watch my fellow travelers embrace awe. Suddenly and deeply in touch with who they were and what they believed, their tears flowed, their hearts swelled and their memories were made forever.

I also saw empathy.

At the River Jordan, where Jesus is believed to have been baptized, members of Temple Beth El were moved as some of their new friends from Myers Park Baptist cried while Shoemaker traced watery crosses on their foreheads.

And at Jerusalem’s Western Wall, the holiest site in Judaism, members of Myers Park Baptist watched with reverence – or prayed alongside – as Schindler and others from Temple Beth El reached for the sacred stone and slipped tiny paper prayers into its cracks.

Why are you crying?

On April 19 – a little over a month after the trip ended – the Charlotte pilgrims filed into Temple Beth El to talk about how the trip had changed them.

Schindler told this story:

“A pair of lovers climbed one of the hills outside of the old city in Jerusalem to glimpse its beauty. When they reached the top, one of the lovers began to cry.

‘Why are you crying? You’ve been here a hundred times,’ said the one.

“To which the other lover said, ‘Yes, I have been here a hundred times. But this is the most special. This is your first time. And I am seeing the city, the stones of the Western Wall, the magnificent contours of the buildings and the synagogues, the towers and the glittering gold of the dome as if I’ve seen it for the first time. Because I am seeing the city through your eyes. They are not tears of sadness, but tears of great joy.”

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