Participants speak on interfaith Israel trip

BY ROBERT A. COHN, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF EMERITUS

Local Jewish, Christian and Muslim participants in a recent Interfaith Partnership trip to the Holy Land, shared their experiences at a recent meeting of the Jewish Community Relations Council.

About 75 people attended the meeting at Hillel at Washington University. Attorney Harvey Schneider, current president of the Interfaith Partnership of St. Louis, said that the unique mission to Israel brought together 28 local members of the Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Baha’i communities. “We at the Interfaith Partnership wanted to celebrate our 20th anniversary and we felt that a truly interfaith mission to the Holy Land would be the best way to accomplish this.”

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Schneider said that among the participants was Father Vincent Heier, ecumenical officer of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. Louis; a Catholic nun; three Disciples of Christ ministers; seven Muslims, members of the Baha’i community and five members of the Jewish community, including Rabbi Mark Shook of Temple Israel.

“The trip was a wonderful experience for all of us,” Schneider said. “We already had become friends through our work with the Interfaith Partnership and Faith Beyond Walls, which are soon to merge, but the trip to the area we all call the Holy Land really brought us all closer together and increased our mutual understanding and respect.”

Among those reporting to the JCRC Council on their experiences were Mrs. Zubaida Ibrahim, a member for 37 years of the local Muslim community, who has a master’s degree in chemistry; Dr. Michael Kinnamon of the Eden Theological Seminary faculty and a Disciples of Christ Minister, and Rabbi Mark Shook of Temple Israel.

In her remarks, Ibrahim extended warm greetings of “Salaam and Shalom,” the Arabic and Hebrew words for “peace,” and took note of the proximity of both the Jewish High Holy Days and the Muslim holy day of Ramadan.

“We had four religions represented on this trip, and there was absolutely no competition among us,” Ibrahim said. “This was a most interesting trip, which enhanced my understanding and was highly meaningful. All of us came away from the experience with the feeling that we must not isolate ourselves and must continue to work together as all of us, the peoples of God and the people of Abraham.”

Ibrahim said the trip “increased both the friendship and the understanding among us about the issues in the region, and we all feel that we must continue to dialogue and the process of brainstorming about peaceful solutions in which we engaged on the trip.”

“I was struck by how close together in Jerusalem all of the major holy sites of Christianity, Islam and Judaism are,” Ibrahim said. “The Western or Wailing Wall, the Via Dolorosa and the Dome of the Rock are all so close together, so why can’t Jews, Christians and Muslims get closer together in understanding and friendship?”

Ibrahim said that the 28 participants visited the Baha’i Temple in Haifa, the world headquarters of the religion, as well as Bethlehem, the birthplace of King David and Jesus of Nazareth, as well as the burial place of Rachel, wife of Jacob. “All of these experiences taught us that we have to work here for better understanding and peace. As Michael Kinnamon said during the trip, in order to understand someone, you have to understand how they understand. Let us work toward that goal.”

In his remarks, Rev. Kinnamon wished those in attendance both a Happy New Year, “Shana Tova to the Jewish community, and hopes for a meaningful Ramadan to our Muslim friends.” Kinnamon extended “warmest thanks to the JCRC and the Interfaith Partnership for their contributions to interfaith understanding and this amazing trip.

Kinnamon shared that just before the trip, his father had major surgery scheduled which had been postponed. “I shared this in my time of prayer, and friends from each of the faith traditions on the trip, Jews, Christians, Muslims and Baha’i all prayed for his successful surgery and recovery. It was an enormously meaningful moment.”

Another moment on the trip recalled by Kinnamon was just after a visit to Yad Vashem, the Jerusalem Memorial Museum to the Six Million Jewish Victims of the Nazi Holocaust. “It was clear to me and others that the Jewish members of our group obviously felt this experience more deeply, and it was important for all of us to understand why. We need to again say that the Holocaust was a unique tragedy. At the same time, the empathy we felt for our Jewish colleagues is also needed to understand the feelings of the Palestinians as well as the Israelis.”

Kinnamon said the trip reminded him and the other participants, “there is a tendency in interfaith relations to avoid the subject of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the trip taught us that we should not avoid, but make this part of our ongoing dialogue and efforts to achieve understanding and peace.” He also indicated that the trip served as a reminder of the fact that “there are some 12 million Christians in the Middle East, and they are an indigenous community and part of our worldwide religious community.”

Rabbi Shook described his role “as the shepherd of a flock of shepherds.” He humorously pointed out that the serious and scholarly group “took time to read each and every plaque at each and every place we visited. More seriously, Rabbi Shook said, “if interfaith work is to be truly meaningful it must not be confined to a time of crisis. We cannot discount the value of building close relationships. When we planned the trip, many of us knew each other, and during the trip we became closer together.”

Shook said that when the trip was being planned, “we were concerned that there may not be enough Muslim-related things to do or places to visit. But this proved to be an ill-founded fear, since we found interesting things at practically every stop for all participants, including our Muslim participants.” He added that the sight of the security barrier Israel has been building between the Jewish State and the Gaza Strip, “was disheartening, and I was concerned about how to discuss it. We stopped at a Catholic retreat house in Jerusalem and the priest there, Father Michael McCurry said that the security barrier was there because of the violence, and that if you want it to come down, the violence must first be stopped; his explanation made it easier for us to discuss this issue,” Rabbi Shook said.

Rabbi Shook added that people on the street would express amazement that such a large and religiously diverse group was traveling together as friends. “We proved that it can be done, and those we met asked how they could also do it. We appreciate the support of the JCRC, Faith Beyond Walls and the Interfaith Partnership, which made this unique experience possible.”

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