Traveling to Israel with Jewish colleagues earlier this month had a transforming effect on the Rev. Susan Sica, vicar of Saint Gregory’s Episcopal Church in Parsippany.
“It would have been easy to go to Israel and have a sanitized experience that only touched on Christian sites — where Jesus walked, and that sort of thing. But then we would never have really looked at what Israel is today,” she told NJJN in a phone conversation a few days after returning.
So instead of going to Israel with her own Episcopal denomination, which is running a trip in about a month, Sica instead accepted an invitation from her colleague Rabbi Ron Kaplan of Temple Beth Am in Parsippany to join a first-ever interfaith trip to Israel for clergy sponsored by the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the umbrella group for Reform rabbis.
Kaplan has been to Israel many times, but never in an interfaith setting. He was eager to go with a local colleague, especially now. “Israel is becoming increasingly isolated, and Israel needs shlihim [emissaries] in the Christian community,” he said, speaking to NJJN from his home in Warren.
Given Sica’s aim in joining the trip — which was in Israel Jan. 11- 17 — she gained exactly what he had hoped she would: an understanding of the country’s security issues and the price people sometimes have to pay for peace. For example, Sica said, she now has a much greater appreciation for why securing captive soldier Gilad Shalit’s freedom was so important to Kaplan and his congregation.
But, she said, she also gained a greater insight into her own religion.
“To me, one of the most valuable pieces of this trip was to see how people of faith manage constantly to be true to their faith in the midst of all this tension,” she said. “It gave me a whole different insight into the Christian story — because everyday life there is both religious and political, in everything you do. And as I understand the time that Jesus lived in, it was the same — but I never knew what that might feel like, or what people were wrestling with, or just being in a constant state of tension” until the trip.
The two were the only participants from New Jersey among a group of 17 — 10 rabbis, the rest Christian clergy — from across North America. The itinerary included stops at Jewish and Christian holy sites throughout Israel.
Rabbi Deborah Prinz, director of programming and member services at CCAR, helped organize the trip, whose goals, she said, were to help rabbis deepen their interfaith work, enable the clergy to get to know each other better, and explore the possibility of bringing their respective congregations to Israel together. Kaplan and Sica said their congregations have expressed interest in sponsoring such a joint journey.
‘Identity and survival’
At the Christian sites, Kaplan said, the Jewish travelers could feel their Christian colleagues’ “passion and commitment, and understand how meaningful it was for them. To see that brought me closer to them, and led me to gain an appreciation for how strong their faith is.”
When they visited Bethlehem, which is under the control of the Palestinian Authority, they had to change bus drivers along the route. Kaplan was “appalled” that “the Palestinian guide would not say ‘Israel.’ He would say only ‘the Holy Land.’ You’d think taking a group of North American clergy around he’d want to give some sense of hope.
“But without recognizing Israel, there is no hope.”
The group’s ability to discuss these kinds of tensions sensitized the Christian clergy about what is at stake in Israel for the Jews, said Kaplan.
“It’s not just about power and land but Jewish identity and survival,” he explained.
Sica described standing on the top of the Mount of Olives, looking over Jerusalem. What to Jews is a sacred Jewish cemetery is to Christians the first Station of the Cross, marking the route of Jesus on the way to his crucifixion.
“The [Muslim] call to prayer echoed across the valley,” Sica said. “Standing at that moment, from the perspective of my tradition, with colleagues of a different tradition, about to enter the homeland that is for all traditions — it was beautiful but it also felt dangerous. I had an appreciation that people were trying to make it work, but that it was hard.
“And I was wondering what my Jewish colleagues were thinking as they looked over the Jewish cemetery from a Christian site into the city and hearing the call from someone else’s religion.
“It was a lot to process on a day-to-day basis,” she said. In Israel, she pointed out, “faith is not an intellectual exercise.”