By Beth Katz, Director of Project Interfaith
My first and recent trip to Israel this July differed from that of most American Jews. I did not go as part of Birthright, or to study for a semester, or with a mission organized by the Jewish Federation. I accompanied a group of 26 Catholic school educators from across the United States. This group was traveling to Israel, most for the first time, with a rabbi and a Catholic priest on a program called Bearing Witness Advanced Summer Institute for Catholic School Educators.
The program, organized by the national Anti-Defamation League (ADL) in partnership with the Archdiocese of Washington, DC, selects Catholic school educators who have taken part in the three-day Bearing Witness Conferences administered by regional ADL offices on a ten-day trip to Baltimore, Maryland (for three days of study) and then onto Israel (for six days of touring). This program is designed to build on participants’ knowledge of historical and contemporary anti-Semitism, the history of the Holocaust, the history and evolution of Jewish-Christian relations, and the meaning of Israel to the Jewish People. Donna Walter and Carol Sheridan, two Catholic school educators from Omaha who both were a part of this region’s Bearing Witness Conference in 2005, were chosen and participated in this year’s program. I was allowed to join this group because of my relationship with the ADL Plains States office, my familiarity with the Bearing Witness program, and my desire to explore the possibility of putting together an interfaith trip to Israel for Omaha residents.
Traveling through Israel with a group of Catholic school educators epitomized for me the joys and trials of working on interfaith relations. I delighted in touring many sites that are holy to Christians such as the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth; the Mt. of Beatitudes and Capernaum on the Sea of Galilee; and walking the Stations of the Cross in Jerusalem. Visiting these sites gave me a deeper understanding of the sacred connection that Christians have to places in Israel. Though this connection is in many ways very different from the connections that Jews have to Israel, it is nonetheless sacred and must be respected. Likewise, I believe that many of the educators gained a more profound appreciation for the connections Jews have to this land after visiting the Western Wall, Yad Vashem, Massade, and Safed.
Israel proved to be for many of the educators the first time that they had experienced being a religious “minority.” Hopefully, the experience of being in the minority (though a positive one) will help sensitize them to the challenges that we Jews and other minority groups face here in the United States. At the same time that the educators were grappling with being in the minority, I was fascinated by the fact that, for the first time in my life, I was in a country where Jews were in the majority and I tried to understand the privileges, opportunities, and challenges that such a situation brings.
I am extremely grateful for the rare opportunity of being able to experience Israel with a group of Christians committed to improving relations between our communities. It was a privilege to witness the deeply spiritual connections that they have to Israel and to be a participant in the on-going effort for our communities to understand and respect each other.