People all over the world are questioning their relationship with organized religion. Yet, more than 200 million people go on a pilgrimage each year, according to Bruce Feiler, best-selling author of “Walking the Bible” and “Abraham,” and an authority on the role of religion in contemporary life. “These pilgrims set out from the ordinary and seek the extraordinary,” he said.
Feiler examines this phenomenon in his new series, “Sacred Journeys,” premiering at 8 p.m. Tuesday, December 16, on WGBH-TV (Channel 2) and PBS stations throughout the country. On three consecutive Tuesday nights, the program will explore six pilgrimage destinations — Lourdes, France; Shikoku, Japan; Jerusalem, Israel; Mecca, Saudi Arabia; Allahabad, India; and Osogbo, Nigeria — through the eyes of diverse Americans on their individual spiritual quests.
“The pilgrims are seeking to transform their lives in places meaningful to their faiths,” said Feiler. “People go on these pilgrimages when they’re in transition moments.” For example, during the Jerusalem segment, airing December 23, the pilgrims include a Jewish woman deciding whether to make aliyah, a Christian couple thinking about starting a family, and an Asian-American man whose Buddhist father has recently died.
“Jerusalem is a place where religion lives in the air and infuses the stones,” said Feiler. “A visit to Jerusalem is an invitation to find out who you are and especially what you believe.”
Ahava Zarembski, a 37-year-old fashion designer from Philadelphia, is the Jewish woman featured in the Jerusalem segment. She came to Israel at the age of 22 to do policy research and Torah study. Twelve years later, she returned to the U.S., where she was “in total shock. The synagogue in America is an institution where you go to be Jewish. I felt more spiritually connected in yoga than in shul.” She returned to Israel last Rosh Hashanah. When she was filmed during Sukkot, she was debating whether or not to stay.
“All we have as human beings is this instinct of what we feel is right. So I went with that,” she said. “Now I’m a full-on fashion designer in Israel. I live in Jerusalem and have a studio in Tel Aviv, and I still manufacture in Philadelphia. For me, creating art and clothing and going into the ocean are spiritual things as well. I think I could have pieced together something in the U.S., but for me everything is integrated here in Israel. Spirituality is reintegrated into my life.”
Creating “Sacred Journeys” was a five-year process for Feiler. When he was approached by WGBH to make a series about pilgrimage, he replied, “Not exactly. I didn’t want to make a television series about strange people going on strange journeys, which would seem like a bunch of Wikipedia entries.”
“Everybody I know is on a spiritual journey. Everybody is questioning, searching, seeking,” he said. “I wanted a series that shows wherever you are on your personal journey, you can find meaning.”
It took a year to plan “Sacred Journeys,” a second year to raise money for the project, a third year to find and select the pilgrims, a fourth year to shoot the film and the final year to edit and bring it to television. Feiler described the project as “hugely complex, involving large crews, multiple languages and many illnesses.” He is proud of the fact that he is the only person to complete six pilgrimages in one year.
What connects all of Feiler’s work is traveling. He just turned 50 last month, and he finds traveling and experiencing the world come natural to him. He and his wife, Linda Rottenberg, live in Brooklyn with their nine-year-old twin daughters, and they travel often to Massachusetts to visit family in Newton and on the Cape. They plan to bring the girls to Israel for the first time in 2016, noting that traveling to Israel is an integral part of the contemporary Jewish experience. “Going to the land of Israel is the way American Jews experience their own faith journey,” he said.
After following the journeys of so many pilgrims, Feiler concluded, “A pilgrimage doesn’t always provide answers, but it often provides clarity. Many pilgrims reach a place where a faith that may have been abstract or assumed becomes grounded to history and a landscape. For me, to be a pilgrim is to push through that layer of now, to re-enter the past and maybe, for the first time ever, make contact with who you are.”
“The Sacred Journeys” series premieres on PBS starting December 16. Visit pbs.org.