A delegation of Christian clergy from the Greater Boston area representing diverse denominations returned earlier this month from a trip to Israel sponsored and subsidized by the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston (JCRC). The trip – the JCRC’s fourth of its kind in the last 15 years – is part of its Israel Study Tour Series and offers an opportunity for clergy to explore sites of historical and religious significance while gaining new perspectives on the complexities facing Israel.
“The goal is to engage people directly with Israel and her people,” said JCRC Associate Director Nahma Nadich, who staffed the trip. “It is very easy to have an oversimplified, black and white view of all the issues facing the region. This gives people a chance to engage directly, to experience nuances and complexities, and to be exposed to a multiplicity of perspectives.”
In addition to touring Jewish and Christian sites, the 15 participants had the opportunity to interact with a diverse range of Israelis and Palestinians, including Holocaust scholars, young IDF soldiers, Israeli and Palestinian parents who had lost children to violence, guides from both Palestine and Israel, and Israeli settlers. They also heard about the impact of BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) on Israel. A Palestinian guide and Israeli leftist journalist both agreed that BDS did nothing to promote positive change and that Palestinian workers ended up paying the price for the ill-conceived campaign since, when factories on the West Bank close, Palestinians lose their livelihoods, which often puts families with children at risk.
“The JCRC takes these trips very seriously, plans them very thoughtfully and provides an abundance of opportunities to learn,” said Reverend Dan Smith of the First Church in Cambridge, co-chair of the 2015 Christian Clergy Study Tour of Israel, who had been on the JCRC’s 2012 trip. “There is so much to learn. I really wanted to go back so I could absorb it more… For me, one of the takeaways was a deeper sense of compassion for what everyone we encountered on both sides of the conflict have to deal with, from both the Israeli and Palestinian perspective.”
The group of clergy itself was itself diverse. “We try to assemble groups who would not be together – white main line Protestant and urban black clergy who are different in many ways: theologically, ethnically and socioeconomically,” explained Nadich, adding that the only Jewish participant was Rabbi Carl Perkins of Temple Aliyah of Needham, one of the trip’s co-chairs. “Their background and knowledge of Israel is very different. Some had been to Israel with their denominations, for others it was their first time. We wanted them to understand Israel in a very different way.”
An unexpected experience caused the group to experience firsthand the pain and the strength that exists in Israel. Immediately after touring the Church of Fish and Loaves in the Galilee where they saw evidence of arson that occurred six weeks earlier, the group went on to Jerusalem, where the Gay Pride event was taking place. Several in the group were witness to the stabbing of six people by a Jewish extremist that day. One of the teens stabbed later died.
“The group was terribly upset and traumatized,” said Nadich. “These are people of deep faith, and they understood that we are called to pursue peace. This was a terrible distortion of religion. We were all heartened by the reaction across Israel to stand in solidarity. We saw signs all over stores – “Jerusalem Says No to Violence” – and heard the remarks of the president. It was affirming, and ultimately illustrates the diverse perspective that we expose participants to.”
Reverend Smith reflected on the experience: “On one hand, it exposed us to something deeper and more raw in terms of a reality of violence. But it also gave us a perspective on the resilience, and the compassionate and passionate response decrying violence from across the spectrum of Israeli political leadership. There were demonstrations and a clear outpouring of outrage, and that was amazing to witness.”
This year’s participants bonded over their Israel experience, and have already set a date to meet in Boston. “The trip was so intensely full of learning that we feel it is necessary to reconvene the group for further and ongoing reflection,” said Rev. Smith, who also remains in contact with participants from past trips. “There is a growing cohort of strong Christian leaders in Greater Boston who have experienced Israel and have a deeper level of understanding and appreciation of the complexities that exist in the region.”
According to Nadich, the clergy trips to Israel have been successful in outreach and in making a difference. Two pastors from the 2012 trip planned the same trip for their congregations; after several years of saving and fundraising, those congregations visited Israel this month. Others, she said, have furthered their studies at the Shalom Hartmann Institute. “Clergy also return and preach in sermons and speak up within their denominations when there are moves to boycott Israel,” said Nadich. “Last summer during the Gaza crisis, some participated in briefings and spoke in public gatherings in support of Israel.”
Rev. Smith hopes to share his increased understanding. “People in my congregation and people in the States in general can jump to answers too quickly. What this experience did for me was to add a much needed perspective of people who live there,” said Rev. Smith, adding that he appreciates Israel’s sense of engagement. “There are plenty of people who think deeply about this conflict, and are working for solutions. That gives me some hope.”