Pastor John Danner and I at the Peace Wall at the border of Gaza comparing our messages of hope that this troubled part of the world may one day know harmony and cooperaton.
Our congregation’s joint trip to Israel with Sanibel Congregational UCC exceeded my fondest expectations!
The only previous interfaith journey to Israel I had undertaken was one that I co-led with an anti-Israel Arab Professor from the Hartford Seminary twenty year ago. It was not a joyful experience.
While I tried to present and model an open-minded, “let’s listen to both sides of the conflict,” perspective, the professor took us to a Palestinian village where his selected panelists heaped venomous attacks on the very existence of the Jewish State as we sat in a beautiful auditorium community center built for that Arab village by the Government of Israel.
When the Professor begged off our visit to the Holocaust Memorial at Yad Va-Shem, claiming he did not feel well (he was absolutely fine that evening), I truly regretted having agreed to co-lead this “journey of understanding.”
By contrast our joint trip this summer was an absolute joy.
There were 42 in our group, almost equally divided between Christians and Jews. My UCC counterpart, Rev. Dr. John Danner was a model of sensitivity, open mindedness, wisdom and pastoral concern.
For me one of the true highlights was accepting the invitation of Rabbi Ada Zavidov to deliver the D’var Torah at Kabbalat Shabbat services at Kehilat Har El in Jerusalem, the oldest Reform synagogue in Israel. On this visit to Har El, I spoke in English for the benefit of my wonderful group of fellow travelers about the vital principles of human conduct found in the Holiness Code, Leviticus, chapter 19. It warmed my heart to know that every idea I expressed was an ideal that Dr. Danner and his congregants could wholeheartedly affirm. Our religious differences are real, but we share common moral values and a fervent desire to use our respective faiths as springboards to help repair our broken world.
It was the second time in 5779 that I had the privilege of preaching at Har El. The first time in October I spoke in Hebrew about the lessons of the stories of Noah and the Tower of Babel. Then I was visiting my son Leo, who at 42 made the decision to begin rabbinical studies and spend his first year of the five-year graduate program at Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem. His address to our group this spring was a genuine highlight of the journey.
Leo has an extensive Jewish background, but he knows well there is no shortcut to becoming a genuinely credentialed rabbi. The day-in, day-out, interactions with Professors and other students are absolutely essential to a rabbi’s legitimacy
A shortcut course and a bit of flair and charisma may help one become an effective leader of worship, but to become a rabbi, worthy of that venerable title, takes years and years of full time concentrated study. Anything less is akin to calling an EMT a physician.
On our recent trip it was just as important to me and my fellow Jews as it was to the Christians in our group to visit the holy places of their religion. Worship at the Church of the Redeemer in Jerusalem on Sunday morning, visits to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth and the opportunity for our Christian friends to re-experience baptism in the Jordan River were moving experiences for us Jews to better understand Christian roots and practices.
Pastor Danner, while scrupulously respecting boundaries, offered loving and Jewishly affirming explanations that enhanced all of our understanding. I’d go with him again, to Israel or any other place of mutual interest.