The Rev. Jay Newlin, pastor of the Jenkintown United Methodist Church, knew he was in store for some surprises when he signed up for the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia's Interfaith Mission to Israel. But he wasn't quite prepared for a circus performance, complete with trapeze artists, tumblers and jugglers.
But that's just what his group got when they met with members of the Galilee Circus, a performance troupe comprised of Jewish and Arab youth from the western Galilee.
Seeing the children's disregard for distinctions of religion and culture led the clergy member to become a little more hopeful about the ultimate prospects for peace in the region. And he said that the joint efforts of these young people added to his growing sense that the dynamics of the country are far more complex than he'd realized.
"I went as someone who really didn't understand the situation in Israel," said Newlin, who had been to Israel twice before on short trips and had been a critic of Israel's decision to build the separation barrier in the wake of the second Palestinian uprising.
"I understand more fully the Israeli sense of security or insecurity. I understand why the wall was built," said Newlin, who oversees interfaith affairs for the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference of the United Methodist Church.
He still has issues with the placement of portions of the barrier and with the degree of separation between Jews and Arabs within Israel. Then there's the whole issue of settlements in the West Bank: He was once openly hostile to the movement but now, he said, his attitude is more one of ambivalence.
"It's not as easy to simply say, 'Israel must withdraw to such and such line,' " he said.
According to Adam Kessler, the director of the Jewish Community Relations Council who organized the trip, the goal wasn't to turn participants into unflinching supporters of the Israeli government, but to expose them to multiple points of view and enable them to have thoughtful discussions about the region.
"We are saying to people, 'We want you to understand that Israel is not a two-dimensional country,' " said Kessler.
The trip was geared for clergy members of Main Line Protestant denominations. Broadly speaking, the liberal-leaning Main Line Protestant groups, particularly elements within the Presbyterian Church USA, have tended to more sympathetic to the Palestinians than the Israelis. By contrast, the more Conservative Evangelical Protestant denominations have tended to be far more pro-Israel in orientation.
Newlin was joined on the nine-day trip by 10 other local Christian clergy members representing the Episcopal, Lutheran, Methodist and Presbyterian denominations. They were escorted by Kessler; Rabbi David Straus, JCRC president and religious leader of Main Line Reform Temple; and Rabbi Howard Alpert, executive director of Hillel of Greater Philadelphia.
Federation paid for roughly two-thirds of the costs. The mission came a month after Federation took a group of seven state lawmakers on a trip to the Jewish state.
The clergy group toured archaeological sites and met with Israeli government officials, Jewish settlers on the West Bank, Israeli and Palestinian peace activists, as well as Israeli Arab groups. According to several participants, some of the most moving moments were unplanned, such an impromptu recitation of several psalms at the Western Wall.
Alpert asserted that the Jewish community had found its ideal target audience in this particular delegation -- thoughtful clergy members who were neither openly hostile to Israel nor openly pro-Israel.
"The goal is not that they come out as advocates for Israel right or wrong, but that they are able to understand and sympathize with Israeli society and the challenges it faces," said Alpert.
The Rev. Paul Sorcek, pastor of the Advent Evangelical Lutheran Church in Richboro, said he was struck by a visit to an Israeli Arab high school where many of the students said that even if a Palestinian state were established, they would choose to remain in Israel. The antipathy toward the Jewish state was far less than he expected.
Sorcek also said that hearing Israeli officials talk about the Iranian nuclear threat made him "realize the importance of a Jewish state and why there is a Jewish homeland. You can understand why they feel threatened by the administration in Iran and what it is saying."
The Rev. Lucille Rupe, interim executive Presbyter of the Presbytery of Philadelphia -- a geographic area similar to a Catholic diocese but affiliated with the Presbyterian Church USA -- visited Israel 20 years ago. She said she participated in this trip in order to understand the Jewish community better and play a larger role in interfaith efforts.
Several times over the last decade, the Presbyterian Church USA has flirted with divesting from certain companies that do business with Israel. This summer, the body is expected to debate a motion urging divestment from Caterpillar, Motorola Solutions and Hewlett Packard until they have "ceased profiting from non-peaceful activities."
Rupe, who recently signed a JCRC statement opposing the recent boycott, divestment and sanctions conference at Penn, said she doesn't plan to take a stand on her movement's internal debate. She sees herself more as a convener between Jewish and Presbyterian leaders, rather than as an advocate for a particular position.
"My role is to be a networker for dialogue to take place," said Rupe. "I am not a naive person. I know these are very emotional topics."