My first time in Israel, at the age of 12, left me hungry for more. Forty years and dozens of journeys later, I continue to pine for the next time. I’ve learned that each journey adds a layer — if not multiple layers — to my already rich and complex narrative. Along the way, I’ve learned, too, that my narrative, simultaneously intimate and intertwined with the larger narrative of my people, isn’t the only one out there. Other renderings, some aligned with mine, others in sharp conflict with mine, also occupy the stage.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the swirl of narratives related to Israel since returning a few weeks ago from an intense and powerful eight-day journey in the company of 14 local Christian religious leaders. We traveled together under the auspices of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, whose intrepid director, Adam Kessler, brilliantly and skillfully crafted an itinerary that offered us a full symphony of voices and viewpoints.
We ventured from the Golan in the North to Tekoa and the Dead Sea in the South, taking in sites of historical, theological and contemporary significance. We met, talked with and learned from Israelis and Palestinians of many different backgrounds and inclinations. Most importantly, we connected with one another, processing our shared experience through the prisms of our own personal Israel narratives.
So many of our encounters vividly stand out. On our second day, we visited the ruins of ancient Caesarea, the great Herodian port city built to honor Augustus Caesar, where we pondered the mix of cultures living side by side along the Mediterranean as far back as the Roman era. By the fourth century CE, long after the deaths of Herod and Augustus, Caesarea was home to large communities of Christians and Jews whose religious leaders — the early Church fathers and the rabbis of Eretz Yisrael — engaged one another in robust and apparently civil dialogue and debate.
Later, we found ourselves in Nazareth, Jesus’ hometown and today a largely Muslim city. Nazareth’s Church of the Annunciation shares a downtown plaza with the town’s main mosque, a powerful reminder that the land of Israel continues to be a place where different cultures and religious traditions rub up against one another, sometimes comfortably and at times with palpable unease.
As we made our way to the church, we passed large banners communicating the Muslims’ unhappiness with the Christian opposition to its plans to expand the mosque. Co-existence among religious groups, we learned, is often hard to come by. Inside the church’s courtyard, we paused for a few minutes of prayerful reflection — a daily ritual during our time together in Israel — taking the opportunity to reflect on Nazareth’s religious heritage then and now.
The theme of cultures living side by side permeated the rest of that second day and the remainder of our trip. A conversation with Mohammed Darawshe, a longtime coexistence activist, inspired us that afternoon as we heard about progress in providing educational and workplace opportunity for Israel’s Arab citizens.
We later took in a performance by the Galilee Circus, which brings together Jewish and Arab students. Circus performance, we learned, involves trust and cooperation without words, enabling students to connect without having to discuss that which divides them.
Day by day our group added layers of complexity to our shared Israel experience, enriching our own personal narratives, challenging ourselves and one another to look at the realities of life in Israel through new and different eyes. For me, our journey managed to be exhilarating, inspiring, challenging and uplifting all at once.
My Christian colleagues, all of them thoughtful, curious and open-hearted, returned, I believe, with a deep appreciation for Israel’s beauty, for the warmth and passion of its people, for its remarkable accomplishments and for the enduring challenges that Israel faces.
All of us, I suspect, now have many more questions than answers. And all of us, I hope, feel heartened to have new and real friends with whom we can work to build community here in Philadelphia, friends with whom we can continue to partner in seeking peace and security and blessing for all of Israel’s people, friends with whom we can share our personal and communal Israel narratives with joy.
Rabbi David Ackerman is the religious leader at Beth Am Israel in Penn Valley.