Christian Leadership Initiative Teaches Scholars and Religion Leaders about Judaism and Israel

The program is an intensive, immersive educational experience that teaches its Christian participants — there are 23 in this latest cohort — about Judaism and Israel.

For the eighth straight year, the global advocacy organization American Jewish Committee (AJC) has partnered with the Shalom Hartman Institute, an Israeli center of research and education, to convene the Christian Leadership Initiative (CLI).
The program is an intensive, immersive educational experience that teaches its Christian participants — there are 23 in this latest cohort — about Judaism and Israel.
The co-leader of CLI, AJC’s director of interreligious and intergroup relations, Rabbi Noam Marans, describes CLI as “revolutionary.”
“Christian scholars and religious leaders enter the world of Judaism and Israel through Jewish eyes,” Marans said. “They study text the way Jews study texts and thereby best understand Jews the ways Jews understand themselves.”
There are monthly distance-learning sessions, as well as two summer seminars in Israel. This is by design.
“The Jewish experience today is inseparable from Zionism and the state of Israel,” Marans said, “and by studying in Israel, there’s an added element of comprehension of modern Jewish experience.”
This year, the program started in Jerusalem in July with a 10-day seminar titled “Encountering Judaism: Faith, People, Land.” Rev. Dr. Charles L. Howard, chaplain at the University of Pennsylvania, was one of the seminar’s attendees, part of a diverse group “representing numerous denominations and positions … from academic to congregational to journalistic to public thinkers,” Marans said.
“It was wonderful to be a student again,” Howard said. “The trip really was a deep dive into Jewish literature — scripture, other rabbinical literature, contemporary works as well, including poetry and political documents. So rich. I learned a ton.”
Howard had been to Israel before — including a trip with the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia — but his last trip, he said, was more oriented toward Christian tourism.
 “This visit was meant to be an opportunity to engage Jewish literature and culture and Israel from a Jewish perspective as much as could be possible for a non-Jew,” he said. “We got a chance to see Jerusalem from a non-tourist perspective. Meaning we didn’t as a group tour the famous sites, but rather just neighborhoods. Perhaps most meaningful was simply spending time with families on Shabbat, sitting and talking with mothers, fathers and children who have, in many ways, the same dreams and hopes that I and my family do.”
This combination of textual learning and meaningful cultural exposure is exactly what CLI supporters appreciate about the program. One of CLI’s major donors is Richard L. Berkman, a retired partner at Dechert LLP. He initially funded CLI, he said, partly because of his respect for AJC’s leadership in Christian-Jewish affairs.
“I wanted to perpetuate their seminal role,” he said. But also, “I wanted to reach the next generation of Christian elite thinkers and scholars and people who influence ideas so that they better understood how Jews think and what Israel’s all about.”
Berkman is pleased with the feedback he gets from CLI’s 80-plus alumni (who remain connected to AJC well after the 13-month course of study ends).
“One of them said, ‘I better understand how you Jews think — you ask an unending series of unanswerable questions,’ which was a very good insight,” Berkman recalled. “One of them said, ‘I better understand that being Jewish is more than just a religion.’ Many of them have said they understand how Israel is a home to Jews and therefore a safe haven and a place where they have a right to be. I think they really do get it.”
Howard’s experience contained that same diversity of exposure and interconnection.
“Regarding the text, there was so much that was new — even in regards to scriptures that I’ve engaged with my entire life,” he said. “I’ve studied many of the portions that we held for years, but to revisit them from a different paradigm was tremendously powerful.”
But even more significant on a cultural level, Howard said, was his realization of the way that people in the U.S. and in Israel are all linked — an epiphany sparked at one of the Shabbat dinners the cohort attended.
“My daughter Annalise is a big soccer player, and with her being the shortest player on her team, one could guess that Lionel Messi of Argentina is her favorite player,” he said.
 It turned out that the daughter of one of the Shabbat hosts was also into soccer, and her favorite player was Messi as well. A few days later, when Howard was visiting a friend in East Jerusalem, he saw a little boy wearing … a Messi jersey. The connections inspired him to write a poem.
“There are many more commonalities between us than differences,” he said, “and this, I think, gives me hope.”
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