by Jonathan Freund, Director of Educational and Interreligous Program, Board of Rabbis of Southern California
It is always astonishing to experience Israel. Even more so when you experience it through the eyes of others, especially others who are visiting the country for the first time. Today, thirteen clergy members, scholars and professionals began the Los Angeles Interfaith Leadership Mission, sponsored by the Interreligious Action Center of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and the Board of Rabbis of Southern California.
As we introduced ourselves at our first meal together, it stuck me that the multicultural, mutli-religious makeup of our group echoes the nature of Israeli society: Conservative Jews who belong to Reform synagogues, former atheists who have become Reform Jews, Christians who have become Orthodox Jews, Orthodox Jews who are transdenominational, Baptists who are now Presbyterians, Presbyterians who teach Judaic civilization, other Christians, Muslim, Sephardic, Persian – we’ve pretty much got it covered.
That mini-demographic reflect the purpose of the trip, and the Interreligious Actions Center: to encourage balance, nuance, and a recognition of the complexity of history and identity, in discussions and responses to Israel and Palestine, both together and separately.
It was fitting then that we began our nine-day journey on the Mount of Olives, where there have been Jewish graves since the time of the First Temple, some 2700 years ago. (That arguably makes the burial business in Jerusalem the longest sustained Jewish enterprise in history.) We gathered there in the late afternoon sun, gazing out over landscape that is holy to Jews, Christians and Muslims, picking out notable mosques, churches and synagogues in the vista of the Old City. Nearby, cab drivers were taking a break by blasting music from their cars. On the way down, we drove through Arab East Jerusalem, a bustling neighborhood of normalcy yet also with its own distinct character, not unlike the normalcy of our neighborhoods back home.
Each of us in this delegation has his or her own reasons for being here, on this particular mission. In the days ahead, in Jerusalem, the Galilee and Tel Aviv, we look forward to sharing some of those unique perspectives. Already today I have achieved one personal goal: to be reminded of the many Israels there are, Israels which more often than not live and work together, just as antiquity and modernity do here, and to experience them in all their compelling contradictions and wonder.