I recently had the privilege to be a participant in the Jewish Community Relations Council’s South Jersey Faith Leaders Mission to Israel. Twenty four of us traveled to Israel Jan. 9-16. Marcia Baruch, president, and David Snyder, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Southern New Jersey, said, “The overarching purpose of this mission is to bring together faith leaders from across the religious spectrum in order to build strong relationships among the clergy so that collectively we can return to our South Jersey churches, mosques and synagogues and continue to explore ways to bring people of faith closer together over the years ahead.”
We were led by an expert tour guide, Shimon Eyal, who led President Donald Trump’s visit to the Holy Land this past May. The group included 16 Christians of various denominations, three Muslim leaders, two rabbis and a Hindu couple. Each day we toured from early in the morning till early evening, visiting a variety of sites during the week-long mission. We visited such sites as Nazareth — Jesus’ boyhood home, Yardenit — the baptism site located along the Jordan River, a boat ride on the Sea of Galilee, Migdal — the home of Mary Magdalene, the Mount of Beatitudes, Tabgha — the site of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes, Capernaum, Cana, the Mount of Olives, Church of the Holy Sepulcher — where most Christians believe Jesus died upon the cross on Calvary and the tomb from which he rose from the dead (both enclosed within the church), and the Garden Tomb where some Protestants believe Jesus died and rose from the dead, Bethlehem — the site of Jesus birth. All these sites were important to the Christian participants.
The mission also brought us to the site that the Jews revere as the Temple Mount, where once the Temple of Jerusalem stood before its destruction by the Romans in 70 AD and the same site that Muslims revere as the Haram esh-Sharif or Noble Sanctuary where Muslims built two mosques — the al-Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock Mosque. It is the third holiest site in Islam. It is the site where Muslims believe that their Prophet Muhammad took his night journey to Jerusalem and his ascent into heaven. The Dome of the Rock was completed in 692 AD which makes it the oldest extant Islamic structure in the world. This area is a highly contested area between Jews and Muslims since the Dome of the Rock sits upon the site which once was the Temple of Jerusalem close to where the Holy of Holies once stood housing the Arc of the Covenant. One could say it is the most contested religious site in the world.
We also visited sites important to the Jewish community. We visited Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, a Holocaust memorial and museum. It is Israel’s official memorial to the victims of the Nazi holocaust. It is dedicated to preserving the memory of the 6 million Jews killed in the Shoah, the Jews who fought against their Nazi oppressors and the Gentiles who aided Jews in their need. It is also a place where genocide in general is studied with the aim of avoiding such human sufferings in the future. We also visited Qumran, the site where the Essenes, a religious Jewish sect, once lived in community, where they authored the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Dead Sea Scrolls were written on parchment and some on papyrus and were discovered in 1947. We also visited where the Dead Sea Scrolls are now housed in the Shrine of the Book at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.
Another Jewish site we visited held sacred to Jews throughout the world was the Western Wall, also known as the Kotel or Wailing Wall. It is an ancient limestone wall in the Old City of Jerusalem built by Herod the Great. It is held holy by Jews because of its close proximity to the Temple embellished by Herod which once stood on the Temple Mount right behind it. We also visited the Dead Sea and the Herodian desert fortress known as Masada, where a group of Jewish Zealots took their last stand against the Roman Empire 73 to 74 AD. It ended with the mass suicide of over 900 Jews rather than surrender to the Roman legions surrounding them. We also visited the Machane Yehuda Market, the old City of David, and the Independence Hall and the Rabin Museum in Tel Aviv.
The mission was a wonderful experience of interfaith and ecumenical bonding and learning. It was most edifying to visit these sacred sites to all our religious persuasions with common respect, learning and prayer.
Father Joseph D. Wallace is director, Ecumenical and Inter-religious Affairs, Diocese of Camden.