My first trip to Israel was in 1990 and I have been back twenty or twenty-five times, I’ve lost track. Yet my trip of this past November was as inspirational and spiritually transformative as my first. Two weeks after the Shabbat massacre at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, I was traversing the streets of Jerusalem with the Roman Catholic priest whose church shares a prominent town center corner with my synagogue. We prayed side-by side at the Western Wall, and we walked the Via De La Rosa together stopping at each of the stations. We descended the Mount of Olives studying the intermingled points of holiness for his faith and mine, and we spent hours together at Yad VaShem in memory of 6,000,000 Jewish martyrs and in tribute to the selfless sacrifices of righteous gentiles of past decades.
This trip was different from all of my previous visits because this was the first time that I saw Jerusalem through the eyes of a non-Jew, and it was the first time that this priest had ever spent meaningful time in the Jewish Quarter. We both came home inspired. We both returned with a better understanding of the histories of each other’s religions. It was my first visit to The Church of the Holy Sepulture and it was his first time to The Temple Tunnels under the Old City. How did this trip happen? What moved us to take this trip together?
It all started about five years ago after Father Moran visited a concentration camp site during a summer tour to Europe. He returned home to West Hartford, CT, came to my office, and asked me to teach him Hebrew. He had learned about “Shema Yisrael” and how it is used to proclaim faith, not only by the living but also by those confronting the angel of death. “I want to be able to pray to God in the language of those who died because they were Jewish”, he said to me. Thus began a friendship that grew well beyond the study of Hebrew.
Our Hebrew studies never got beyond ‘alef-bet’, but our commitment to study together multiple times a month brought our two communities closer together. We have taught at each other’s congregations and our memberships have studied together. Volunteers from Beth David Synagogue and Saint Thomas The Apostle Catholic Church share in the tending to a spring and summer garden that grows vegetables for urban food pantries, soup kitchens and homeless shelters. The Father and I have stood together at community rallies, and we stand for the values that are the foundations of Abrahamic fellowship. Therefore, it was only natural that on the Shabbat immediately following the Pittsburgh massacre that he attended Shabbat services at my synagogue; and on the following Sunday, I delivered the homilies at two Sunday masses in the sanctuary of his church.
Recent months and shootings at synagogues, churches and mosques have taught us that sacred spaces are no longer safe places. Did I ever think that I or my children would ever live to see synagogues in America needing security on a daily basis? My parents of blessed memory survived the Holocaust and I am the rabbi of a suburban American synagogue that, like a growing number of congregations, now hires security personnel to protect the worshippers who come to pray and to celebrate life. Chanting “never again” has not stopped hate. Community rallies have failed to guarantee peace. Maybe a universal solution will continue to be elusive, but this I believe with a faith of confidence. “Ani maamin b’emunah shelaymah” that people of common values can make positive differences when they choose to build bridges. Hate thrives behind the barriers that stifle dialogue. Misunderstandings gain credibility when barriers prevent the sincere pursuit of knowledge and truth.
If we want to wake up to different headlines, we need to do more than we have done until now. It is not enough to talk with each other, we need to walk with each other.