2018-01-31 / Local News

JCRC trip to Israel builds strong relationships among interfaith leaders

By JAYNE JACOVA FELD Voice staff


Interfaith trip participants visiting the Garden Tomb in Jerusalem included (from left), Amir and Farhat Biviji, Patricia Slater, Rabbi Andy Green and Zahida Rahman. Interfaith trip participants visiting the Garden Tomb in Jerusalem included (from left), Amir and Farhat Biviji, Patricia Slater, Rabbi Andy Green and Zahida Rahman. Ever since she read “Exodus” as a teenager in her native India, Farhat Biviji has wanted to visit Israel. A Muslim leader highly involved in local interfaith initiatives, she has even had visions of the type of trip she wanted to take.

“I did not want to go just my husband or me, or with a Muslim-only group,” said Biviji, a Cherry Hill resident. “I wanted to go to this land that is holy to Jews, Muslims and Christians with an interfaith group and really see it through the eyes of Jews and Christians—and to let them see it through the eyes of a Muslim.”

For Biviji and 23 other South Jersey faith leaders, the Jewish Community Relations Council’s recent Mission to Israel was that to a tee. For six days the group—consisting of Christians, Muslims, Jews and Hindus— explored modern and ancient Israel, visiting sites considered sacred in the different faith traditions. It was the first time in more than 20 years that the JCRC has organized such a trip, noted trip participant and JCRC Executive Director David Snyder.


Rabbi Nathan Weiner of Cong. Beth Tikvah (left) and JCRC Executive Director David Snyder on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Rabbi Nathan Weiner of Cong. Beth Tikvah (left) and JCRC Executive Director David Snyder on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. And as Snyder had hoped, the trip was highly successful, fulfilling the mission of building strong relationships among the clergy while providing each a better understanding of Israel’s significance in the origin stories of all the Abrahamic religions, its revival as a Jewish homeland, and the geo-political complexities facing the Middle East’s only democracy.

“It exceeded every hope and desire we had for the group,” said Snyder, who led the January 9-16 mission. “The group bonded immediately and, throughout the entire trip, everyone built a relationship with each and every person. The dynamic of this being a multi-faith, inner-faith trip is what made it so fascinating.”

With the exception of Snyder, Rabbi Andy Green from Cong. Beth El, and Cong. Beth Tikvah’s Rabbi Nathan Weiner, the vast majority of participants were first-time visitors to the Holy Land. But even for the rabbis, who have both spent extensive time in Israel, the trip took them into previously uncharted territories.

For Weiner, a highlight was going to the Temple Mount, considered a holy space for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike that is under Israeli sovereignty but administered by the Muslim Waqf (religious trust). Jewish prayer is forbidden there and violence has flared at the site on numerous occasions at times of tension.

“I never had the chutzpah to go there before,” said Weiner. “Given the nature of the group, it felt safe to be there and really important. I felt like we were up there to have meaningful conversations about what this space is and how it is held in mutual regard.”

Reverend Emily Mellot was moved many times over visiting sites along the Jordan River in the Sea of Galilee associated with the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

“Being in that space, seeing the landscape and getting a sense of what it might have looked like in the time of Jesus, was a wonderful gift,” said Mellot, pastor of Trinity Church in Moorestown. “Now I will be able to truly see it in my mind’s eye.”

Visiting sites sacred in the other faith traditions was equally fulfilling, especially experiencing the Western Wall during Shabbat.

“There was so much prayer, for so many different reasons, and in different ways that have happened in that place,” she noted. “The stones radiated for me that sense of connection with God.”

In addition, she said she got a much better sense of contemporary Israel and was particularly impressed to observe so many groups of young adults on Birthright trips during their journey.

“It was really exciting to see the modern state and to consider the power of creating a homeland and creating a new way of being home together,” she said. “In many ways, I just want to go back to Tel Aviv since so much of our tour focused on old Israel and all the stories that go back 2,000 to 4000 years in that space. To see what’s new and what’s growing in that holy geography was very moving for me.”

For Biviji, one of many powerful experiences was when she and her husband Amir returned separately to the Dome of the Rock to pray inside the Al-Aqsa Mosque (the Dome of the Rock).

“To be able to go and pray there, and to know this is the spot, according to our beliefs, where the prophet Mohammad ascended to the seven heavens and conversed with his creator, that was amazing,” she said.

The trip to Yad Vashem was also incredibly poignant.

“All throughout the passage in Yad Vashem, nobody said a word,” she said. “You could see in everybody’s faces that they got it. It was the most moving experience.”

For Rabbi Green, a highlight was a visit to an excavation site in Magdala, a port town in the lower Galilee believed to be the birthplace of Mary Magdalene. Just weeks earlier, while co-leading a joint Beth El/Temple Beth Sholom Confirmation trip, he and the group had prayed on a cliff almost directly above the spot on Mount Arbel. Until this trip, he had no idea that the area also held significance to Christians.

“This is somewhere we go as a Confirmation class,” he said. “We put on tallis and tefillin, feel the rush of the wind, sing and prayer together, and feel the majestic natural beauty. I had no idea that, right in front of my nose, were all these sites sacred to Christians.”

Both Weiner and Green noted it was both a responsibility and blessing to share their passion for Israel and knowledge with the group.

“Both of us held the weight of Judaism on their shoulders for these Christians, Muslims and Hindus,” Weiner noted. “It’s so important that faith community leaders understand what it is like on the ground and to have connections to Israel since so much of their source text is rooted in this land.”

The leaders vowed that such connections will continue and flourish in South Jersey, said Snyder, noting that they will be reuniting to attend JCRC’s 49th annual Middle East Institute Feb. 25 at Beth El. 

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