image
From left, JFNNJ CEO Jason Shames; federation board member and campaign chairman Carol Silberstein; JCRC Director Joy Kurland; Bishop Arthur J. Serratelli; JCRC board member Leslie Billet, who serves as the lay chairman for the trip; David Hyman, an Israeli tour guide; and Neal Borovitz, the JCRC chairman and rabbi of Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge. photo by Jeanette Friedman

MADISON ““ The bishop of the archdiocese of Paterson hosted an unusual gathering at St. Paul in the Walls here on Monday to persuade members of his diocese to take a unique joint trip to Israel/the Holy Land with members of the Jewish community.

The Rev. Arthur J. Serratelli was joined by Rabbi Neal Borovitz, rabbi at Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge and chairman of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey’s Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC), who is leading the Jewish contingent on the trip, which is planned for next October. Also present were Jason Shames, the federation’s CEO, and the JCRC’s director, Joy Kurland. Almost 75 professionals, lay leaders, and guests from both faith communities were present to hear Serratelli lay the groundwork for the interfaith trip.

St. Paul in the Walls is in an extraordinary 1920s-era mansion, and the program opened with a short history of the recently renovated building. The bishop was then introduced by Anne Breslin, a Catholic lay person, who originated the idea for the trip.

Serratelli began with a few stories from Mark Twain’s “Innocents Abroad,” to show how a trip to the Holy Land is transformative. No Christian comes back unchanged, he said, not even Mark Twain, because when they are in those places with a Bible in their hands and walk where the ancients walked, they are walking where Christianity’s founders walked. He called the Land of Israel the Fifth Gospel, because it opens up the Gospels to Christians in a way merely reading the text cannot do.

“Pilgrims come back enriched in four areas: topography, history, archeology, and the people,” he said. “These things help Christians better understand their own faith and develop an appreciation of Jesus’ own religion,” meaning Judaism.

The remainder of the bishop’s talk focused on how the four subjects connect to biblical texts, and how one could then understand why things took place the way they did. Taking his audience from the Sea of Galilee to Jerusalem and its surroundings, he explained how the land, the history, the people, and the archeology linked the land to Christian texts.

“Traveling is fatal to prejudice, to bigotry…” Serratelli said, as he concluded his presentation. “You cannot stay in one little corner of yourself. When you go to a place like Meah Shearim, or to the Western Wall… you rub shoulders with pious Jews keeping the tradition of Abraham, David, Solomon… where justice still burns brightly in Isaiah, Jeremiah….We see them as they wait for the Messianic Age, for mashiach, and use the direct line [to God]…. That’s when we can begin to see that others of strong faith can hear these same scriptures. The Holy Land is the best commentary on the Bible.”

Borovitz, a natural storyteller, told a joke about the first and second comings of the Messiah, and later noted that there is an important message there, regardless of which coming it is. “Whatever will happen,” he said, “It won’t be magic. It will only happen if each of us does his or her part to make the world a better place.”

The rabbi also linked the Bible to the land and stressed that Israel is a very modern country. As an example of topography, he described what the Green Line was like in 1967, and how one could see barren desert on what was then called “the Jordanian side,” while everything on the Israeli side was lush and green. He then related the observation to biblical texts.

He concluded by paraphrasing the talmudic sage Rabbi Tarfon: “Even if the task is large and we cannot finish it in our own lifetimes, we are obligated to continue working on Tikkun Olam, to repair the world.”

In an interview after the event, Borovitz said that this trip will be a unique opportunity “to see Israel through each other’s eyes, to look at our common roots and different approaches to the one God.”

He said that most Jews go on Jewish tours of Israel, and Christians go on Christian tours, so he is excited about being able to show Christians the real, modern Israel, to dispel the idea that the country is an armed camp. He also is excited about the chance to argue differences and appreciate common cause in Capernaum, where the ruins of a synagogue and a church face each other, and to share Jewish knowledge of our history and traditions.

The trip will take place from Oct. 18 to 28. Participants will spend time in the areas around Jerusalem, and in the Galilee. One night will be spent at Kfar Blum, a working kibbutz, to show Christians how modern Zionism works.

“We want to encourage people to come. This is not your normal UJA Mission or a synagogue tour,” Borovitz said. “It’s a trip that will overlap both cultures, and give people a chance to interact with Israeli Palestinians and others. Yes, we will visit classic sites, but we will be looking at them through a new lens, from a different perspective. If it is a mission, it’s a mission to build bridges between American Catholic leaders and Israel, American Jews and Catholics and to continue to work together on issues of common concern, both within our own community and as it applies to America Israel relations.”

For more information, contact Joy Kurland at the JCRC, (201) 820-3900 x228, or e-mail JoyK@JFNNJ.org