“Mass and ma’ariv every day” is how Rabbi Neal Borovitz deftly describes his experience during the Oct. 18-28 Jewish-Catholic interfaith trip to Israel.
“I’ve been to Israel probably 30 times, and spent two years of college here,” Borovitz, spiritual leader of Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge and an interfaith activist, said. “What’s different now is seeing Israel through Catholic eyes and showing Israel to Catholics through Jewish eyes. That, to me, is what is transformative.”
Borovitz and Paterson Diocese Bishop Arthur J. Serratelli, both frequent visitors to Israel, each shared teachings with the group of 54 participants – 15 Jewish, 39 Catholic – over the course of the trip, which was led by licensed Israeli tour guide David Hyman.
“Jewish tradition is our tradition in a sense, because we descended from Jewish roots, so if Catholics travel with modern-day Jews, we can come to understand ourselves better,” Serratelli said. “And our Jewish brothers and sisters can come to understand our faith and traditions, and see how we are very much united in the search for justice, peace, and truth.”
The first day of the trip, a Friday, saw participants at Mass in the Church of Pater Noster on Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives and then praying at the Western Wall as sunset ushered in Shabbat. The following morning began with Mass at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, a walk along the Stations of the Cross, a tour of the Old City, and finally Havdalah, the Jewish ceremony that marks the end of Shabbat.
This balanced and blended itinerary continued throughout the 10 days – Masada and Yad Vashem, Notre Dame and Nazareth, the Galilee and Caesarea.
“Like on any trip, people have to let down their barriers in order to bond, and here we had the added dimension of different faith practices,” Leslie Billet, a Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey lay leader, said. She helped plan and promote the tour.
“Before landing, we had more in common in the aisles of ShopRite than here in Israel,” she continued. “But what we did have in common was patience – the willingness to just let go and witness pure faith, joy, sorrow, love, and peace. The ceremony and house of worship became irrelevant. And with that came curiosity and friendship and understanding.”
Hyman, who was the community shaliach (Israel emissary) at the federation from 2005 to 2008, conceived of an interfaith tour while leading Catholic groups around the Holy Land for the last four years. In fact, two of his former clients from Texas signed up for the interfaith tour, eager to see Israel again from a fresh perspective.
“I was guiding Jewish groups and Catholic groups, and each has a different itinerary. I realized that each gets only half the picture, and I felt I could give them the whole picture,” Hyman said. “Wouldn’t it be great for everyone to see the other side, with Israel as the common theme?”
He broached the idea to Billet and to Anne Breslin of Great Experiences travel agency in Ramsey, which organizes Catholic tours to Israel. Breslin had talked about such a trip before with Serratelli and with Joy Kurland, longtime director of the Federation’s Jewish Community Relations Council, but it was Hyman’s suggestion that galvanized Kurland into action.
“Anne and I had been colleagues for over 20 years in the Brotherhood-Sisterhood Interfaith Committee of Bergen County, which now encompasses eight different faith communities,” Kurland said. “When she approached us last fall about this trip with the backing of the bishop and Rabbi Borovitz, who is lay chairman of the JCRC, we knew we had a key investment in coalition-building and we jumped at the opportunity.”
Rabbi Neil Tow of Glen Rock Jewish Center was one of the first to sign on. Though he had been to Israel seven previous times, including a year during rabbinical school, he said this experience was quite different.
“I’ve been involved in many local interfaith projects, and now that I’m joining Rabbi [Steven] Sirbu as co-chair of intergroup relations for the JCRC, I thought this would be a great way to expand connections and create new possibilities for groups in the Federation area to work together and support each other,” he said.
“I’d heard there is an amazing bond that develops among people traveling together,” Tow continued, “but experiencing it firsthand has been transformational. Bringing together two communities on the same bus, on the same tour, has created really meaningful conversations, and each group has a chance to ask questions they’ve been saving up their whole lives. I’ve discovered, in the priests on the trip, teachers for myself about religion and practices of clergy in general.”
Tow said that visiting Bethlehem brought home a special connection in “the recognition of the importance of King David as a strong root in both faiths, a shared set of stories and origins that was very powerful. For me, this highlighted that my previous trips to Israel had kind of been on one track.”
“You’re never more united than when you’re living together, sharing a common experience,” Serratelli said. He particularly enjoyed praying with the Jewish participants. “In Capernaum, a rabbi led us in prayer over [the site of] a synagogue where Jesus worshiped. To hear a rabbi chant in Hebrew, knowing that was what Jesus was doing way back when, was very moving.”
After group members have time to process their experiences, they hope to continue the momentum back at home through activities such as pulpit exchanges, Kurland said.
“I hope, going forward, the relationships we’re creating here will continue to manifest in ongoing interfaith activities,” Tow added. “This is important for two reasons.
“First, to broaden support for Israel among the greater American community, we need Christian pilgrims to see more than just pilgrimage sites but also the miracle of the modern Jewish state of Israel.
“Second, for the American Jewish community it is important to continue building bridges of understanding, working together on a common search for redemption. We have different theologies, but we are both committed to the idea of making this world better and if we work together we have a better chance of achieving our goals while respecting our right to our own identity.”