|Rabbi Fine, tour guide Issa Abdullah, and Tina Polen outside the Church of the Nativity david fine|
When a group from Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center in Ridgewood went on a trip to Israel this summer, the age range was wide – there was an 86-year-old woman and a seven-year-old girl, and about 28 people in between.
Tina Polen, at 70, fits nicely into that range, toward the top, but still below it.
She stands out in another way, though. She is a church-going, choir-singing, cross-wearing African-American Southern Baptist.
Polen has been the custodian at Temple Israel for about 24 years; she began there part-time before she “retired” as an administrator – she worked for IBM, and then for Pascack Hospital. In addition to her work at Temple Israel, she also is a caretaker for a 13-year-old boy with autism. She is a presence at the shul – “I’m there on Friday and Saturday, I work with the children, I know just about everyone at the shul, and they know me,” she said.
“Tina will sit at the back at services and follow along,” Temple Israel’s rabbi, David Fine, said. “She is well-loved by the community, and she never has traveled outside the country. She is a religious Christian. I thought it would be a lovely thing if we could bring her along.”
Finances posed no problem. “It was the easiest fund-raising I ever did,” Fine said. “I asked at a board meeting, and I asked a few other people. Everyone I asked opened their hearts – and their checkbooks.”
Twenty-six families donated to send Polen to Israel, and the tour company, Israel Tour Connection in Livingston, offered a special rate because the owner “thought it was a beautiful thing,” Fine said.
The trip was a fairly standard 10-day synagogue jaunt, the culmination of an adult education course on Israel that Fine had taught. There were a few additions, though; “we planned special stops, so that when we drove to Tiberius from Haifa, we stopped at Nazareth to see the Church of the Annunciation, and [we took] a tour of the old city. I usually take my groups to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, but this time we stopped for longer,” he said, “and the discussion included the stops of the Via Dolorosa,” known as the Twelve Stations of the Cross, supposedly marking Jesus’ walk to Golgotha, the site of his execution. It is a must stop for Christian pilgrims.
Polen’s reaction to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre surprised Fine. “The ornamentation, the candles, the incense – she said that it seemed like a different religion to her,” he reported.
“The churches there are different than the ones I’m used to,” Polen confirmed. “They’re – well, they’re gaudy, with all the crystal and the chandeliers and things hanging from the ceiling. Even the Catholic churches I’ve been to haven’t had all that.”
The church is said to be where Jesus’s body was taken after he died. “That really didn’t excite me, because it was unbelievable to me,” Polen said. “Back in the day of Jesus, I don’t believe that they had all that stuff. But when I went to the Garden Tomb, I could believe it.”
Some Christian folklore holds that the Garden Tomb is where Jesus was buried. The site, run by a British-based group, reflects a much more Protestant aesthetic; it is low-key and natural, and, of course, it is outdoors. Fine took Polen and a congregant to see it on their last day in Israel.
“It’s very quiet,” Fine reported. “It is just a tomb in the rock, with a sign that reads, ‘He is not here for he is risen.’ Around the outside is where they believe Golgotha is.
“Tina was overcome,” he said.
There were times when the two worlds – Polen’s and Fine’s – came together unexpectedly. “When we went to Ashkelon, there were a number of African Americans who had converted to Judaism and moved to Israel,” Fine said. They belong to Kehillat Netzach Israel, the Conservative/Masorti synagogue in Ashkelon. (Masorti is the name the Conservative movement uses outside North America; it means traditional.) Temple Israel is a Conservative synagogue, so the group spent Shabbat at Netzach Israel. “And then they made us a karaoke celebration on motzei Shabbes. That was an easier connection for Tina to make, instead of always being with Israeli sabras or American Jews.
“They tried to talk me into staying,” Polen added.
“No matter who you are, you can always find a connection in Israel,” Fine continued. “You always find someone who can give you a feeling of connection. It’s not a strange place with camels and Arabian nights; it’s a place where real people live, people like us. That’s always a feeling I try to get across.”
For her part, Polen was thrilled by the trip, a voyage that she never thought she’d make; in fact, the only time she’d ever been out of the country before was on a Caribbean cruise.
“I started opening my eyes wide, and it was interesting to see the differences in the countries,” she said. “I thought it would be more modern. There are parts that are really very modern, but not all of it.
“The thing that really got me was when we went up to the top of the Golan Heights. I’m afraid of heights, but it was amazing. All the different layers of Herod’s amphitheater – amazing. And the Dead Sea – amazing. We went up on Masada; at my age, I took the cable car up, but I walked down.
“When we were in Jerusalem, we went to the Western Wall and the southern wall, and we had a service at Robinson’s Arch for kids who had just become bar mitzvah,” Polen said. “It was warm and fulfilling. Everyone was happy; no one was saying ‘I’m bored.’
“And we went to the Western Wall, and I said my little prayers there, the same way everyone else did.”
“It was a wonderful opportunity for all of us to discover the interconnections of the Christian heritage and ours,” Fine said. “It’s always wonderful to be in Israel with family and friends, but to have an interfaith trip with a believing Christian who was in Israel for the first time was really very powerful.”