They had Shabbat dinner at a kibbutz, and they met with French Catholic monks. They climbed Masada, and they visited a baptism pool that is significant in the Christian faith.
And along the way, everyone who participated in the interfaith trip to Israel, came to see the Jewish state in a deeper, more fulfilling way.
While interfaith trips and missions to Israel are part of the mix offered by national Jewish organizations like the American Jewish Committee, it’s less common for individual synagogues.
For the most recent congregational trip last month, Rabbi Daniel Gropper of Rye Community Synagogue, a Reform congregation on the Long Island Sound side of the county, decided to offer an interfaith trip, in cooperation with his friend and colleague, Rev. Dan Love of the Rye Presbyterian Church.
“I wanted to have an experience where Jews would become ambassadors to Israel to people of other faiths, and to help people understand why Jews need a homeland,” said Rabbi Gropper.
The nine-day trip was designed with Rev. Love to provide a balance between “Jewish places, Christian places, modern Israel and ancient Israel,” said Rabbi Gropper. Of the 55 travelers, about 15 were members of the Rye church. The trip included a Shabbat dinner at a kibbutz, a jeep ride in the Golan Heights, and a climb up Masada, where the group helped celebrate a congregational bat mitzvah; the group also met with the monks and nuns and visited the baptism pool.
Simply seeing the scale of the country was revelatory for some of the travelers, who were surprised that from the Golan Heights they could hear shelling in Damascus, part of the ongoing civil war in Syria.
For some of the church members, having a Sabbath dinner in the home of a kibbutz member was “the first time they were having a Shabbat in someone’s home,” said Rabbi Gropper. The group also participated in a Havdalah service, and mingled during meals to have serious conversations about Israel, Judaism and Christianity.
Given the sensitive, and sometimes fraught, political overtones to almost any conversation about Israel, the group managed to explore topics in a respectful and meaningful way, participants said.
Alison Wise, a Rye Presbyterian Church member, said, “Israel has been so much a part of the news my whole life. It’s ground zero for many of the things that are affecting everyone. I was curious to see for myself. Reading about something and actually experiencing it are two different things. The interfaith [aspect of the trip] appealed to me. I wanted to get the Jewish side. There were so many layers to Israel. It’s all very complicated.”
Wise was gratified that although “religion can be a touchy subject, in this context, we felt free to ask questions.” Going to Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum, reminded Wise that “this [the Shoah] could easily happen again. There’s a lot of hate talk out there. We need to remember tolerance. This came home to me during this experience.”
Her pastor, Rev. Love, who had been to Israel before, said, “The complexity level was outstanding. It’s never simple.” One experience that particularly resonated for him was a meeting in the home of a Sufi Muslim sheik, “where we had the three monotheistic faiths represented. He spoke about the challenges of being a Muslim in that part of the world.”
Participants clearly felt that having an interfaith experience added more nuances and texture to the trip.
Donna DeLynn, a member of Rye Community Synagogue, said going to Israel for the first time on an interfaith trip “made a difference. I got a different take. It was interesting to listen to their pastor.” Even more significant for DeLynn was “truly feeling a connection to Israel. It’s in my blood. I want to understand and do what I can to help them.”
That was very much one of Rabbi Gropper’s ambitions for the trip, at least as far as his own congregants were concerned — to have them return as passionate allies and ambassadors for Israel.
“This exceeded my expectations, ” said Rabbi Gropper. “The goals were really clear.”