Local Jews and Christians share joy on interfaith mission

Rev. Dr. John Kitagawa, Jake Gordon and Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon celebrate Jake’s Bar Mitzvah in Jerusalem. ( Photo: Bruno Charbit Photography)

Instead of a traditional Jewish mission to Israel, Temple Emanu-El and St. Philip’s in the Hills Episcopal Church joined forces to expand their congregants’ understanding of the Holy Land. Twelve Jews and 11 Christians participated in the interfaith mission led by Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon and Rev. Dr. John Kitagawa, May 30 to June 10.

“Being on an interfaith mission ended up being a bonus” for her family, says Amy Krauss. She and her husband, Richard Gordon, “are active members of Temple Emanu-El and always thought a mission would be a way to bring our children to Israel with our rabbi, Sam Cohon, whom we adore. In my opinion, the interfaith part really enhanced the trip.”

“What was most extraordinary for me was the qualitative difference in an interfaith experience and a solely Jewish experience,” says Cohon. “Besides being Americans and Jews, this interfaith trip gave us another perspective of Israel from committed Christians, a positive perspective, a joyful perspective.”

An unexpected lesson on the streams of Judaism occurred almost immediately after participants arrived in Jerusalem. “For the first time that I can recall, the Israeli newspapers and media are highlighting a story about progressive Judaism” as their top story, Cohon wrote in his first Temple pilgrimage report on May 31. Israeli Reform Rabbi Miri Gold was designated the first non-Orthodox rabbi to be paid by the State of Israel, under a ruling May 29 by the Israeli attorney general. The decision was announced the day Cohon and his wife, Wendy Weise Cohon, arrived in Jerusalem.

An added attraction of the trip was the group’s meeting with Gold on June 8 at the Carleton Hotel in Tel Aviv, says Cohon. He had written beforehand that would be “a little bit like meeting Rosa Parks,” the African-American woman whose refusal to sit in the back of a public bus in Montgomery, Ala., in 1955, initiated a new era in the American civil rights movement.

The attorney general’s decision will soon give “the opportunity to have around 20 Reform or Conservative rabbis employed by the state,” says Cohon. “What that does is allow for the non-Orthodox to see the very serious growth of Judaism in Israel as we practice it in the United States. It’s really a revolutionary change in what’s been a long process.”

As part of the interfaith group’s sightseeing, Cohon led a “shul-hopping tour” of Jerusalem on Shabbat, June 2. The first stop was the Aleppo synagogue, which “preserves the customs, melodies and traditions of the Aleppo, Syria, community that moved to Israel in the early 1900s,” Cohon wrote in another Temple report. The tour also included the Italian synagogue that’s “more major and Western, as befits a community of 2,000 years that began in Rome” and the Great Synagogue of Jerusalem, which is more like a “classic Eastern European choir synagogue.”

On that Shabbat the Christian group went to the Mount of Olives, then walked down the Good Friday Road to the bottom and visited the Church of All Nations, says Kitagawa, “where Jesus prayed before he was arrested.”

Mission participants were constantly reminded of Israel’s diversity, as well as the diversity within their group. On the tour bus the interfaith group shared, Jewish and Christian people switched places on rides to further conversations with each other. Krauss’ son Jake “had a lot of questions about Christianity,” she told the AJP. “He was curious and asked John [Kitagawa] to sit with him. John obliged, and said that one of the highlights of his trip” was explaining some of the basics of Christianity to Jake.

At one point “we had just celebrated communion,” says Kitagawa. “Jake came up to me with his grandfather and asked a question: ‘When did Jesus know he was God?’ It was a great question I’d never been asked before and he felt very comfortable asking it.

“‘Of course we don’t know,’ I answered. I spoke to him about the scriptural records,” continues Kitagawa, adding that Jake’s grandfather said to him, ‘that was a great answer.’

For Cohon, it was interesting to learn that Jesus’ entire ministry lasted only three years. Indeed, discovering more about each other’s religions became a large part of the trip, says Krauss. “Our guide Muki had a degree in archaeology. Everywhere we went, we [learned] about Judaism, Christianity and archaeology, which was an amazing triangulation of the experience.”

In visiting a mikvah, Kitagawa discovered that Christian baptism emerged from the mikvah ritual, he told the AJP. “We went to each other’s sites and worshipped in each other’s manners, which provoked a lot of conversation. There was a very warm exchange among people. “

Not only was this mission Krauss’ seventh trip to Israel, it included the Bar Mitzvah that her son Jake had wanted in Israel, although he won’t turn 13 until January 2013. Four relatives joined Jake, his parents and his 14-year-old brother, Sam, on the mission.

Prior to the trip, “Sam [Cohon] asked how we felt about having Jake’s Bar Mitzvah on an interfaith trip, saying there would be options for both Jews and Christians,” notes Krauss. The family agreed to do it. On June 5, the day of Jake’s Bar Mitzvah, the Christian contingent was offered another option, “but they all went to the Bar Mitzvah,” she says. “During the trip we all totally bonded. Our bonding experience wasn’t something that we read about in a text or heard a lecture about. We felt it.”

Plus, adds Krauss, “Jake may be the only Bar Mitzvah who had a rabbi and an Episcopalian priest bless him.”

The group visited such important Jewish sites as Yad Vashem and Masada. For Cohon, one of the high points was conducting a Bar Mitzvah in Israel for the first time, at the Jerusalem Archaeological Garden-Davidson Center, at the base of the Western Wall plaza in an area known as Robinson’s Arch. The site of Jake’s Bar Mitzvah was at “the remainder of a roadway that led to the Temple Mount and was destroyed on Tisha B’Av in 70 CE by the Romans,” says Cohon. “Not only was [the Bar Mitzvah] a fabulous aspect of the trip for me, but I think for everyone present, Jewish or not.”

As for the bonding that took place between Jews and Christians, says Krauss, “we learned how much more we have in common than about our differences.”