When I participated in the Wexner Summit that took place in Israel in 2016, it was the first time that I had traveled to Israel in ten years. The trip made me realize how much I had been avoiding the harder conversations about my community’s and my own relationship to Israel. I returned from the Summit with a personal commitment to return to Israel annually, each time with a different lens.
Recently, I participated in the Christian Jewish Leadership Project (CJLP) — a joint project of the San Francisco JCRC and the Shalom Hartman Institute. We were 22 clergy from the Bay Area — 16 Christian and 6 Jewish — with a diversity of ages, denominations and backgrounds. The goal was “to build mutual understanding of our religious traditions as they relate to the Israel-Palestinian conflict and the complex realities of the region through engaging with our religious texts and traveling to Israel together.”
We met regularly to study together over six months leading up to a 10-day trip with an itinerary thoughtfully curated by Hartman’s staff. The trip exposed me to a new perspective of visiting Israel as a Christian pilgrim — the power of listening to Aramaic chanted at a Syrian Catholic Church in East Jerusalem; waiting in a long line to dip into the Jordan River among groups from India to Russia; or hearing the Gospel of Matthew chanted in Greek on the Mount of Beatitudes.
In between the tours and the lectures were long meals and bus rides where we often struggled with the dark stories we heard from all sides of the conflict, with the history of our traditions’ complicated relationship and with the racism and sexism in American society today.
We shared enough — an appreciation for the spiritual, for sacred texts and for the challenges of leading religious communities in the quickly changing Bay Area — that we could challenge each other and those that we encountered with a refreshing vulnerability and openness. We asked questions that are usually too controversial or too painful to bring up at home: Why does our local Presbyterian Church promote BDS? How can we support Black Lives Matter, yet still proudly call ourselves Zionists? Who gets to call themselves the victim and why? How can we preach solutions to the conflict there when we feel more and more at a loss for solutions at home?
The CJLP provided us with the increasingly rare opportunity to have a nuanced, civil dialogue. I sat in chavruta with an African-American minister who asked me, “What happened to Black/Jewish relations? I grew up hearing these romantic stories from the past, but it feels like you guys left us behind to be rich and white.” The next day, the same colleague showed deep empathy when meeting with a local Haredi rosh yeshiva who expressed his fears about the minimal education and poverty of many of the young men in his community. The trip was my first interfaith experience to move past apologies and niceties to honest sharing about our differences.
We flew back to San Francisco with deeper relationships, layered understandings and a motivation to better communicate and collaborate in the future. I am excited to witness the long-term outcomes of the trip unfold among our group with guidance from our local JCRC. I am optimistic about the potential for this model to grow and spread in communities throughout the Jewish world.
Get To Know The Author
Rabbi Carla Fenves, an alum of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship (Class 19), is in her seventh year as a rabbi at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco, CA. Originally from Dallas, Texas, she graduated with a BA in Religious Studies from Stanford University and was ordained by Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.