Once in a Lifetime
An Interfaith, Intercultural, Multiracial Journey to Israel/Palestine
October 23, 2019-November 3, 2019
with Beth Emet The Free Synagogue, Grace Lutheran and Second Baptist
Pastor Michael Nabors
Rabbi Andrea London
Pastor Daniel Ruen
(Comments in straight type–Michael Nabors, bold–Andrea London, italics–Daniel Ruen)
Chicago O’ Hare and Take Off
Pastor Michael Nabors: Woke up about 4 AM. Filled with anticipation about the trip to Israel. It has been a long time coming. Fell back to sleep and awakened again at 6. Dressed by 7 and coffee is brewing. Everyone is awake. Pierce has to be to school early today. We hug goodbye at 8 as Sydni drives Pierce and Parker to school.
Clare (Pastor Daniel’s wife) and Daniel come by at 8:15 with their dog, George. I load luggage into their car and we are off to pick up Andrea. Andrea is on the porch with Daniel and we are ready to roll.
Rabbi London: Of course, I’m on the porch ready to go. I could hardly sleep the night before. Going to Israel always is exciting for me. From my very first trip to Israel in 1986 when I went for the year on a volunteer program, Israel has always felt like home. The Zionist dream of settling the land and creating a state has powerful resonance for me. Despite how complicated it can be, Israel is like family—you love them and feel committed to them even when they drive you crazy or do things you don’t agree with. This trip is especially exciting because I have the opportunity to experience it with Pastors Michael Nabors and Daniel Ruen—my awesome, smart, energetic, justice-oriented, and fun colleagues and friends.
Pastor Nabors: Clare is driving and we take Dempster to 294 and arrive at O’Hare by 9:20. We check in our baggage and move through security easily. It’s only 9:40 and we the flight doesn’t begin boarding until 11:30. We grab a bite to eat and each of us get caught up on emails and work. We receive notice the flight is delayed. No time. We catch up with Mark Perlman’s (a member of our Men’s Book Club) wife, Diane who is also taking the trip with us.
Sitting in the terminal waiting for news. The flight is delayed…several times. We go to customer service concerned that we will miss our flight to Tel Aviv out of Newark. The flight to Newark is now scheduled to leave at 2:30- 3:30 EST with our flight leaving Newark at 4:50. We are going to miss it. Options: Fly stand by for a 10:50 PM flight to Tel Aviv. Flight at 9 AM, via San Francisco. Flight out of Newark tomorrow at 4:50. We have no choice but to take this leg of the journey, one step at a time. During the wait we engage in great small talk. The subject? You guessed it—scripture. What do you expect among three preachers. We begin talking about the Jacob text where he is wrestling with the stranger throughout the night. Fascinating insight from my colleagues. Daniel and I lean on Andrea for her expertise in the Old Testament and Hebrew. She leans on us for our knowledge of the New Testament. We shift the conversation to Judah and Tamar as well.
The dialogue is really a focus on the origins and burgeoning of Israel. Andrea mentions the series of name changes in the texts- Abram and Sarai to Abraham and Sarah. Jacob to Israel and others too. It is noted that while all the characters leave their old names permanently, only Jacob’s name is used interchangeably and as much as his new name, Israel.
Rabbi London: The name Israel means the God-wrestlers which is perhaps why Jacob keeps his old name even as he gets his new one. Even after moments of growth and change, we backslide and can behave like the heel—which is what Jacob means—we were before. None of us humans can escape our human nature even as we have the ability to learn and grown.
Pastor Nabors: Regarding Judah and Tamar, the question is raised why Judah does not become the more dominant name in Israel’s unfolding history, since his character appeared more stable and frankly, more honorable, than Jacob. Rabbinical emphasis on the characters created a tradition that is problematic. The wiliness and slick natured Jacob is viewed as wiser and even more God-like than his brother Esau. While Esau comes forth with the Olive branch and seeks reconciliation with his brother Jacob, history has painted his character as more “simple” and he eases off the topography of human evolution while Jacob plants a permanent stake on Judeo-Christian heritage.
Judah acknowledges to Tamar that she is more godly (Rabbi London—the text says, that Judah exclaims that “she is more righteous than I.” when she presents him with his staff and signet ring and he has to admit that he is one who impregnated her.) Andrea noted that women in the patriarchal age and after, often had to utilize different and unusual instruments and tools in order for their vision and godliness to influence God at work in human history. (Rabbi London—Tamar had to dress up as a whore and get Judah to sleep with her because he refused to give her his last son which was due to her because she had not had any children with Judah’s other two sons. According to the law of levirate marriage, which was applicable at this time, if a man died without having any sons, his widow was supposed to marry his brother.) What might be perceived as unkind, vindictive or even wrong, may well have been the result of the narrow confine through which women were allowed to work in society, both in sacred and secular arenas.
Pastor Nabors: We board the flight filled with the hope that we will be able to find seats on tonight’s connection to Tel Aviv. If not, we are in a Newark hotel until morning. The lesson in this is that when one strives for growth and development, the path is often filled with obstacles and barriers.
Pastor Nabors: Thanking God, we arrived at Newark airport at Gate 31 and raced, literally to Gate 138. Many flights were delayed out of Newark and the pilot of our flight into Newark allowed us to be the first to exit. We reached Gate 138…only to find folks boarding…to Mumbai. Our flight had left on time. We went to customer service, stood in line and waited. Maria was the customer service representative who waited on us. This was for the upcoming flight at 10:50 PM. I told her she had a beautiful name and it matched with miracle maker. She smiled and commenced to unfold a miracle. All four of us went from stand-by to having assigned seats! What a relief. Instead of arriving at 10 in the morning in Tel Aviv , it would be more like 5:30 in the afternoon. But that was much better than the next day. We grabbed dinner in Newark’s new terminal, which is very beautiful!! We boarded at 10 PM and left for our 12 hour flight to Tel Aviv. I watched a murder mystery starring Jeff Bridges and was soon fast asleep. (Rabbi London: Pastor Nabors wins as the best sleeper of the three clergy! I slept a bit and Daniel didn’t sleep a wink.)
Landing in Tel Aviv
Wednesday, October 23-
Pastor Nabors: We land around 5 PM in Tel Aviv. Going through customs is very quick and easy. We find our baggage and the MEJDI Tour Company had arranged a van be sent to pick us up and take us from the coastal city into Jerusalem, about 70 miles away. It is still bright and sunny, about 78 degrees. The ride is amazing, as we begin to ascend into the mountain region of Israel. Not long after going higher, we see cities. As I look at nearly every highway sign, I see names of places I’ve read about in the Bible and preached about over the past 30 years. After more than an hour, we round a curve and stretched out before us is the city, the ancient (and very modern) city of Jerusalem. My feelings are emotionally mixed and a very real sense of fragility overcomes me. Rabbi Andrea and Diane had been here before. But for Daniel and I, both Christian pastors, the sensations flowing through us were amazing. Everything I’ve read and preached (about Jerusalem) seems to center on the moment I first lay eyes on the city. It is surrounded by hills on every side. While the city is within a valley, the Old City, surrounded by a seismic wall, sits on a hill itself. I can just barely see the Dome of the Rock, its golden cap glittering with lights that are strategically placed so everyone can see. A large opening appears on one side of the city. From my view, it looks like a very wide valley between the Old City Mount and large hills where houses of worship can be seen. It seems odd, cool and empty. We drive to West Jerusalem, through very busy, traffic laden and pedestrian filled streets.
Rabbi London: I’m always excited to land in Israel, but to drive to Jerusalem with Pastors Ruen and Nabors is particularly exciting because it’s all new to them. I’m very excited about being on this trip with them and seeing Israel through their eyes. I’m a little disappointed that it’s dark by the time we get to Jerusalem so it’s hard to point things out to them on the ascent to Jerusalem, but it is very dramatic to enter the city as the sun is setting.
Pastor Nabors: We arrive at Prima Kings Hotel, 60 King George Street in Jerusalem. I think to myself, “How odd that the British Empire has even dug its talons deep down into the Holy City.” As we enter the hotel, we see most of our other fellow travelers from Evanston. They are happy to see us. Since this is an Interfaith, Multicultural, Interracial trip, we authenticate that reality with our arrival. There is at least one brother (no sisters) on the trip. After placing our luggage in our rooms, we go down for dinner in the hotel restaurant. Great fellowship and presence among everyone.
Amit and Alaa
We have our first meeting with the two guides who will work side by side introducing us to Israel. Amit is Israeli Jew and Alaa is Israeli Palestinian. They share their amazing stories. We introduce ourselves to them and go over the itinerary for the next day. We have Rabbi Andrea who lived in Jerusalem, went to school here, and has visited on multiple occasions, Pastor Dan (first time), Rob and Susan Heinemann, Jim and Judy, Karen and Rick, Michael and Susan, Tina, Bob, Diane, Robin, Ted and Jan (brother and sister) and me. Rabbi Andrea’s member, Max joins us. He lives just down the road and is here attending Rabbinical school.
Rabbi London: After the group goes to bed, Max and I walk one of my suitcases over to his apartment where he has agreed to store it for the next two weeks while I’m traveling around the country. I’ll pick it up at the end of the trip to begin my sabbatical. Breakfast the next morning at 6:30 and on the bus by 7. We want to get an early start to miss the traffic, but Jerusalem traffic, especially getting in and out of the old city, is just awful.
Precious Memories…How They Linger
Pastor Nabors: Over and over again I think to myself, “Jerusalem. I am in Jerusalem.” Internal reflections make me think of Mom and Dad, long gone but probably happy that their youngest child (though I am not young!) and the preacher in the family, made it to Jerusalem. I think of my grandfather, nicknamed “Preacher” who rang the church bell at the old Mount Zion in Kalamazoo on Edwards Street. He was such a good man until literally everyone called him preacher, even the preachers! In addition, my mind’s eye traverses the course of my youth and I cannot help but think about so many- Pastor Mabry Gardner and his wife Mary Jane, Mother Elliott and Mother Berry, Deacon Scott, Big Sam, Deacon Whiting. I thought about old Pastor A.T. Robeson who baptized me, Aunt Charlotte and my grandmother Corinth were all such stalwart Christians. Going on in my mind, I think about First Baptist in Princeton- Rev. Edward Smith, Deacon Skipwith and Trustee Ted Williams. I think about Mary Smith, Elizabeth Briscoe, Alice Kennedy and Bessie Christian. They were sisters who grew up in Princeton and when I arrived there at 22, they were already stretched into their seventies. Then I think about Rev. S. Howard Woodson, Jr. at Shiloh in Trenton, Deacon Gee, Sister Napoleon, Trustee Sam Floyd and Deacon Ollie Green. I focus on New Calvary in Detroit and think about Dr. Charles Butler, Deacon Plater, Deacon Buckner, Deacon and Mrs. Lee Lawson, Deacon Ernest Smith and Mrs. Smith, Mrs. Daisy Earnest and so many others. I think about Second and the hundreds of members who just prayed for me a few days ago! I think about them all and how the existential reality of time and space did not and has not, allowed most of them (if not all) of them, to make such a journey. And it dawned upon me, I am representing more than just me on this trip- more than just my family and extended family- more than my own church family, Second Baptist of Evanston.
For some reason that I am perhaps, just now beginning to understand- I am here representing many hundreds of African Americans. Even in 2019, the great majority of my brothers and sisters that I know, are still not able to make this trip. I am here to breathe in the air of this ancient city, to drink deeply from its sights, sounds and smells. I am here to see beyond, what my friend Taurean would call “the superficiality or external narratives.” I am here in a theological way, in an effort to make sense of how the majority of us, trace our faith and understanding of God at work in human history, to these hills and this space. Do I dare to take off the lenses of my own Judeo-Christian heritage and put on a wider lens, depicting Palestinian, Arab, and Islamic traditions? As I prepare to go to bed on this first night, it is staggering! It is not a weight I feel regarding this responsibility. No. It is a precious and rare gift that has tuned me in to every conceivable moment of the days that are to follow. I am here to learn and to take the lessons back to those out of the African Diaspora and shared, prayerfully by the movement of God- what I have witnessed.
The Thrill of Old Jerusalem
Important Information about present day Israel and Jerusalem
After a wonderful breakfast, which gives brand new meaning to Continental (I will never view Holiday Express in the same way), we head to our bus just outside the hotel. (Rabbi London: I am thrilled because I get Israeli cottage cheese which I adore!) Our guides- Amit (Jewish Israeli) and Alaa (Palestinian Israeli) greet us in Hebrew and Arabic. Both speak fluent English and Hebrew. Alaa is also fluent in Arabic. I immediately consider my own limitations at not learning another/or multiple, languages. What was I thinking, to only take Spanish and Latin for brief periods, rather than learning languages fluently? We head to Jerusalem which was once the border of the country of Jordan. There is a Waldorf Astoria to the right, built on an old Palestinian graveyard. The building was once an Ottoman hotel. We cross what Israeli call “the Green Line” which is an “invisible” border separating West and East Jerusalem. West is comprised of mostly Jews (growing increasingly orthodox) and the East has many Palestinians. It is obvious this will be a recurring theme on the trip, and I am already amazed how the division reminds me greatly of whites and blacks in America.
There are eight gates to the old city of Jerusalem, the most famous is the Damascus Gate. I think about the song in our African American tradition, “Twelve gates to the city.” We are at the heart of Jewish, Islamic and Christian religions. The Old City is the walled-in area that lies at the center of Jerusalem.
We enter at the Dung Gate, which was once known for carrying the refuse and garbage out of the city. On the bus, we passed an older gate, dating back to the 2nd century, no longer in use. The guides teach us how divided the neighborhoods in the Holy City are- Jews in the West and South while Arabs/Palestinians are in the East. But without question, the Israeli government and army, are in control of it all. I am still not sure how to understand the use of Arab and Palestinian. I tend to think they are not one and the same. An amazing visual reality is that the city seems to seamlessly build new structures into old, existing structures. Thus, new buildings are infused with older limestone dating back hundreds of years. It is a surprise for me to see how busy and tight the city seems to be, with every single space already taken for housing or buildings. Alaa tells us that Jerusalem was conquered 27 times in its history. He talks about Suleiman the Magnificent, the Ottoman Empire, the ancient days when the Romans and the Greeks ruled. Each of them left lasting impressions upon the city.
Entering Old Jerusalem for the first time
We enter through the Dung Gate, along with a growing line of tourists early in the morning. There are intense feelings growing within me as I reflect back on the 30 years of preaching and teaching I have done that is so invariably connected to this geography upon which I am now standing. We cross over a rather rickety wooden bridge to enter the city. We are told by our guides this is the only entry from our area because each group does not want the other to be responsible for building a more permanent bridge. If one groups builds it, they will then have “rights’” in saying the bridge belongs to them. A novel idea comes to mind for me, “Why don’t ya’ll build it together?” I know this is a trite, smart-aleck answer. They do not build it together because of the obvious, entrenched differences accumulated between them, over the long haul of many years.
Rabbi London: We go through security and Pastor Ruen is stopped because he’s carrying a frisbee! They let him go through when they inspect his bag and see what it is. The frisbee will go all over Israel with us and be tossed around at many sites.
Ruins of the 2nd Century BCE Temple Built by Herod
Pastor Nabors: Once inside we move immediately to the area where the two temples were built- the first, Solomon’s Temple and the 2nd Temple built during Herod’s time as King. (Rabbi London: The second Temple was actually built during Nehemiah’s time when King Cyrus of Persia gave the Jews permission to return to Jerusalem in the 6th century B.C.E. Herod, however substantially improved the Temple and made it into the beautiful building it was before it was destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E.) In this area, tradition and history suggests many familiar stories. In one high area, the story is told that it is where Abraham led his son Isaac upon the side of a mountain to sacrifice him to God (at God’s command). Amit shares that one of the reasons Abraham is considered a father to the faith, is not just because of his obedience to God. It is because in place of his son as the sacrifice, he found a ram. It is this gesture which is supposed to have stopped the very familiar custom of people sacrificing their child (usually the eldest) in order to please their God(s). It was later in this same Temple area where Jesus’ teachings about prayer (Rabbi London—After the Second Temple is destroyed, the rabbinic academy in Yavneh began to develop Jewish practice as we know it today. Avodah Shebalev—sacrifice of the hear, i.e. prayer instead of Avodah—animal sacrifice) actually ended animal sacrifice as people could now talk to God without intercession of priests at all.
It is a strange feeling, standing in this area in which our own African American religious history has taught and preached about, for so long. The Temple! It is strange because I am not as overwhelmed as I thought I might be. After all, my Protestant faith really emphasizes the priesthood of all believers and therefore, there is less of an excitement attached to localities, however famous. I am impressed, however, particularly as our guides go into biblical and historical details about what it took for the temples to be constructed. Today, there is a major Zionist movement (Rabbi London: it’s, fortunately, not a major movement, but some right-wing nut jobs who want to hasten the building of the 3rd Temple by destroying the Dome of the Rock.) to construct a brand new, 3rd Temple exactly on the same spot. This of course, would be fuel for great discontent. This discontent would rise from Muslims, who constructed their own Dome of the Rock only a few meters from the area where the Temple is said to have stood.
Rabbi London: I haven’t been to the Temple Mount in 30 years and am moved to be there. I have always struggled with the Kotel which has increasingly become an Orthodox synagogue where my practice of Judaism is not allowed. The last time I had been at the Kotel was to celebrate Rosh Hodesh—the beginning of the new Hebrew month—with Women of the Wall. I want to support the ability of women to pray in community at the Kotel, but it is a difficult experience to try and pray while being heckled by men and women alike. The Temple Mount, on the other hand, is peaceful and the Dome of the Rock is spectacular on this bright and sunny day.
The Dome of the Rock, just a hundred yards from the Temple ruins
We shift now from a history of the Temple seen through Jewish eyes, to a history of the Dome of the Rock ( called Qubbat al-Sakhrah in Arabic) seen through Palestinian eyes. We are told about the time Mohammed once made his journey from Medina all the way to Jerusalem. He wanted to see the holy city for himself. Upon his arrival and with a very large entourage- our tour guide said he asked simply for one thing from the locals. We were asked to guess. One of our brilliant travelers quickly said, “a tour guide.” The answer was correct. This would have been the sixth century and the 2nd Temple, as we all know, was destroyed in AD 70. The Prophet Mohammed then sought to learn a great deal. The Dome of the Rock was built in 691 AD, collapsed and was rebuilt in 1022. It is said to be built on the site of the second Jewish Temple and is also supposed to sit atop the oldest rock on the mountain. Some believe this rock to be the one Abraham lay Isaac on before stopping the sacrifice. It is also said to be the stone where God created the world and the first human, Adam. Islamic tradition shares that this is also the same spot where the Prophet made his Night Journey to heaven (see below). The Dome is often viewed as the most recognizable landmark in Jerusalem, along with the Western Wall and the rotunda of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. The dome is 66 feet high and is supported by an elevated circular drum and sixteen columns. We were not allowed inside. (Rabbi London: Only Muslims are allowed inside. I’m glad that I had had the opportunity to be inside on my last visit 30 years ago. There’s basically a walking path around a, you guessed it, large rock! Nevertheless, it’s an awe-inspiring site.)
A story goes that the Prophet Mohammed went on a journey to the 7th heaven, passing each one along the way. As he passed along the way, he spoke to many great religious people- including Jesus, Elijah and Moses. When he reached God, God told him to go back to the people and tell them to pray to him 500 times a day. As he passed Moses, Moses asked “So what did God say?” When Mohammed told him what he said, Moses replied, “No. That will never do. You have to go back and barter with God. 500 is too many.” So he went back and talked to God who then brought the number down to 250. The same thing happened as he passed Moses again. Coming back a third time he said, “Now it is 50.” Again Moses said, “The people cannot do this.” So he went back to God and returned saying, “Now it is 5.” This is how Muslims pray 5 times a day.”
We then went closer to the Dome of the Rock. It is breathtaking, as alluring in real life as it is on the movie screen or television. Another story revolves around ablution stations surrounding the Dome of the Rock. It is said that these were also justice stations where people came to settle their disputes. To determine justice, people were asked to tell their side of a story by holding a chain, dangling from the ceiling. If the chain remained still, as they spoke, they were deemed to be telling the truth. If the chain moved, they were said to be lying.
Jerusalem was controlled by various factions including the Ottoman Empire from 1516 until WWI. The British then gained control and held it until Israel became an independent state in 1948. After 1948, Jerusalem was divided with Jordan controlling the East and Israel the West. This changed after the six-day war in 1967 when Israel seized the entire city. All of this was an important back drop in helping us understand why Israeli armed forces and Palestinian armed forces could be seen together in the Temple Mount area.