Israel trip blog continued… Jerusalem

The Western Wall

The Western Wall

Pastors Nabors (his comments are in regular type): We leave the Temple Mount and walk down to the Western Wall (wailing wall).  Nothing remains of the original Temple dreamt of by David and constructed by his son, Solomon.  The Western Wall is the last remaining wall of the 2nd Century Jewish Temple and is considered the holiest site in the world for Jews.  It is an emotionally riveting experience with thousands of people lined up to go forward and touch the wall.  Many of them appear, seized by a spiritual force as they await their turn to move forward.  This is often a religious pilgrimage for Jews, not only for those in Israel, but from around the world.  What amazes me and keeps me transfixed on the ambiguities and proclivities of this geography is this; The Dome of the Rock and Arab/Palestinian sites are nearly as empowering to one group of people under the banner of Islam, as the Western Wall is to those under the banner of Judaism.  And they are merely, a hundred yards apart! 

Women have one smaller section to the right, and men have a much larger section to the left.  There is crying, singing and even Bar Mitzvah processions all occurring at once.  I move forward and touch the wall.  I see a Jewish man rubbing his face with a full beard against the stones for at least ten minutes, as if in a trance.  I do not leave a note in one of the many crevices.  I say a simple prayer;

“Lord please bless my family. 

Please help guide Second Baptist into a truly metropolitan municipality of faith believers, and please …….”  The last request I will not share publicly.   

Rabi London: On the women’s side of the Kotel, I help the women on the trip get their notes into the wall. I do take a few minutes to recite some psalms which is calming in the midst of the mayhem. It’s Thursday which is a Torah reading day so there are bar mitzvahs happening on the men’s side of the wall while the women are lined up at the divider between the men’s and women’s sections, peering over the top to watch the happenings on the men’s side.

The Way of the Cross

From the Wall we go into the small alleys of Jerusalem and begin visiting several of the Way of the Cross Stations.  There are 14 in number and we begin at the fifth station, a small chapel named after Simon of Cyrene.  I have the chance to give a brief lecture from the text about the African named Simon.  Of course, I get carried away and tell the story as I have before at Second Baptist.  Simon was a black man from Libya who stood in the crowd as Jesus carried his cross.  He was picked out by Romans to carry the cross and Black people have been carrying the cross…and other burdens…ever since.  Just outside the chapel is a well-worn palm print where Jesus is said to have stumbled as he carried the cross.  We go to the sixth station, called the Chapel of Veronica.  This is where tradition says a woman named Veronica wiped perspiration and blood from Jesus’ brow.

Rabbi London: I am so moved to hear Pastor Nabors tell this story. I’ve walked the stations of the cross, but never with Christians. As we continue walking, waves of Christian pilgrims from all over the world, walk past us, carrying crosses and singing religious songs in their native tongues. It’s quite moving to watch the faith and devotion of these groups as we are swept up with them while we are walking down the narrow pathways of the old city.

Church of the Holy Sepulcher

The city is divided into four quarters- Muslim, Jewish, Christian and Armenian.  There was a Moroccan area until 1967.  We then visit the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.  The crowd is incredibly dense.  People are trying to make their way inside to view this church which is currently run by five groups; Ethiopian, Coptic (Egyptian), Armenian, Syrian and Roman Catholic.  They are at odds on how the church should function. Each of them have their own chapels within the building.  There is such disagreement until a Muslim family is entrusted with the key to open and close the church on a daily basis.  It is here where tradition says Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected.  A stone lies in the narthex where his body is said to have been placed.  It is surrounded by people anxious to place a hand on it and pray.  The line to the place where he is said to have been buried is very long.  Our guide Alaa takes us to a second tomb, away from the first.  He believes if either one actually contained the body of Jesus, it is more likely this one.  We have a chance to walk/crawl to the entry.  What a compelling feeling. 

Pastor Ruen: Six Christian groups control the Church of the Holy Sepulcher—Armenian, Syriac, Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Ethiopian, Coptic. In order to keep the peace among them, a Muslim has the key to the Church.

Mount of Olives

Rabbi London: Later that day we go to the Mount of Olives to get a view of Jerusalem from the east. The Mount of Olives is to the east of the Old City. It has a huge Jewish cemetery on it. There’s a Jewish tradition that when the messiah comes the dead will be resurrected and return to Jerusalem. Those buried on the Mount of Olives will be first to enter the Old City.

We head a talk by Danny Seidemann who is considered to be a world-renowned expert on Jerusalem. He runs an organization called Terrestrial Jerusalem that produces maps and other resources that illustrate the developments in the city. He consults with policymakers both in Israel and abroad as to how to deal with religious sites and other developments in the city. He shows us the myriad of religious sites for Christian, Jews, and Muslims intertwined throughout the city and shares with us that policymakers who are used to, in other locales, taking a pen and drawing lines to determine jurisdiction, are stymied by what they see in Jerusalem. He argues that religious leaders are going to be key in resolving the issues in Jerusalem and how pivotal resolving these issues will be in solving the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Religious leadership is crucial, he says, so the “pyromaniacs on all sides” won’t torpedo an agreement. Pastors Ruen, Nabors and I wonder aloud how we might be part of this religious leadership.

Pastor Ruen: Danny Seidemann discusses the importance of maps. He shows us a map that the Israel ministry of tourism had published with holy sites of Jerusalem. The map has 1 Muslim site, 1 Church, and 57 Jewish sties. His organization pointed out the error in trying to erase other peoples’ holy sites and the map stopped being distributed. He also said that the reason Trump is so right-wing on Israel is because of the Evangelicals. If Trump didn’t support Israel unconditionally, they would drop their support of him. Seidemann’s assertion that moderate religious voices are important to peace and co-existence in Jerusalem is an example of moral fusion—getting faith traditions together to create a stronger status quo that can fight the extremists. He includes in the extremist camp—Muslim Brotherhood, Second Coming Evangelicals, and Temple Mount Faithful (Jews who would like to hasten the building of the Third Temple by destroying the Dome of the Rock.) His vision is to have leaders of the various faith traditions gather with major heads of state at a high-profile site like the Vatican and express their shared understanding of how to manage the holy sites in Jerusalem.

We depart the Old Jerusalem and will return the next day. 

The Holocaust Museum

Friday, 10-25

We begin with another wonderful breakfast in the hotel restaurant.  We board the bus at 9 and are off to the Holocaust Museum, strategically located in one of the high hills surrounding the city.  We are told by our guides that while Jerusalem is noted for being one of the most religious cities on earth, it is also one of the most political cities as well.  Everything, they say, is political- even the archeology.  As one group engages in excavation in certain areas, they often hope to find evidence that “their” ancestors were in the specific area long before others who may presently live there. 

We arrive at the Museum.  It is a very modern, triangular building constructed on the side of the mountain.  There was much discussion about the museum.  Two architects were hired, one a Holocaust survivor.  The building is supposed to represent the Holocaust as a structure and not just the exhibits within.  We are told that as we go through each exhibit, and further into the mountain, it will grow dimmer and darker.  Before going in, our guides talk to us about the Avenue of the Righteous.  This is a street outside the Museum lined with beautiful trees and benches.  It is dedicated to 26,000 people who are said to have helped Jews escape the Holocaust, at risk of their own lives.  10,000 Palestinians helped Jews escape. 

A part of the museum structure is a separate building called “Children’s Museum.”  It is dedicated to the 1.5 million children who perished during the Holocaust.  It is perhaps, the most haunting experience of all.  Five candles have been lit and a series of hundreds of mirrors are designed to reflect 1.5 million flickering lights as you walk through the entrance and into the darkened area.  On both sides, you can see the 1.5 million lights.  It looks like you are walking among the stars.  A quiet and brooding music is playing as a male voice names children, their ages, where they are from, and whose lives are all lost in the Holocaust.  While it only took a few minutes, it seemed like hours.  Coming outside, one is overcome with a pressing pain related to man’s inhumanity to man.

Rabbi London: Alaa, our Palestinian guide, who has three young children, is overcome with emotion after going through the children’s memorial. Amit, our Jewish guide, gently places a hand on his shoulder. It’s an incredibly powerful moment of two human beings responding emotionally and empathetically to each other and to the horrors of the death of children. It also feels like such a hopeful moment; if only we could see each other in our humanity, we would have to respond with love and empathy.

I think about our ownnation’s borders and the thousands of children who have been taken from their parents, separated and forced to live in sub-human conditions. 

We spent about an hour and a half in the actual museum.  The simple narrative of the Holocaust makes one doubt there is any goodness in humankind.  We are able to see how the rise of nationalism and tribalism evoked a horrible national spirit in the German people and other white people throughout the world.  There are pictures of clergy shaking hands with Hitler at the start of the siege.  There is an area that describes how the Pope did not mention or condemn the Germans as they rounded up Jews from throughout Europe.  Religious leaders were, for the most part, silent. 

One cannot help but think about Johnson, Trump and Netanyahu as their current rise to power is built on an eerily similar structure of populism that gave rise to Nazism.  What is currently underway in immigration camps at the borders of America may be the beginning of new death camps that we view in this museum.  Each exhibit shows how the early years of Nazism grew.  Massive, controlled education, condemnation of the news media, focus on children and young people into indoctrination.  Soon, the only radio station was that of the state.  Then, the orders came for Jewish people to be taken from their homes and herded into ghettoes.  Their belongings and possessions were confiscated.  Their humanity was stripped away.  The thousands of pictures tell individual stories of these atrocities, giving life to what would simply be a set of historical facts.  Toward the end of the exhibit we see the actual camps and their massive destruction.  As we move through the last encounter we walk up a slight incline toward the exit.  Just outside, we see a panoramic view of Jerusalem at one of the highest points.  It offers, to a degree, a measure of hope over what was just seen, felt and experienced. 

Rabbi Andrea, Pastor Daniel and I are asked to offer words.  It is difficult- but we do share our feelings.  (Rabbi London—We also recite Mourner’s Kaddish as a group.) Then we are off to lunch in the cafeteria of the museum. 

We ride back into the city and specifically to the City of David.  Geographically, it is a 2 day walk from Joppa, a 1 day walk from Mesopotamia which includes the Euphrates and Tigris rivers.  It is one of the major areas in the region- militarily, politically, religiously and geographically.  We have an amazing discussion led by our guides regarding the current excavations taking place in the City of David.  It is funded by an extreme, right wing fundamentalist Zionist group.

Rabbi London: I’m struggling being because since the last time I was at the City of David, a big tourist center has been built on the archaeological site. This would usually not bother me since this is what one normally expects at a tourist site, but it’s in the  middle of the Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan. The fundamentalist Zionist group, Elad, is trying to buy properties in the area and encroach on the Palestinian neighborhood as much as it can. The symbol of the site is King David’s harp, but it’s not certain that King David’s palace was ever on this site. It’s a speculation without a lot of archaeological evidence to back it up. They have found relics from that period of time, but nothing that proved that there was a king’s palace on the site. Yet, the harp as a symbol of the site proclaims to all the visitors that this is the site of King David’s palace. As our guides have been teaching us, even archaeology is political.

We see part of the excavations, then hike down to the lowest point and through a narrow tunnel beside the spring waters of Siloam.  I was given the opportunity to share a brief homily with our group and others, regarding the Pool of Siloam, while standing in the actual pool (it is now dry).  We learn so much about the geo-political history of the City of David.  Yemenite Jews built a settlement here in the 1890’s.  They were forcibly relocated after the first World War by the British.  After 1967, Israel claimed the city of David for itself.  Division is evident and everywhere.  Green busses are for Palestinian travel while Grey-blue busses are for Israeli travel.  My own history and those of my people see such similarities with the division of races in America; “coloreds” on the back of the bus, whites on the front, drinking fountains for whites and others for “colored”, and of course the full gamut of Jim Crow laws of discrimination that ran rampart for over 100 years.  

We head back to the hotel for a brief respite and then on to a Kabbalat Shabbat service.  Several of us decide to walk from the hotel when Rabbi Andrea told us it was a short distance, which turns out to be nearly two miles.  We walk through beautiful neighborhoods and it is well worth it. 

Rabbi London: It’s my old neighborhood—the German Colony. The group that walked with me indulges me by letting me walk down memory lane and past the apartment building where Danny and I lived from 1990-1992. It is quiet as the sun is setting and Shabbat is beginning. I love the feeling of Shabbat descending on Jerusalem.

It also gives me a chance to wear a jacket, slacks and a tie.  We arrive at the Synagogue and hear from a local Rabbi before service.  He is a friend of Rabbi Andrea’s and has worked with young people in Israel for over thirty years.  He was Director at Hillel at U-M and worked at Brown University.  I asked him if he was there when Ruth Simmons (the first black woman to serve as president of an Ivy League School) was president.  He said yes.  Dr. Simmons was a member of First Baptist Church of Princeton when I served there, and was Vice Provost of Princeton University. We then go inside for service.  It was a wonderful service with a young Rabbi whose children were competing for his attention as he led worship. Afterward, we go to dinner at a Rabbi’s house.  He is modern Orthodox, pro-Zionist and a professional cook.  The next hour and a half is wonderful.  There was, of course, no political discussion!  We are all warmly received into the home (17 of us) and the Rabbi, his wife and seven of his eight children entertained us royally.  I have not felt such a familiarity with a large family since my own childhood.  They sing and pray before the meal for about 20 minutes.  Then, the Rabbi blesses each of his children.  They come forward as he prays for them and kisses them- an evening ritual.  The younger children were everywhere and loud.  I couldn’t help but smile thinking my siblings and I would have had our behinds whipped for such public behavior.  The Rabbi and his wife simply smile.  I panic when I see their four-year old playing with a corkscrew in a wine bottle.  I just know he is going to cut himself or break the bottle.  The parents smile and keep right on as if they don’t notice.  The food is extraordinary.  I have finally fallen in love with hummus.  The Challah bread and other breads are amazing.  We then have salads, followed by soup.  The main course is a choice between chicken and rice or beef stew and rice.  We eat and talk the night away.  The warmth and hospitality is beyond description!  Really.  It made me miss my youth and the experiences of a big family.  Afterwards, we are all grateful and head back to the bus and to the hotel. Out for the evening and I slept like a log.  Other travelers are having trouble sleeping because of the time change. 

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