Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Fly Away Home

Fly Away Home
I don’t want to let my thoughts fade too quickly as I return home from this memorable trip.
I wrote a prayer for the ministers while I was in Istanbul, and I want to be sure to include it in my blog, as it was most significant to the way that I was feeling on the morning of June 6.
Istanbul, Turkey -
Outside my window, I can see the spires of the Blue Mosque. As I crawled into bed last night, the call of the muezzin for night prayers echoed across the Old City. Again this morning, at dawn, came the call to prayer. While in Jerusalem, I could hear the call to prayer from the Dome of the Rock, followed a bit later by church bells that rang out over the Old City. Countless numbers of people responded by facing Mecca, or attending morning mass, or praying at the Western Wall. What gentle reminders to turn our thoughts to God!
So this morning, I offer to all of us a call to prayer -

In the morning light and in the evening quiet, I rest in God. I know that wherever I am i am in the Presence of the One - all Knowing, ever present, and all powerful Has-hem, Allah, God. In the Call to Prayer from the minaret, or the bells from the church tower, i am reminded over and over again of the Presence that is my very life, and the creative Spirit of everything that is.

I see the faces of the people wearing hijab, Yarmulkes, top hats, long, flowing robes and Arab headgear, and I know that God is expressing itself in myriad ways. So we, too, feel the call to prayer. We turn within to feel at our center, the power, the grace, the love and the joy of life itself. As we go through this day, and each day, we turn to remember God, and as we do, we find we are guided, enfolded and sustained as we go through what is before us to do.

I accept and embrace the gift of prayer, and all that it offers in my daily life - prayers for others, for the planet, for ourselves, and most of all prayers of gratitude and knowing that Grace is taking place in every moment of every day.

I know that our ministries are blessed, and that we are given all that we need for today - enough - so that we might be a shining example of the call to prayer in who we are.

I gratefully release my thoughts and words into the universal Mind and rest in the Truth.
And so it is.

One of the remarkable things about countries where Islam is widely practiced is the call to prayer from the mosque.  In years past, the muezzin (the one who leads the call to prayer) would climb to the top of one of the minarets or tall spires that stand alongside the mosque and call out to the surrounding area a proclamation that invites all believers to stop what they are doing and pray.
As you may know, Muslims pray five times daily. They do not simply stop where they are for five minutes, say a quick prayer and go on. They first do the ritual washing as I had explained in an earlier post, then do a very active prayer that includes kneeling, bowing, standing, and saying both rote prayers as well as personal prayers.
Today, most mosques have loudspeakers at the top of the minarets, and the call to prayer can be heard from a farther distance than before. In Istanbul, which is sometimes known as the city of mosques, what one hears is almost like a call and response; one muezzin will begin the call, pause, and down the way another muezzin begins the call to prayer again. One can almost tell time by these calls – at least one knows when it is dawn, when it is mid-morning, noon, sunset and the last time for evening prayer.
The first time I was awakened by the morning call to prayer was on my earlier trip to Turkey, and I was staying in a village with a Turkish family for the night. The mosque was within a city block of the house, and the window was open. I must say that it startled me awake, as I was not expecting it, and I found myself slightly annoyed. I remember thinking that I wouldn’t want to be awakened by that every morning.
After hearing the call of the muezzin in both Jerusalem from the Dome of the Rock, which was close to our hotel, and also from the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, I found I was able to simply incorporate it into the sounds of the day, and realized that I had found it rather comforting. It was a time to remember God. I am impressed by the devotion of Muslims to the practice of prayer five times a day.
As one who is part of the New Thought movement, which I feel suits me very well, I realize that we do not have rituals in the way that Orthodox religions, Islam, and many other religions do. I realize there are both pluses and minuses to this, yet I found I great sense of commonality in them. As we visited a number of churches that had been built at holy sites, we sat in on several masses. One always knew where they were in the mass, even though it was being said in different languages. A global consciousness builds out of that – the web of the Eucharist binds them together. I see the same to be true for the Muslim who daily answer the call to prayer. Wherever a believer is in the world, they are in unison five times a day.
There can be a kind of arrogance about one’s religious practices. We pray affirmatively, and I have heard colleagues criticize those of other religions who do not pray that way, as though we are somehow superior to others because of the way we teach affirmative prayer.  I am of the opinion that one prayer, regardless of how it is spoken, if expressed with a sincere heart, is as valid as another. Spirit within, or God outside are still one God, and prayer works from the inside out or the outside in, changing us, not God.
In Jerusalem, the ringing of church bells would follow the Muslim call to prayer. I would imagine that somewhere in the city there might also be the sound of the Shofar – the ram’s horn used by the Jews for purposes of worship.  The sights, sounds, and even fragrances (incense, etc.) of worship all add meaning and allow us to involve more of the senses in our reaching out or within to experience God.
That is what religion can do best. It can give us a vehicle to experience God. I felt such a deep connection when I touched the spot in the small cave at the church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. I felt it again at the Dome of the Rock when I entered the grotto and saw the people praying at the foot of the tock of Abraham. I felt it sitting on a bench at the walkway between the Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque, watching the pilgrims from all over the world who had come to admire these historic and holy sites.
You and I, and all of humanity, are such tiny intersections in the web of life. We are interconnected, and we are all here for a brief moment. We are here for a breath – a heartbeat – a glimpse of something ineffable. To experience God is different than worshiping a dogma or doctrine in which we make the religion more important than the experience. In that, I think one cannot really find the very thing we seek- because it has been lost in the set of laws that entangle it. The Ineffable is within us – and it is everywhere, but sometimes, a place, a fragrance, a sound, a whisper of a breeze or the call of a muezzin, reminds us once again of who we are and where we came from.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

A Day to Reflect

Time out from "herding."

One of the challenges of a group tour, even when the group is small, is that one is "herded" from one place to another. I decided that this was my day to step off the path, and give myself permission to meander. We are in such a lovely place - the Old City of istanbul is so charming with its narrow cobblestone streets, ancient buildings, quaint shops and tearooms, mosques, and the diversity of humanity that walks by my window Our hotel is small - only 29 rooms, and so comforting - duvet comforters, Turkish tea (my favorite), and gracious staff - the name of the hotel  - in case you come to Istanbul Is The Almina Hotel.

I found I needed to be quiet for a while- i love my traveling companions,and we have become a family as we have journeyed far and wide together. I will miss them. I find I have been teary-eyed a lot these past few days, just thinking of how we have bonded. Our group ranges in age from 19 to well - my age (ahem), and we have five students, several educators,one Jewish, one a Sister of St. Joseph, an Imam, a Carmelite priest who is also a microbiologist and geneticist, one Quaker, two Unitarians, and me. Counting our three leaders, there are fifteen in all - a good size for a trip such as ours.

I was thinking about water again this morning, and how significant it has been on this trip. First is the simple necessity of staying hydrated in the desert areas we have visited. As I thought about water, I realized that I had crossed many American rivers, the Atlantic Ocean,  several smaller bodies of water and European rivers, before ever arriving at my destination.  As I shared in my post last night, we floated on the Sea of Galilee, and the Bosporus in boats, and floated our bodies in the Dead Sea. We put our toes in the Mediterranean at Caesarea, and filled bottles on the banks of the Jordan.

We were sprinkled with Holy Water at a Trappist Mass spoken in French in the hills of Israel, and watched as Dr. Shafiq showed us the Islamic ritual of ablution at the Blue Mosque.

Each of us expressed gratitude for good showers in some hotels, and grumbled in others. The cleansing, purifying life-giving and refreshing gift of water has been both necessary and a blessing for us as we have wandered the lands of the prophets. When I think of the great challenges water must have been for the people of these lands throughout the ages, it is no wonder that for some it is like gold.

We noticed that much of the Palestinian agricultural land is parched and dry. It relies mostly on very sparse rainfall, with no infrastructure for irrigation. The Israeli fields have irrigation systems more often than not, and the quality of the crops is dramatically different.

Most of the stone in Israel is limestone, and the color is a yellow-beige. Every building in Jerusalem, old and new, with the exception of a few ancient structures, is made of this stone, and the dry, dusty ground is pulverized from this rock. When the bible speaks of shaking the dust from your feet, it is no exaggeration, as one looks at their shoes or sandals at the end of the day, we see how true the images are. Running water over our feet at the end of the day was another small blessing.

Some thoughts as I prepare to go home--

I want to share some thoughts about my impressions of the situation in Israel. First off, it is complicated. There are no easy answers, and there is no singular answer.

Some of our young students commented that they thought we would have many more religious encounters than we had, and they wondered why everything seemed so political.
The quote from Gandhi ran though my mind often as we reflected on history itself, and the journey of the three Abrahamic faiths through this land of such rich heritage. Those who say religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion is.

During the Roman Empire, both Jews and Christians had to carefully move around the land in order to co-exist with Roman rule and the consequences of stepping out of line. 
Each ruling empire, the Crusades, the Ottoman Turks, all had religion interwoven into politics. Today is no different. 

in addition, each group, whether it be Jewish, Muslim, Christian, has their own narrative about the Holy Land and what it means to them. The Jews believe it is their land, that God promised it to them, and they have won it fair and square. The Palestinians believe it has always been their land, and that they should not have their homes destroyed, walls built on it, nor should they be denied access to move freely across the land. The Christians are simply trying to say, "We're still here" although the numbers seem to be dwindling. Many of the Arab Christians have left for other countries where they feel more comfortable as both Arabs as well as Christian.

Some progressive Jews have compassion for the Palestinians, and many of them are working together for some kind of peaceful solutions. The grass roots organizations are working to find pathways to better understanding. The many Orthodox Jews (and this is the majority of religious Jews) do not wish to budge on the issue. There are also many secular Jews who live in Israel and love being where they feel they are at home with their heritage, even thought they do not practice their faith. In fact, several of the Jewish educators and rabbis we spoke with told us that the biggest problem in Israel is not that Jews and Palestinians do not speak to each other, but that Jews and Jews do not speak to each other!

Remembrance of the Holocaust is also a powerful motivator for the people of Israel. The memory of the eradication of 6 million of their own relatives, families, neighbors, and friends, cannot be easily forgotten. It plays a major role in what may appear at first glance to be a kind of paranoia about the neighboring countries surrounding Israel. The narrative here is "people tried to eradicate us before, what would stop them from trying to do it again?"

It would be naive to think that something as traumatic as the Shoah could be healed and released in only one or two generations. It is in the bones and DNA of the Jewish people and will remain there for many long years. For many, it colors their daily lives, and even in their own homeland, they still feel the tension that come from not feeling able to fully trust what life brings them. To me, this affirms the concept, "it is done unto you as you believe."

On the other hand, the Palestinians we met who are working for peace seem optimistic about the future. They are working on the ground to build relationships with the more open-minded Israeli people, and the younger generations are finding ways to connect. if you Google Israeli peace organizations, you will see how many groups there are that in some way are working to bring unity to a divided land.

Patience, persistence, and prayer will be required in very large doses as the Middle East moves forward toward a new paradigm. How I wish it would come easily but history continues to show there is a high cost for bringing about change, even when it can be positive. I think the youth "get" what it mens to be free - how they get there may be a long and difficult road, but at least there is a potential for it now.

For me, I am more committed than ever to serving as a bridge of peace between people of all faiths.

Yesterday I was outside the Suleiman Mosque looking for a special style of Muslim prayer beads that I had found here on my last visit. A man asked me, "Are you Muslim?' I answered "No, but I am a teacher, and I want people to know more about Islam in my country so they will stop being afraid." I told him that I was here to learn more about all three Abrahamic traditions, and that I know we are all the children of one God. He said, "I will help you do anything you need." Unfortunately, he couldn't find the beads I was looking for, but he walked all over the area around the mosque, pointing to me, and asking the vendors if they knew where I could find such beads. it was clear I had made a friend.

If I can be remembered for anything in my lifetime, it is that I have wanted to express love in as many ways as I can in my lifetime. I have not always succeeded; in fact, sometimes I have failed completely. Yet, I know that at the core of every faith tradition, love is found there. It often gets covered over by dogma, doctrine, history, narratives, and the like, yet when we touch the spot where love dwells, hearts are broken open, the tears flow, and miracles happen. I want to know that whatever I have done has contributed to that.

I am going home tomorrow, and I know that this trip will linger on within my heart and soul for the rest of my life. I am so grateful that I came.

That's all for now - and it's enough.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011


Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv is that starting point for this, which will probably be the last blog I write before returning home to reflect on the entire trip.
Let me say that If I had to choose between LAX on a busy day or Ben Gurion, I would happily choose LAX. I do not want to bore you with the details, but let me summarize it this way:
Stand in a very long line that keeps shifting to different areas of the airport, meaning schlepping bags back and forth, to finally have passport and ticket checked. Place the luggage you plan to check into the scanning machine, and await its return from the other side via a kind of rocket launcher that shoots it up in the air, guaranteeing that anything fragile you may have packed carefully between layers of clothing is now broken. Move to another line where the bag is inpsected because it is believed one has ceramic plates inside, which I did have prior to the rocket launcher - it goes on from here, but you get the drift. It is excessive officialdom and suspicion from beginning to finally boarding the flight.

Returning to Istanbul is a joy. We are staying in the Old City, in a small and gracious hotel with Turkish hospitality at its best. We can see the spires of the Blue Mosque from the rooftop, as well as look out over rooftops to the Bosporus beyond.

I love the Old City. I have visited the sites we have seen this time on a prior visit, but what I enjoy most are the people themselves. Schoolchildren walk by and say 'hello" and giggle when we answer. They are excited to speak English with us, and delighted when we answer them. Shopping isn't just a hurried in and out visit - there is a cup of tea served and an invitation to sit a while and speak English with the shopkeeper. Meals are prepared and served to be shared - so we have many different plates on the table and we all partake of portions of each one.

The weather has been beautiful. We have sailed on the Sea of Galilee, floated in the Dead Sea and yesterday we motored in a boat on the Bosporus. The boat was an older one, which was chartered just for our group. the top deck appointed with cushions worthy of a Sultan, and all of us flopped down on them to sink into God and enjoy the beautiful view of the palaces, mosques, resorts and exquisite residences along the shores.

The pace here for us has been slower, visiting the usual sights - Topkapi Palace, which is filled with the artifacts of the lifestyle of the rich and famous Sultans as well as articles believed to have been worn or used by Mohammed himself - including hairs from his beard.
One thing I must say - as we visited the many holy sites, and were told the history of each place, we also learned to be a bit skeptical about the validity of some of the claims. For instance, it seems the Angel Gabriel really got around - he is mentioned in nearly every holy site we have visited. At the Topkapi museum there is a clay impression believed to be the footprint of Mohammed. Yes, no, maybe? How is this verified? We don't really know.

Today we spent time at the Blue Mosque, and Dr. Shafiq demonstrated how the Muslims do their ablutions, or ritual cleansing before entering the mosque. We then sat in circle while he talked more about the practices of Islam, and gave us history of the building of the Blue Mosque.

We took a short walk to the entrance of the Hagia Sofia, one of the most magnificent structures built during the reign of Justinian the Great between 532 and 537.
After many years as a Christian Church and enduring a fire and rebuilding, it was converted to a mosque during the reign of the Ottoman Empire, and is now a museum. 

It's late and time for sleep. Tomorrow we take the ferry to the Asian side of Istanbul to visit a university. then back here to pack and prepare for our return home. There is much more to share as I reflect on the trip when I get back.

Read more: http://wiki.answers.com/Q/Who_built_the_Hagia_Sophia#ixzz1OcYruyDe

Saturday, June 4, 2011

The Desert Experience


Today was our desert experience. The area to the south along the Dead Sea is some of the most arid land I have ever seen. It rivals Death Valley - minus sand dunes. In their place are high, rocky mesas built up of layers of sediment from the waters the once covered the land. We traveled most of the distance below sea level, leaving early in the morning to precede the intense heat of the day. We passed through Jericho and Qumran – the site of the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls and could see from the highway a cave where some of them were found.

Masada has a rich place in Jewish history – not in a religious sense, but in the sense of the pride of the people and the narrative of the Jewish ethos.

Masada sits high on a plateau, thousand of feet above ground, but in actuality, only 33 meters above sea level. We rode to the summit on a graceful cable car, rising 900 meters from the building where we embarked. There is also a serpentine trail to the summit, which at one time was a narrow pathway that could only be traversed by carefully placing one foot in front of the other, or risking a very quick and rocky end to one's life. The trail now has both paths and stairs, but is still a climb for an athlete and not a "wuss" like me. None of group climbed up, but seven did walk down, taking 40 minutes to do so. I opted for the cable car.

According to Josephus Flavius, the Jewish historian, this was the site of the last bastion of the Jewish freedom fighters at the end of the second temple era. These people had inhabited the top of this mountain that had once been one of the palaces of Herod. The Romans attacked the Jews by building a ramp up one side of the mountain along with a very high structure with a battering ram to break down the walls that protected the fortress.  When the Jews knew they would be defeated, they made a chilling decision: they would not allow them to be taken into slavery or be slaughtered by the Romans. They did not want their women abused, nor did they want their children to taste slavery, so they chose to kill one another. When the Romans reached the summit and broke through the wall, they found all of them dead, with the exception of two women and five children who were found hiding in the cistern.

Because there is so little rainfall, the buildings have remained in excellent condition, making it possible to fully understand the lives that were lived here - first by Herod the Great and secondly by the Jewish rebels.

The story of Masada  is one of triumph - even in loss, and is a symbol of the Jewish spirit, especially in this country of intense national pride among the Israelis.

Floating in Water
It was hot in Masada, so it was now time for a swim, or I should say, a float. Off we went to the Dead Sea, visiting a spa – resort along the shores of this unique body of water. It is much larger than I imagined, and as we look across to the mountains on the other said, we were looking at the coastline of Jordan.

Floating on the Dead Sea was a trip! You can recline in the water, and completely relax. It was difficult to get my feet back down to the bottom so that I could stand up again.  The water is intensely salty. I got some in my mouth and it was unpleasantly strong tasting!
The bottom and the shore are very rough, as they are covered with mounds of salt crystals, so I wore my flip flops into the water. The seawater was warm, but very pleasant. My skin feels velvety soft from all the minerals.

There was also a huge vat of brown mud on the shore which we all rubbed over our arms and legs, then showered off with more salty, then fresh water. The final step was a plunge into a large fresh water pool, then back to the dressing rooms for a shower and our departure from the spa.  The outdoor temperature was over 100 degrees but the humidity was so low that it didn’t feel hot until we got back into the minibus.

As we drove along the road, we saw camels with their babies, and the beautiful rams (Ibis) that have the horns that make the shofars. We went through an area where many of the Bedouins have their tent villages, even watching a sheepherder running to catch up with his sheep as they were descending from a hillside.
What an amazing trip!

I Come to the Garden

it's Saturday now, Shabbat Shalom! our morning began with a short walk down a steep hill to the Garden of Gethsemane, and the Church of the same name. What a perfect morning for this! it is pleasntly warm here, as it has been during our entire stay.
The garden itself is small, but the olive trees within the garden are believed to be over 900 years old. I have never seen such thick trunks on an olive tree. The trees are surrounded by short pathways, and beautiful roses and other flowers. It is peaceful there. It is, of course, the place where Jesus went to pray, asking that this cup be taken from him. Instead, he also said the Sacred "yes," knowing that what was before him would be hugely difficult.

In this same garden came Judas Iscariot with the Roman soldiers, to arrest him. 

The story goes that Peter, in his rage, cuts of the ear of Malchius, the slave of the High Priest. Jesus tells him this is not the time for anger, and heals the ear. Even in his final hours, he was an advocate for peace.


King Herod the Great loved building monuments to himself. First was Masada, then Herodyon, which is also believed to be his burial site. Since there was no cable car in sight, we hiked to the top of the mountain where he had built another palace that included a very deep series of caves which housed the royal cistern. It was later occupied by Jewish rebels who had also built a synagogue on the site. We took the stairs down into the cistern - some steps made of iron and modern, some old and uneven down into the earth to see where water was stored and where later in time the Jewish rebels had hidden themselves.

The Shepherd's Field

Leaving the Herodyon, we drove across Jerusalem back through the checkpoint into Bethlehem in Palestine to visit the field where the shepherds were to have seen the angels.
Although Palestine is predominately Arab, there are Muslim and Christian districts. The Shepherd's Fields are in the Christian district, and the land is cared for by the Franciscans.
Sammy, our driver knew where to find us a guide, and this man was outstanding. I would love to be able to tell you his name, but I can't pronounce it much less spell it. He walked us into the beautiful grounds of the lovely old church, and took us into a nearby cave. He told us about the way that the early people of this are lived in houses that were built on top of a cave, and that the shepherds of that area used these caves for shelter in the night.
Again, we were on a hilltop - is there a theme here?

What was most interesting to us was entering a large cave that represented a possible scenario for the birth of Jesus. The cave was open and spacious at the front, and became more narrow at the back. a small fence separated the back are, which was where the people brought their animals to stay warm and safe at night. When Jesus was born, and there was no room in the inn, the stable itself would have been in a cave like this. Mary, in her need for privacy, would have gone to the back of the cave to give birth, which explains why Jesus was laid in a manger. The stories are so practical when one actually sees how they came about.

Tonght we will be guests in a Palestinian home, just as we had been guests in a Jewish home. Tonight however, we will be the guests of Dr. Mohammed Dajani, founder of the Wasatia movement, which is offering an alternative to the muslims of moderation, leading to a peaceful co-existence between Muslims, Christians and Jews. If you want to know more about him and his groundbreaking work, please go to http://www.worldpress.org/Mideast/2832.cfm

Our time here is nearly over. We depart for Istanbul tomorrow afternoon. I have so many thoughts about Israel, and hope to articulate them more as I prepare to return home. Have I drawn any conclusions? Maybe not. Do I have a new point of view? Without a doubt, yes, I do. Do I think peace is possible? Perhaps. I think the Palestinian Muslims and Christians are more hopeful than the Israelis. That may come as a surprise to you, but what I have learned has much to do with the narratives that each group tells about themselves and the effect they have on their approach to peace. a lot more listening needs to be done. a lot more non-violent education needs to be presented on all sides, and more opportunities for the children to come together and learn to co-exist. And I cannot possibly express to you the complexities, paradoxes, and contradictions I have seen in my short time here. All I know is that I am so glad I came. I know I have been changed in very significant ways, and I look forward to seeing how my time here will guide me to waht's next in my own vision of facilitating a pathway to peace within and without for all people.
Tomorrow morning before we leave for Istanbul we will be visiting an experimental community where Jews and Arabs are living together in community to work for peace.
Caled Neve Shalom, here is what their web page tells us:

Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam is a cooperative village of Jews and Palestinian Arabs of Israeli citizenship. The village is situated equidistant from Jerusalem and Tel Aviv-Jaffa.

Until my next post, Shalom, As-Salamu Alaykum, Blessings, Aloha.

PS - Dr. Eisen, who is the head of this trip, just came by to tell me that he wanted to give me his assessment of my participation in this trip. He told me I had contributed a very important and unique perspective, and that he was very glad I had joined the group. For me, this was exactly the kind of trip I wanted - multi-religious, multi-generational, and multi-experienctial. I have received all of that and ore. See you in Istanbul!

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Jerusalem, Jerusalem!

it would be impossible to relate to you the sights, sounds, and aromas that I have experienced over the past few days. I am glad that I guaranteed you that my posts would be inconsistent, as we have been going from sunup to sundown nearly every day, and the only location for wireless is in the lobby of the hotel.

We are staying at the Inn of the Seven Arches. It has one of the most magnificent views of the city of Jerusalem. Our of my window I can see across nearly the entire western half of the city. In the dining room of the hotel is a spectacular view of the Dome of the Rock, on the Temple Mount -  one of the most Holy sites on the planet for the people of the Abrahamic traditions. it is believed that the Foundation Stone of Solomon's Temple which was the site of the Holy of Holies was located on this spot. Therefore, this place is also important to the Christians. To the Muslims, it is believed that Mohammed spoke with both Jesus and Moses, and also ascended into heaven with the Angel Gabriel.
it is at the heart of the Old City, which is a labyrinth of narrow alleyways lined with the shops of Arabs, Jews, and Armenians each in their own districts, selling wares of every kind.

Nazareth College
I must give credit to Nazareth College. I have not talked much about this remarkable school, up until now. This institution was founded in 1924 by the Sisters of Mary and Joseph in Rochester, New York to provide an alternative to the state colleges. As the school grew, the parish could no longer afford to support it, so the Sisters decided to make it a secular school, inviting non-Catholic Board members. to this day. only one Sister at a time serves on the Board of Trustees of the college. It has a student undergraduate population of 2000, primarily serving the Rochester area. What sets it apart is that it has a degree program in religious studies as well as in interfaith education, and international relations. They also have a peace and justice degree program, and offer many opportunities to travel abroad.

The college has made connections in Israel with many educators in both Israeli and Palestinian Universities, so we have had the gift of hearing many points of view while here.

Our three leaders of this tour are Dr. Mohammed Shafiq, who is Chair of the Interfaith Center, Dr. George Eisen, Chair of the Department of International Relations, and Dr. Susan Nowak, SSJ, Professor of Religious Studies.  They have exceeded my expectations in terms of the quality of the instruction we are receiving as well as the choice of venues we have visited.

Dome of the Rock
Due to our connections, we were able to enter the Dome of the Rock, which was built on the site of the Second Temple. Housed in this magnificent example of Islamist architecture is the Foundation Stone, which has its earliest ties to Abraham himself. It is also believed to have been the site of the Holy of Holies of the Jewish Temple, and is believed by the Muslims to be the place where Mohammed ascended into heaven with the Angel Gabriel.

One can touch the rock through a small opening in a glass wall that encases it, and when one pulls out their hand, it has a fragrance. I don't know if this is a "magic trick" but my hand had a light, sweet fragrance when I pulled it out from the stone. There is also a grotto area at the base of that stone where the Muslims go to pray. Dr. Shafiq invited me to enter the space while he prayed. I must say that once again, I was overcome with tears as I felt the history and sacredness of this place. So many pilgrims had come to this space, not only since the building of this beautiful mosque, but going back to the early Israelites who who believed this was the rock where Abraham had offered his son as a sacrifice in obedience to God. Whatever the beliefs were, it is a place to encounter the Divine - high on a mountaintop, where one could feel closer to God.

Al Aqsa

Following this, we visited the Al Aqsa Mosque, which is also on the Temple Mount. There is much I can say about this mosque as well, but once again tears welled in my eyes for a very different reason. This is where in the year 2000 during the Second Intifada, fighting went on between Palestinians and Israelis. There were marks in the pillars from the bullets. A glass cabinet housed some of the ammunition and gas canisters. Our guide told us that this artillery had come from the United States. He then said - "we do not blame the American people. It is our governments who keep this going." There were serious casualties on both sides (6500 Palestinians, 1100 Israelis), and both sides have their own accounts of this event.

Western Wall
Although the Temple Mount is not a large place, reaching each area requires a serpentine-like walk through these narrow alleyways. If one doesn't know where they are, I think it would be possible to inhabit the Old City for days without finally finding an opening. The Western Wall was crowded, as it was Jerusalem Day - the celebration of the liberation of Jerusalem - much like our Fourth of July. There is a men's side of the wall, and a woman's side. (guess which side is larger?) I wrote my prayers, along with Don's, and included my prayer list, and placed it in the crack of the wall, as so many others have done before me. The more faithful Jews, stand in front of the wall, holding their prayer books and rocking back and forth as they prayed. as they departed the place, they walked backward, I suppose so they would not turn their back on God.

Holy Sepulcher
We wended out way through the narrow streets along the Via Dolorosa, the street where Jesus was believed to carry the cross to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (a full description would take up another entire page) - suffice it to say that is it s magnificent building which has a number of different worship areas within it. Each area is overseen by a different denomination of Christianity, and since none of them get along, the key to the church is in the hand of Muslims, who tend to it without conflict. This is believed to be the place where Jesus was crucified, where his body was prepared for the tomb, and where the tomb is located. Since I am not the only clergy on this trip, I want you to know that none of us believed that to be true, including a Catholic priest. All of us feel that Calvary had to be outside the walls of the Holy City, and that the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea was in an area with a garden, not in the midst of a teeming city, and certainly not near to the site of a crucifixion.

We had about an hour to do some shopping and each of us found some "treasures" to bring home from the Old City.

After dinner, we had a lecture from, Zeina, our Palestinian guide, about the importance of narratives in the process of peace building. The lecture was abbreviated - we were all weary and ready for sleep.

Y'av Shem - The Holocaust Museum
How can one attempt to describe a three-hour passage through an encounter with the darkest of human behavior? What I will say is that our guide was a Catholic nun who is approaching 80 with the energy of a 25-year-old. Sister Gemma was a Sister of Charity who has been working for the museum for the past twelve years. her gentle and objective narration softened the stark confrontation of such human suffering and inhumane treatment of 6 million Jews.
This is the narrative that keeps the people of Israel so fiercely nationalistic and protective of their homeland. This is the collective story that holds many in a frozen state of fear that it could happen again. As an American who has never known anything that could come close to this experience, it is difficult to grasp the deep-seated and visceral memory that is held in the minds and hearts of those who lost their history in those dark days. All I can say is that my prayer is that all people everywhere can live together in peace.

And what do I think about Israel? Stay tuned.