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. 

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