Los Angeles area interfaith clergy visit Rome, Israel

Late last month, on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, 27 delegates of a weeklong interfaith mission from greater Los Angeles gathered in a circle at Yad Vashem’s Valley of Communities, a monument carved out of bedrock to honor Jewish communities obliterated in the Holocaust. The cold morning foreshadowed the upcoming Jerusalem snowstorm, and the leaders representing Jewish, Catholic, Protestant and Muslim denominations warmed one another with words of conciliation and prayer, countering the chilly air and the chilling images of Jewish genocide they had seen a few moments earlier at the Yad Vashem museum.

“The first thing I felt was pain, and that pain became an attitude for all other emotions that flooded my being,” began Bishop Sergio Carranza-Gomez of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles in his light Mexican accent. “The first was sadness — sadness at seeing how many lives were destroyed, completely obliterated; and it became a pained sadness. Then sorrow — sorrow for the needless suffering of thousands of human beings; and it became a painful sorrow.”

Speaking with The Journal after his poetic speech, Bishop Gomez expressed his fear that “there is a real danger of an increased anti-Zionism. You can see that in their world. Anti-Semitism has not been abolished. It’s still alive everywhere.”

Sadness and sorrow permeated the gathering at Yad Vashem, the mission’s first stop on its second day in Jerusalem, but those emotions later became diffused, although not quite forgotten, as the delegates continued their Jerusalem leg of the tour. An atmosphere of fraternity and interfaith celebration had already been forged days earlier during the group’s visit to the Vatican in Rome.

“We are in parallel universes. This trip was designed to bring those universes together,” said Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, who co-led the mission with Edward W. Clark, bishop of Our Lady of the Angels Region, Archdiocese of Los Angeles. Diamond led an interfaith mission to Israel two years earlier under the auspices of the Los Angeles Council of Religious Leaders, and this year organizers decided to complement the pilgrimage to Israel with one to the Vatican. “Both in the Vatican and here in Israel we learned there is no substitute to learning nuance and complexities of issues than to travel to these places and meet with the leaders.”

The ancient historical and religious intersections between Judaism, Christianity and Islam as well as modern interfaith ties were explored through joint religious and cultural events, visits to holy sites in Rome and Jerusalem, and personal meetings with senior Vatican and Israeli officials. At the Vatican, the Jewish delegation presented the pope with a crystal sculpture imprinted with the Ten Commandments. Jewish participants included Rabbi Stewart Vogel (Temple Aliyah, Woodland Hills), Rabbi Mark Hyman (Congregation Tikvat Jacob, Manhattan Beach), Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben (Kehillat Israel Reconstructionist Congregation, Pacific Palisades), Rabbi Ronald Stern (Stephen S. Wise Temple), Glenn Kantor (an attorney and representative of Temple Ahavat Shalom, Northridge), Stephen Saltzman (a consultant and representative of Baba Sale Congregation, Los Angeles) and Jonathan Freund (program director, Board of Rabbis of Southern California).

“The symbolism alone is powerful,” Reuben said. “For me it’s being able to see the world through other people’s eyes. That’s part of what made it so meaningful, to experience the Vatican as part of a larger group that has a whole different lifetime of emotion, connection, commitment and belief than I do.”

For the Rev. Alexei Smith, director of the Office of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, a particularly moving highlight of the trip was prayer at the tomb of Pope John Paul II, whom he regards as the great interpreter of the Second Vatican Council, which dramatically altered Jewish-Catholic relations.

“He clearly stated that we don’t blame the Jews for the death of Christ. His latest teachings taught that anti-Semitism was a sin,” Smith said on the tour bus leaving Yad Vashem. Pope John Paul II was also the first pope to visit the ancient synagogue in Rome, which is still active today. “I could feel his presence,” recalled Smith of the group’s visit there.

The night before, the group was briefed on the Israel-Palestinian conflict by Arab-Israeli journalist, Khaled Abu Toameh, but the conflict was not a major feature of the itinerary. Throughout the day in Jerusalem, potentially contentious subjects — like the humanitarian debacle in Gaza or the Methodist Church’s petition to divest from Israel — were hardly broached.

The main concern voiced by the Catholic leaders on behalf of the Vatican dealt with the issue of taxation of church property in Israel and the difficulty for clergy to receive multiple entry visas into Israel. These issues were addressed at the Israel Ministry of Welfare and Social Affairs, where Minister Isaac Herzog apprised the group of progress being made.

“In the matter of visas, we are moving along,” Herzog told the group. “Usually it’s due to security considerations. If you bring clergy from Arab countries, there are more complications.”

The Christian community in Israel, said Herzog, is facing a more pressing societal challenge. “The biggest problem is the children go to universities abroad and join congregations abroad, and they fear the number of Christians will decrease in the future.”

Much to the chagrin of the participants, a visit with Palestinian Prime Minister Dr. Salam Fayyad in Ramallah was cancelled at the last minute when the prime minister was delayed in Cairo.

Dr. Nur Amersi, executive director of the Afghanistan World Foundation and resource development and communications officer, Western U.S.A. for the Institute of Ismaili Studies, the only Muslim delegate on the mission, made up for the cancelled Ramallah visit by spending the afternoon in the Arab shuk in the Old City. After speaking with Arab locals, she was struck by the psychological divide she found between the Arabs and Jews, who, in her opinion, are in desperate need of their own interfaith work. At the same time, the Arab shop owners expressed dissatisfaction with the Palestinian Authority and general contentment living in Israel, where business is good.

At a festive dinner at the Olive & Fish restaurant in Jerusalem, where the group was joined by the Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theophilus III of Jerusalem and other Israel-based religious leaders, Amersi admitted that some community and family members had challenged her participation in what could be construed as a trip politically biased towards Israel. As a devout Shiite, she viewed the trip first and foremost as a religious mission, an opportunity to study other Abrahamic faiths at their source and also to fulfill her dream to visit the Dome of the Rock. “I really would encourage more Muslims to travel to Rome and especially to Jerusalem,” she said.