February 20, 2020

Hashem, Allah and Jesus in Jerusalem


The group stood in silence, heads bowed. The triumvirate of Catholic, Episcopal and Presbyterian ministers waited for responses within the prayer circle at the Cenacle (the upper room), the traditional site of the Last Supper, on Mt. Zion in Jerusalem.

“I wish for peace among our brethren,” said one of the Jewish participants.

“I wish for those outside this room to sense the prayers and hopes that we have for one another, and for people of all religions,” said one of the Muslims.

“May peace be with all of us,” said a Christian.

A few wiped tears from their eyes as each participant greeted one another, kissing, hugging, telling each other, “Peace be with you.”

Moving outside into the February afternoon sun, Mahmoud Abdeo-Baset, the director of religious affairs from the Islamic Center of Southern California, shook his head in amazement.

“Every time we pray together, we have this reaction,” he said. “People weep, people share. It’s an incredible response.”

It seems that the group that prays together, stays together. At least, that appears to be the philosophy, or perhaps, theology, behind the joint Muslim-Jewish-Christian mission from the Wilshire Center Interfaith Council that recently returned from a 10-day visit to Israel and Jordan. They prayed in synagogues, mosques and churches; bowing, bending and kneeling to Allah, Jesus and Hashem in an effort to understand and unite around the familiar contexts of their religious lives.

What’s more, it worked.

“This trip has empowered these people,” said Rabbi Stephen Julius Stein of Wilshire Boulevard Temple and the man behind the initial idea. “It was an out-of-the-box idea to go to Israel and we’re all here now.”

The group — 14 Jews, 15 Christians, 15 Muslims and one Unitarian Universalist — was led by four religious leaders, including Stein; Abdeo-Baset; the Rev. Rick Byrum, assistant rector at St. James Episcopal Church, and Deacon Eric Stoltz, from St. Brendan Catholic Church. Three of the pilgrims were clergymen, including the Rev. Chuck Robertson, the president of the Interfaith Council, who presides over the Wilshire Presbyterian Church.

The plan was to live, pray and visit the holy sites of all three religions together in friendship and harmony. And so they did, eating hummus together in Amman, Jordan; sharing different types of worship in mosques, churches and synagogues, and snapping photos of one another at each site.

For many, the trip was an opportunity to experience other religious faiths — sometimes that of one’s Los Angeles neighbor — for others, it was that of their other-faith spouse.

“We’ve never had a forum for discussing commonalities in our spiritual search,” said Marilyn Lee Schneider, a Christian who was on the trip with her husband, Harry Schneider, a retired Jewish judge. “I always wanted to come to Israel but it was never the right time. When we saw this trip, we knew it was right for us.”

The 10-day tour began in Israel’s secular center, Tel Aviv, but the spiritual side of the trip emerged on the first Saturday night of the trip, when Havdalah at the end of Shabbat became the icebreaker for the group. A chance meeting in Nazareth outside the Church of the Nativity brought them in contact with an Arab Christian who was amazed by the Arabic speakers in the mixed American group. Sunday morning prayers at the Church of the Beatitudes were also a highlight. By the time they reached Jerusalem’s Old City on Thursday, day seven of the trip, they expected nothing less than emotional, roller-coaster moments.

“I’ve been crying like a baby,” said Bob Newmark, wearing his father’s worn tallit at the Western Wall. Newmark, a Jew who was on the trip with his wife, Katherine, an Episcopalian, was visiting Israel for the first time.

For Seanne Biggs, a convert to Judaism, the trip was also her first to Israel, and the mixed group created a sense of spirituality and emotion that she hadn’t expected.

“We pray together,” she said, and by the end of each day, “Oy, we all feel it.”

What surprised many of the participants was their immediate and emotional response to one another. They hadn’t expected to develop such deep friendships with their fellow travelers. Perhaps one reason for the instant fellowship was the no-politics rule on the trip. The carefully depoliticized journey avoided all sensitive sites and topics, even going so far as to use Air Canada rather than El Al, Israel’s national airline, for flying to the region.

But most participants emphasized that what made the trip work was the empathy, understanding and cooperation of those involved.

The Rev. Reinhard Krauss of St. Luke’s Presbyterian, called the use of different languages a highlight of the trip.

“Doors open when the language of the place is used, whether it was Arabic in Nazareth or Hebrew in the Old City,” he said. “It’s a transformation and those moments are the heart of what the pilgrimage is all about.”

In practice, that meant that several of the Muslim men and women negotiated with the Waqf representatives at the Temple Mount/Dome of the Rock in order to allow the Jews and Christians of the group to enter the site, while the Jewish women explained the rites and rituals of prayer at the Western Wall. At the Cenacle, Robertson discussed fast food and community meals to explain the importance of the Last Supper.

“This trip is not so much about where we are as who we are,” said Gene Rubin, a Wilshire Temple member. “The idea of going into each others’ religious homes meant that we bonded in about one day.”

Many of the Jewish travelers had been to Israel before, but were looking for something different with this trip. Jean Cohen wanted to do something special for her 70th birthday and liked the interfaith aspect of this particular pilgrimage. It was a similar objective for Rubin, who recently retired and was looking for some exotic travel.

Some people were brought by their spouses; others by their in-laws. Layla Abou Taleb, an Egyptian by birth, and Salwa Moustafa, who is also Egyptian, are about to become grandmothers together, but became travel partners first. Along the way, they discovered the word machetunim, the Hebrew equivalent for the Arabic sahriti, a term used for the relationship between sets of parents whose children are married to one another.

In the pilgrimage blog (www.abraham.la), Abou Taleb wrote that the trip was a “surreal experience — never in my lifetime would I have envisioned that I would be visiting Israel. I feel like I have opened a new book that I can’t put down and I’m only in the first chapter.”

But not everyone felt as moved by the trip’s religious and cultural overtones. Harry Schneider, who hadn’t been to Israel for 20 years, welcomed the opportunity to re-introduce himself to a land and people that “still has hopes and dreams.”

“Buildings are just buildings,” Schneider said. “The most important thing of all is just to get to know people of different faiths. It’s a wonderful thing, even if we don’t get together ever again. It’s enough just to know that we all want the same things.”

“I have a much better idea of what everyone else is about,” added Ahmed Hammoud, an engineer who has been living in Los Angeles for 45 years. “I had a feeling that we were all pretty similar. But to go through it is to see just how similar we all are.”

His friend, Hassan Kilany, an accountant who has now made hajj, or pilgrimage, to Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem, was the first to sign up for the trip, without any idea of what the itinerary entailed.

“I didn’t ask any questions,” he said with a grin. “I just knew I wanted to be here.”

All the Muslims on the trip happened to be Egyptian, explained Abdeo-Baset, and pray at the same mosque.

Of course, for some, interfaith relations are a way of life. Robertson, the president of the Interfaith Council, has spent most of his career and his life working with diverse groups, and said he didn’t set himself up with expectations for this kind of trip, because “God knows what will actually happen.”

But with the end of the pilgrimage in sight, he said he planned to go out to the larger Los Angeles community to speak about the trip, hopefully with a “troika” of Jews, Muslims and Christians. “This kind of trip,” he said, “shows what you can do with a group of like-minded people. Everything starts making a lot more