On his last trip leading a mission to Israel as senior rabbi of Temple Sinai, Jamie Gibson decided to use the journey as an opportunity to bring understanding between two groups sometimes at odds in recent history: Pittsburgh Jews and Presbyterians.
The mission, Nov. 10-18, included members of both Temple Sinai and East Liberty Presbyterian Church and visited Jewish and Christian sites, as well as Palestinian cities, including Ramallah and Hebron.
Gibson got the idea for a trip that included members of the two faiths after the conflict last year between the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh and the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, spurred by a speaker at the seminary from the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center.
“I arranged two things in the last calendar year,” he said. The first was a visit from Yossi Klein Halevi to the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. “They paid his honorarium and the lion’s share of his expenses.” The second thing was the mission trip.
“I thought if the East Liberty Presbyterian Church and Temple Sinai went to Israel, we could have a better conversation.”
Rev. Randy Bush, of East Liberty Presbyterian Church, co-led the trip with Gibson.
“I’ve known Rabbi Gibson for almost 14 years,” said Bush. “We’ve known each other from community Thanksgiving services, mutual friends and interfaith dialogue in Pittsburgh. Jamie had often said to me that at some point we should go to Israel together.”
The trip included 11 members from East Liberty Presbyterian Church, 17 members from Temple Sinai, and Josh Sayles, director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s Community Relations Council.
Sayles was excited to go on the trip with Gibson, who has been a friend and mentor since he arrived in Pittsburgh four years ago.
“I’m really grateful he thought of me and I was able to be a part of the trip and get to know people from the Jewish and Christian communities that I didn’t know beforehand,” Sayles said. “I’m also really glad I got to go to Israel with Rabbi Gibson before he retired.”
In Israel, the group was accompanied the whole time by both Israeli and Palestinian tour guides, providing dual viewpoints at each stop. Sayles recalled that the Israeli tour guide said, “Look, I’ve been a tour guide for 30 years, and this is the first tour I’ve co-led with a Palestinian tour guide.”
Before embarking on the trip, all participants met three times.
“It gave us a chance to share perspectives on why we wanted to do this trip and start the process of trust-building and making friendships,” Bush said.
It also allowed for an experience different from those taken by other groups. Included in the itinerary were sites important to Christians like the Sea of Galilee and Nazareth, the opportunity to share Shabbat meals with Jewish families, Ramallah and Hebron and the Shilo settlement in the West Bank.
“This was an attempt to guide people through disparate faiths, history and politics, and that is not an easy thing to do,” Gibson said. “The faith is actually the easy part, the history and the politics become very challenging. I think we did very well trying to understand each other’s point of view.”
For Bush the trip was meaningful because it allowed him to see spots important to Christians. It also helped him come away with a new perspective of the land.
“I was struck by the close proximity and how small a geographic space we’re dealing with when we talk about Israel and Palestine,” he said. “From a Pittsburgh perspective, the distance from Pittsburgh to Wexford covers a good chunk of Jerusalem to the West Bank. We forget the land is so constrained geographically.”
He was also surprised by the parallel lives lived by Israelis and Palestinians, often in the same location, such as in Hebron. “We were at a famous mosque where there was a shooting in, I think, 1994, and saw where Abraham was buried. We could hear the prayers in Hebrew of the Jews filtering through the dividers. You had a real sense of two communities almost on top of one another and yet not interacting.”
Gibson views the trip as a success. “This was an attempt to have people experience other’s faith and reality in a way that could not have been done in another fashion. I think it was very fruitful. There are people who would like to continue a dialogue between the East Liberty Presbyterian Church and Temple Sinai in the future, which was my hope for the entire venture.” PJC
Dave Rullo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.