We had just finished a delicious dinner, the second of many in Jerusalem, and I was very content. My first full day in Israel was a good one. The nineteen or so other Catholic school educators and two Jewish leaders from the Anti-Defamation League I was traveling with and I had had a long, albeit thought-provoking day getting an introduction to the journey we were just beginning in the Holy Land from many leading experts in history, politics and inter-community relations and were preparing to explore the tunnels underneath the Western Wall of the Temple Mount. I could tell this trip was going to be a good one—the best kind of professional development a teacher could ask for.
As the friendly staff of the restaurant began to serve dessert, our evening program began, a program that would add an even deeper layer to all we were learning on this trip. One by one, various guests who had been sitting amongst us began to stand up and tell us their stories. Some were students at universities across Israel; others were young adults like me. Some were religious, others were rather secular. All of them had a goal of bringing about peace in Israel, not through segregation, violence, or even politics, but by taking themselves out of their comfort zone to create small communities with the “other” whether they be Israeli or Palestinian, Jewish or Muslim, religious or secular. Regardless of what type of group they were, they would share their life experiences and traditions: the traditions and spirituality of their religion, the mundane day-to-day experiences of their school work or career, their families and friends.
Though these groups sometimes felt the strain of grappling with the indifference or even hate their nationality felt for the other and the conflict and violence that periodically arose between them, more often than not, they began to feel strong bonds of friendship and real community that transcended those other feelings.
I was immediately inspired. This was not just going to be just a tour of the holy and historic sites of the country. This was not just going to be professional development to give me resources to take back to the classroom. This was going to go far beyond that. This was going to be a pilgrimage of deep discernment and self-discovery as well.
Over the next week, I built my own interfaith community with my travel companions and the speakers and tour guides we heard from. While we had many light-hearted moments of sharing the stories of our families, lives, and careers and of simply laughing with each other and enjoying each other’s company, we had many more profound moments as well. We learned more about the Jewish faith and traditions as we prayed together, and with the larger Israeli community, at the Western Wall or as we broke bread together on Shabbat. We had moments of deep spiritual connection as we solemnly celebrated mass together feet away from where Jesus was crucified or as we excitedly explained our religious tenets and traditions to others of different backgrounds. We grappled with the complexities of the various conflicts and issues the modern Middle East faces, and also of those that our own communities face, as we heard from passionate speakers of all backgrounds as they shared their own community’s experiences and fears. We reflected on the steadfast hope for peace all our speakers seemed to have and that we would begin to develop as we stood on the shores of the Sea of Galilee looking towards the cities of other countries of the Middle East in the distance.
We had one of those opportunities that only seem to come up every so often: an opportunity to grow deeper in your own understanding of the world and your faith because of all that you were experiencing and learning, yes, but also doing so through the eyes of other deeply passionate people with different backgrounds and experiences. Though we had these different backgrounds and all came from different schools, states, and countries and had a variety of religious and political views, we were able to recognize that underlying characteristic of being human. The other labels we and the world had come to attach to ourselves could not stop us from building that bond of community of humanity.Now that we are back home to our various cities and routines, we are faced with another challenge: How do we take what we learned from our experiences in the Holy Land and continue to apply them to our lives? For me as a teacher, it might be to simply share with my students what I learned and experienced. It might be to try to impart upon them that you don’t have to travel all the way to Israel to experience the community building and hope our small group found together—you can do it in your own world as well. All you have to do is be yourself and be willing to push yourself outside your comfort zone by not only sharing who you are with others, but also to learn from people of other groups and backgrounds. Because, maybe what Carl Wilkens, the only American to remain in Rwanda when the genocide began in 1994, said is true, “Enemies are not born, enemies are constructed. Enemies can be deconstructed by learning their stories… by doing things like service together.”
David Tonnis graduated in 2011 and currently teaches European and Middle Eastern History, History of the Holocaust, AP European History, and AP Macroeconomics at St. Ursula Academy. He is thrilled to be working in a community where he can continue to share the experiences and lessons learned from his time involved with CFJ both in and outside of the classroom.