by Rachael Sauceda, ICCI intern
As an intern at the ICCI, I had an opportunity during the second week of January to explore the diverse cultures of Israel on an intellectual and spiritual level with a group of graduate students from Chicago Theological Seminary (CTS) who were in Israel on a seminar with ICCI’s Center for Interreligious Encounter with Israel. The seminar was led by Professors Rachel Mikva and Susan Thisthlethwaite of CTS. I was very grateful that the group was more than welcoming and extremely friendly in allowing me to go on some of their study tours, giving me the opportunity to learn along with them.
I was able to join them on their second day of touring which took them through the Old City of Jerusalem and visited the major historical and religious sites. Although, as a graduate student in Israel for the year, I go to the Old City often, it is always such a refreshing experience to see people visit for the first time and to relive those moments of awe and inspiration in such a sacred place. The students were given the opportunity to visit the sites of Judaism, Islam and Christianity, including the Western Wall, the Dome of the Rock and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. In addition, by visiting the different quarters in the Old City, they had the chance to see how the people from diverse communities live in such close proximity.
When I joined the group for their day in Bethlehem it was a major change from the narrative presented in Jerusalem. The group toured a refugee camp, the Church of the Nativity, and met with leaders at Holy Land Trust and Bethlehem Fair Trade Artisans. Hearing such diverse historical and religious points of view from Palestinians who live so close to Jerusalem put into sharp perspective the distinctions in such a small area of land. Learning about the people of the refugee camp and walking through their community gave the students a firsthand experience of people living in the midst of an ongoing conflict. Although the conflict can be felt from both sides for various reasons, standing so close to the separation barrier (a.k.a. wall/fence) and seeing how people live daily with these physical and psychological barriers is very different from most peoples’ day to day lives, including those who were in the group from Chicago.
The process of academic learning about a culture and conflict and experiencing it first-hand changes how people think and reflect upon a situation which is very complicated. By listening to the group’s discussion I could see that each student was deeply engaged in the process and interested in what the others thought about the experience. By taking time to sit down and go over what the group had learned collectively and individually, the students developed a deeper understanding of the complexities of the conflict in Israel and Palestine. After the reflection period the students divided up and stayed overnight in Palestinian homes in Bethlehem.
The Chicago Theological Seminary students had a chance to experience Israel/Palestine from a broad range of perspectives. This unique program gave the students from Chicago special opportunities to meet with both Israeli and Palestinian speakers who presented different narratives which gave them some insights for understanding the current situation in the region. Additionally, in other parts of the two-week seminar, the students met with Jewish, Muslim, Christians and Druze groups to be given the opportunity to experience a wide variation of religions that are represented in Israel.
Moreover, seeing how the historical aspects of Israel are so closely intertwined with the conflict enabled the students to understand the situation in greater depth. Attempting to comprehend and become sensitive to all the different cultures and issues prevalent in Israel/Palestine in a comprehensive manner provided a unique learning opportunity for the students of CTS and also for myself.
Rachael Sauceda, a recent graduate of Ohio State University, is working towards a masters degree in Nonprofit Management and Community Leadership at the Hebrew University’s Rothberg International School. During her stay in Israel, she is interning at the ICCI and also working on various other projects throughout the community or Jerusalem.