LMU Campus Ministry Interfaith Pilgrimage to the Holy Land

This post was written and submitted by Rabbi Zachary Zysman from Jewish Student Life who attended the Interfaith Pilgrimage to the Holy Land. 

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The Loyola Marymount University (LMU) Campus Ministry Interfaith Pilgrimage to the Holy Land was made possible through the creative and generous spirit of Father James Erps, S.J., director of Campus Ministry at LMU. Our trip was intentionally organized and carefully planned in partnership with Campus Ministry, Jewish Student Life (Student Affairs), and the Muslim Student Association (Theology department). Months of partnership, collaboration, and many meetings, emails, and phone calls went into planning this trip. We had endless discussions about where to go, how many days to spend where, how to incorporate an equal number of holy sites for each religion, and how many students and staff should go on the pilgrimage.

The main goal was to visit and make a pilgrimage to some of the most holy sites in Israel. Our 11-day journey took us to Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth, and the Sea of Galilee, and was led by five members of LMU’s faculty and staff:

  • John Flaherty, associate director of campus ministry;
  • Father Paul Vu, S.J., assistant dean for student affairs
  • Amir Hussain, professor of theological studies
  • Kelly Nelson, campus minister
  • Rabbi Zachary Zysman, director of Jewish Life and LMU Hillel.

“Our intent was to explore the religious pilgrimage sites of the three Abrahamic faiths and to learn a little bit about each other and the other.”

We were intentional not to have “tourist-like experiences,” or visit sites to learn about the historical and religious significance of the location. Rather, we approached each holy site as if we were on a pilgrimage ourselves, and would take time to stop to pray before and after each visit. We built in time during the day to reflect on what we saw and how we felt.

Every evening we would gather together and continue to reflect upon and begin to process where we had been, what we had seen and discussed all the questions that were coming up for us. These reflections became powerful, prayerful moments themselves as we grappled with new information and processed the feeling of awe we felt walking the same streets as Abraham and Jesus. Most of the participants, many on their first trip to Israel, seemed to have an eternal “Wow!” expression on their face.

Our itinerary brought us to holy sites such as the Mount of Olives, Mount Zion, the Old City of Jerusalem, the Temple Mount and the Al Aqsa Mosque (where some of our students and staff prayed and made pilgrimage). We saw the City of David and went to the Wilderness of Judea, Masada, and Qumran (where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found). Many of our students and staff were moved by the natural beauty and magic of the Dead Sea and experienced first-hand the power of floating on water while the sun was setting behind glorious mountains.

We visited Shepherd’s Field (where we held Sunday mass in a manger) and saw Yad Vashem (Jerusalem’s Holocaust Museum – where we said Kaddish (Mourner’s Blessing) for the millions who were murdered in the war). We went to the Israel Museum, walked the Via Crucis, and visited The Church of St. Anne.

At the Church of St. Anne, we spoke with Fr. Gaetan, one of the Missionaries of Africa priests who administer the church. Fr. Gaetan is himself a West African, from Burkina Faso. He told us about the conflict and cooperation between Muslims and Catholics in West Africa. For African Catholics, interaction with Islam and Muslims is part of their daily reality, underscoring the importance of interfaith dialogue. That meeting came after a glorious chance encounter with Nigerian pilgrims, who joined with us in song in a church that is famous for its acoustics. The singing and the subsequent conversation were both examples of the “dialogue of life” that the Catholic Church has been doing, both with Muslims and with Jews, since the Second Vatican Council.

Additionally, we explored the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, prayed at the Western Wall, and walked through the excavations of the Southern wall alongside the foundation built in the time of King Herod the Great. After we left Jerusalem, we headed to Jericho and through the Jordan Valley to the River Jordan. We explored many more churches and sites where Jesus lived, taught, and performed miracles. Finally, we explored the Sea of Galilee, Mt. Arbel, Magdala, Megiddo, Mt. Carmel and Ceasarea by the Sea.

On the outside, our group must have appeared curious to others, for we could not be more diverse, each distinguished by religion, gender, age and ethnicity. Uniting us, however, was the LMU mission, our drive for adventure, and instinct to understand.

“It is no accident that LMU’s mission statement speaks of the ‘service of faith’ and not, say, of the ‘promotion of Roman Catholicism,’” said John Sebastian, LMU’s vice president for mission and ministry. “Our institutional commitment to serving faith requires us to engage in dialogue between the great religious traditions in keeping with the direction set for the Catholic Church by the Second Vatican Council.” The LMU Campus Ministry Interfaith Pilgrimage to the Holy Land perfectly encapsulates LMU’s mission statement:

  • The encouragement of learning
  • The education of the whole person and
  • The service of faith and the promotion of justice

Every day, both our students and professional staff engaged in deep, rigorous, and religious experiences that encompassed every aspect of what it means to be a Lion.

Every day each component of our mission was at play, from the critical thinking surrounding the philosophical and theological disciplines we were being faced with, to the discourse and search for values in the midst of the religious and cultural diversity we saw. The education of the whole person meant not only discussing the meaning and importance of a site but encouraging the personal integration of our thinking, feeling, choosing, and evolving self as well as our religious/spiritual growth.

The LMU mission reads, “The Service of Faith honors the reality of religious pluralism on our campus and embraces inter-faith dialogue in formal and informal contexts,” and our trip was the very embodiment of this work. Something wonderful happens when you spend breakfast, lunch, and dinner with people, and when you eat and travel with them. It’s impossible not to get to know your travel partner better, despite the differences in religious or political beliefs. This was evident by the conversations we had throughout the trip. Talk about our differences quickly turned into discussions about who our role models are, favorite sports teams, classic rock and who has the largest music selection (spoiler alert: it’s Father Vu who is killing the iTunes game with close to 10,000 songs)!

The last time I was in Israel I left feeling discouraged and sad about the religious, political, and cultural landscape of Israel. The Israeli/Palestinian conflict appeared to be further from resolution than ever before. The Israeli government, the settlements, and all the rage directed at people got to me and I left dejected. As a rabbi and Jew, but particularly as the grandson of four Holocaust survivors, this was very difficult for me to cope with.

The feeling I felt when I left Israel this time was the exact opposite. This time, I left feeling hopeful, uplifted, encouraged, and positive about the holy land. This had everything to do with the nature of the trip. I was able to see Israel through the lens of people who had never been there before. The framing of this trip was decidedly more Catholic then I had ever experienced and this allowed me to experience and understand certain sites in different ways and contexts. I now have a new appreciation for the power of interfaith work, which I find more and more to be at the center of my work as a rabbi.

Interfaith dialogue and trialogue is becoming more important and is vital to relationship building at all levels of society. With the rise of Nationalism worldwide, when refugees are being sent back to their war-torn countries, and when differences seem to be separating and dividing us at an alarming rate, the work of deep listening, sharing stories, and engaging “the other” is becoming more crucial. Interfaith work can help to establish relationships, share positive knowledge across lines of religious difference, and ultimately bring people together.

The power of our trip was palpable. We could all feel it as we gathered together in a circle a couple of hours before our flight departed for the holy land. We came together to pray the traditional Jewish traveler’s prayer, the T’Fillat HaDerech. Awkwardly we circled together and held hands, still strangers to one another, anxious about what the next eleven days would bring. It was impossible to know that at the end of the trip, we would gather in the same circle and utter the same words. But this time, we stood united in love, friendship, and companionship. Together we had made the pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and would never be the same.