About Pilgrimage: Israel
Pilgrimage: Israel is an intensive travel seminar that includes pre-trip sessions throughout the spring semester, a 10-day experience in Israel, and follow-up presentations. The trip is organized by the University of Richmond’s Office of the Chaplaincy, and led by Emily Cobb, director of multifaith initiatives, and Andrew Goodman, director of Jewish life and campus rabbi.
The experience in Israel includes stops in the Galilee region, Haifa, and Jerusalem. We work with numerous organizations in Israel to help illuminate the present-day experience of Christians, Muslims, and Jews living alongside one another in the Holy Land. We visit major religious sites and have time to explore the old city of Jerusalem. We also explore current conflicts between Israel and Palestine and consider how this affects interfaith communication in the region.
Who We Are
We all have things in life that we hold dear, that define us, that we feel in our very core.
We all have things that are sacred.
Even though most of us had never set foot on Israel’s ground just over a month ago, this tiny country was unquestionably something we each held sacred. It represented a place where faith didn’t have to be something that we felt only in our hearts. It was a place where faith could be tangible and visible — where the length of a coat or the shape of a hat could tell the world what you believe. It represented a place where you didn’t have to explain who you are, but rather a place where you can just be.
It also is a place we knew held challenges, and we were greeted with them immediately. We saw what happens when competing stories fight for the spotlight, rather than search for the common ground of co-existence. We walked alongside the physical barriers that arise when a modern-day story of Exodus meets a fear of losing the first homeland a people have found in generations. We felt the tension that can build when dynamic faiths find a home within the same city walls.
No one claims that it was easy to hear that a place we hold sacred has real problems, but by challenging our existing beliefs, we learned right away the importance of listening to all perspectives.
“It’s easy for us to only look for the easy answers in our faith,” Emily says, “To seek out people who are likeminded, who support everything that we feel.
“But faith just isn’t that straightforward for most of us. It comes with its own set of challenges, and different times in our life where we’re going to test our faith, we’re going to doubt our faith—and times where we’re going to flourish in our faith.”
Sarah R., who last came to Israel with a Jewish organization, says the multifaith lens of Pilgrimage: Israel opened her eyes to the importance the land holds for many other faiths. “This trip taught me why Israel is important to Muslims and Christians, as well as Jews,” she says. “This was put into context for me when we visited holy sites, such as the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the Temple Mount. We saw the huge amount of Christians and Muslims from all over the world that were visiting Israel.”
Listening to those opposing, yet overlapping, viewpoints from the onset of the trip set the stage for the rest of the experience. “You can’t start with judgment and then move into conversation,” Andrew says. “You have to start with conversation. You have to start with experiencing all the different perspectives and listening to the narratives, and then move into processing it and making sense of it yourself.”
And seeing the shared history for so many people made the importance of coexistence even more apparent, but also served as a reminder of the barriers and ownership claims.
“My greatest personal challenge was coming to terms with the fact that Israel holds significance for groups other than Jews, and that the Jewish population is not the only population with a ‘right’ to Israel,” Melissa says. “And while I abhor the human rights violations that the Palestinians are experiencing, I do find it very important that Israel remain a Jewish state. While Christians and Muslims have many countries in which they each are majorities, Israel is the only country in the world where being Jewish does not make one different.”
That flipped sense of majority and minority was palpable from the moment we set foot on the plane to Tel Aviv, and in some ways, there was no clearer method to understand the other perspective than to spend 10 days in unfamiliar territory.
“I had never felt like the most Catholic person in the room, but this time I truly was simply by virtue of being the only one,” Claire says. “It was a challenging position, but it ultimately reinforced my faith on a stronger foundation.”
But that feeling didn’t just apply to Christian versus Jewish perspectives. With so many denominations and nuances in personal faith, sometimes the strongest sense of difference comes from recognizing the variations in your own faith.
“I realized how much Judaism depends on what you want it to be,” Zac says. “Seeing the different speakers that we met with, and all the different ways that they practice their faith, I learned that you don’t have to be an orthodox Jew, or even someone who keeps kosher, to be a proud Jew. It’s interesting to see the different ways you can be Jewish and also have a strong identity. There’s no wrong answer to that.”
And identifying yourself with a particular faith doesn’t mean you assume a complete set of beliefs without question.
“Just because you’re a Jew doesn’t mean you need to have this unquestioning love of Israel,” Zac says. “Having a questioning love of Israel just means that I care about the country. If you truly care, you’re going to hold it to a higher standard.”
Visiting Haifa at the end of the trip gave us a chance to witness what that higher standard could be in Israel. Built with the collective hands of Palestinians and Israelis, Jews, Christians, and Muslims, Haifa’s beginnings relied on the collective co-existence of its citizens—a life that continues to this day.
It was only after feeling the tension of Jerusalem and witnessing the modern-day political struggles of Tel Aviv that we were able to truly appreciate both the necessity and the complexity of Haifa’s peaceful co-existence.
“When we start in that very difficult place, we understand the questions to ask when we look at all the good things that are going on,” Emily says. “When we look at the security role we understand a little bit more why it’s necessary, but also the challenges that come with greater security. We start to understand the challenges of a new country trying to get established, trying to figure out how to take care of the people living there. It helps us to understand all of those frameworks. And then when we hear people who are having such a wonderful experience there, we know why they love that land.”
Even though a month has passed since we first left — and we’ve had the distance to process what we saw and heard and felt — Israel was just a part of each of our stories. We came from different places, and we will continue down different paths.
For some, Pilgrimage: Israel may be the time when we rediscovered our personal faith. For some, it may give us the context to make our faith more meaningful. For some, it may be the spark that ignites a lifetime working to create a more equitable society for all. For some, it may be a reminder that sometimes the most important thing we can do is listen.
But for 10 days, the stories of 12 people were one. And for each of us, that story is sacred.
From our hotel in Haifa, on our last night in Israel, several students reflected on their Pilgrimage experience. Watch what they had to say about being challenged, learning to make room for the stories of others, and growing in their faith.