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Jerusalem From the OutsideBy Dan Joslyn-Siemiatkoski
This summer I concluded a year of studying about Judaism as lived in contemporary Israel. I was privileged to be part of a program, the Christian Leadership Initiative, sponsored by the American Jewish Committee and the Shalom Hartman Institute. I was among fifteen other seminary professors and denominational leaders who learned and lived together in Jerusalem.
This was not your typical Christian’s journey to Jerusalem. The program was not designed as a pilgrimage. When we went to Galilee, we visited a cemetery famous for the early Zionists and poets laureate buried there. Our visit to Tel Aviv focused on the story of how a modern city was built on a range of sand dunes. Our time in Jerusalem was spent with daily study in the decidedly modern German Colony, not in the Old City.
I was given a glimpse into the Israel not many Christians know – the vibrant modern state, not the Israel of the first century. I made my own time to discover the Old City, to walk the Via Dolorosa, to spend hours absorbing the pilgrim prayers said in the Church of Holy Sepulcher. I made the time to walk through Arab East Jerusalem, to encounter a part of Jerusalem that felt far removed from the well-maintained West Jerusalem where most of my days were spent. I wrestled with the inequity I saw there while finding familiarity in the pace of West Jerusalem.
The benefit of this experience for me was to constantly bump up against my own difference from my surroundings. While many spoke English around me, I often found myself having to decipher Modern Hebrew in a corner store or navigate the realities of Sabbath observances when trying to get a cab. In a year in which the events from Ferguson to Charleston have made me examine the implicit privileges I carry as a white man, my two weeks in Jerusalem gave me the smallest taste of what it might mean to not be the member of the dominant culture. I was dislocated, I stood out, I needed the help of those who knew Israeli culture. I was none the worse for my minority status in the end, but I was also newly aware of what life outside majority culture felt like.
This also woke me up to the struggle between Israel and Palestine. Jewish settlers came to Palestine at the beginning of the twentieth century seeking self-determination for a nation denied their home for two thousand years. Palestinians struggled against the Ottoman, French and English empires for their own national self-determination. And these equally legitimate claims for self-determination still play out today with tragic consequences. And all the time in Jerusalem, I realized I was an outsider to this struggle. I might have my own voice and opinions on the issue, but they faltered at my own ignorance of the land I was visiting. My customary position of being one in control of knowledge that is assumed in being part of a dominant culture in the US melted away in Jerusalem.
My visit in the end was about gaining humility. Thrust against all I did not know, I gained a new empathy for those who are on the outside of the majority American culture that I thrive in. Although not having gone to Jerusalem as a pilgrim, I returned with the new eyes and full heart gained by many a pilgrim.
When have you experienced life as an outsider to a culture? How has that experience shaped you?
Dr. Joslyn-Siemiatkoski (@danjoslynsiem) joined the seminary faculty in Fall 2014 following his tenure since 2005 on the faculty at Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley, California. His areas of interest include Jewish-Christian history, the history of Anglican ecclesiology, and contemporary interfaith dialogue.
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