Catholics, Jews return from pilgrimage to Rome and Israel, reflect on deepened bonds

Catholics, Jews return from pilgrimage to Rome and Israel, reflect on deepened bonds

After returning Nov. 8 from a trip through Israel and Rome, the Jewish and Catholic participants of the Pursuer of Peace Pilgrimage are now finding ways to bring their new understanding to their communities.
And they’ve got a lot of inspiration to draw from.
The trip, which began Oct. 31, was the brainchild of Rodef Shalom Congregation’s Rabbi Aaron Bisno, in conjunction with Jeffrey Cohan, the community and public affairs committee director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh and members of the Pittsburgh Area Jewish Committee.
Rodef Shalom awarded Bishop David Zubik with its first Pursuer of Peace award last summer. As Bisno had never been to Rome, and Zubik had never visited Israel, plans for a joint trip gained momentum in the following months; 28 people, members of Pittsburgh’s Jewish and Catholic communities, were along for the ride.
“I was pleasantly surprised at how impactful this was for everyone on the trip,” said Bisno. “The Jews had been to the Jewish sites, but sharing it all with an interfaith group was very meaningful.”
The pilgrimage began in Rome, where the group toured the city’s Jewish ghetto and met with the head rabbi of Rome.
“Meeting the rabbi and understanding the plight of the Jews there, it raised my awareness,” said Ann Roth, Rodef Shalom’s senior vice president. “I didn’t know about any of that. We live in this very sheltered, Squirrel Hill-istic world [while] people all over the world continue to fight for their Jewishness.”
The group was part of a Papal Audience, where Zubik introduced Bisno to Pope Benedict XVI. The proceedings were spirited; Father Dan Valentine of Sewickley even waived a Terrible Towel. The experience was one that “only [Zubik] could provide,” said Bisno.
In Israel, the group visited Jerusalem’s Western Wall, the Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem and Bethlehem, but also had more topical experiences, such as meeting the family of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. Roth, who is related to the Shalit family, sat with Gilad’s father Noam and Zubik to talk for a moment.
“Afterwards, I thanked the bishop for taking that moment with me, and he said how uncomfortable it was,” said Roth. “But isn’t that what peace is all about? Going beyond your comfort level?”
At Yad Vashem, the group encountered a large collection of Israeli soldiers, leading some to draw parallels between the past and present.
“Not only can we not forget about what happened, but we can’t forget what these young people are doing for the state of Israel,” said Roth.
Now back in Pittsburgh, the group, which included rabbis, priests, several members of the media and community leaders, must sort through the meaning of the experience. Group members said they have been talking to friends and family, and plan to meet next week to more formally discuss their memories and the trip’s impact.
Mary Lou McLaughlin, a Squirrel Hill Catholic, was impressed by the symbolism of Bisno and Zubik talking together in Jerusalem.
“They were leaning on a wall, looking over Jerusalem. To the left, there was the Western Wall. Above that, the Dome of the Rock, and to the right, the Mount of Olives. I could picture a vision of Jesus looking over that same wall,” said McLaughlin. “In the city of peace, here were these two very special men, who are extremely passionate about peace in Israel and in our world.”
Having lived in Squirrel Hill for over 30 years, McLaughlin said, “We’ve sat shiva, had sad and joyful times with our Jewish friends. But we never truly understood the pain until we experienced it with these friends [on the trip].”
Howard “Hoddy” Hanna, chairman of Howard Hanna Real Estate, described countless stories and memories from the pilgrimage. “We’ve been fortunate to travel a lot of wonderful places, but never have we experienced a trip that was more meaningful in so many different ways,” he said.
The pilgrimage, meant to forge a deeper understanding for local Catholics and Jews of the others’ faith and tradition, now must continue back in Pittsburgh, said Roth.
“We have to bring the voice. We have to scream it from the rooftops,” she said. “Our rabbi will say it from his pulpit, but that’s not action. That’s reporting. Our bishop will do the same. But it’s up to us to take the message into the community and give it value. It’s time we get over the stigmas [Jews and Catholics] have about each other — those classic

(Justin Jacobs can be reached at

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