Janice and Myron Watzman had been talking about taking a trip together to Israel since the day they were married in 1990. Janice, who is Roman Catholic, and Myron, who is Jewish, were just waiting for the right time and the right trip.
They finally found that trip last month, an interfaith pilgrimage to Israel led by Rabbi Aaron Bisno, senior rabbi at Rodef Shalom Congregation, and Bishop David Zubik of the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh.
The tour, which ran from Feb 6 to Feb. 15, and included sites of historic and spiritual significance to both faiths, “seemed like the perfect blend of the cultures and the religions,” said Janice Watzman.
“The whole goal of the trip was to learn about both religions,” she added, “and to trace the roots where our beliefs come from.”
Sites visited on the trip included the Roman ruins in Caesarea, Nazareth, the Old City and Yad Vashem.
Twenty-six “pilgrims” — six Jews and 20 Catholics and other non-Jews — joined the bishop and the rabbi, with mass offered daily, as well as a communal Shabbat and Havdalah service.
This was the second trip to Israel led by Zubik and Bisno. The first time the two spiritual leaders led a tour of Israel was in 2010 and included a visit to Rome as well.
This time the Pittsburgh group toured alongside a group from Oakland, Calif., that was impressed with the camaraderie between the Jews and non-Jews from Pittsburgh, said Zubik.
“They were dumbfounded to see the way we intermingled with each other,” Zubik said. “That was beautiful, to see their reaction. The folks could see we have a genuine love for each other.”
This was the bishop’s fourth visit to Israel.
“Each time you see new things, experience new realities and see things in a different way,” he said. “I am taken with how special the Holy Land really is. “
The trip, Zubik stressed, was truly a “pilgrimage.”
“One of the things we all agreed to,” he said, “is that this would not be a tour, it would not be a vacation. It was all part of the whole journey of faith.”
For Bisno, being with Jews and Christians “experiencing Israel together is fascinating,” allowing for an appreciation of “what these places and ideas mean to huge segments of the world.”
The pilgrimage gave the rabbi the “opportunity to go to places I had never been to before,” he said. “I had never walked the Stations of the Cross through the Old City of Jerusalem. As a group, we did that. I saw the power it had for the Catholic pilgrims.”
Another day, Bisno took a group of Jewish travelers to the Kotel, when the rain became a downpour. To escape the rain, the men ducked into an underground tunnel where they discovered several b’nai mitzvah being celebrated, along with several minyanim.
“It was very heady in a very spiritual way,” Bisno said.
Of the six Jews on the trip, three were intermarried, two were married to each other and one was single, according
“It felt very balanced,” he said. “I felt it was very much a Christian/Jewish trip; we visited ancient churches and ancient temples. Christians might say they went to the Holy Land and Jews would say they went to Israel, but each group got a more expansive view of the other’s sites.”
For Myron Watzman, it was his second visit to Israel. But traveling with Zubik and Bisno, he said, put a unique spin on the trip.
The opportunity to travel through Israel at any time and with any traveling companion “is a privilege,” wrote Bisno in a blog post about the trip. “But to be afforded the opportunity to be here with fellow friends in faith, even if our faith traditions are different, is a true m’chayeh; truly, it is a life-affirming experience.”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.