Ten area ministers of various denominations just returned from a seven-day visit to Israel organized by the Pittsburgh chapter of the Zionist Organization of America.
For many of them, it was their first trip to the Jewish state.
“Anytime there’s an opportunity to go to the Holy Land, it’s wonderful,” said the Rev. Thomas Hall of the First Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh.
According to Stuart Pavilack, executive director of the ZOA-Pittsburgh, the trip gave the clergy a perspective of the country they may not see or hear or read about in the American media.
“We took clergy over to see that the situation on the ground is different than what they see on television,” Pavilack said.
He specifically cited “misinformation” surrounding the security barrier, which the ministers saw on their trip.
“The security barrier makes everyone’s lives [who live around it] more difficult, as with security anywhere. When you enter a mall [in Israel] you pass through security,” Pavilack said. “Our tour guide said Israelis have a love/hate relationship with the fence. They hate to see it there but because of the terrorism it has reduced, they love seeing that.”
The organizers of the trip, which was subsidized through the Charles M. Morris Foundation and individual donations, targeted ministers who had never previously been to Israel.
Nevertheless, some ministers had prior experience in the country. Hall, for instance, a former Air Force colonel, traveled to Israel, Syria and Jordan as part of his studies at the Air War College, Maxwell Field, Ala.
“I actually went to the Golan Heights, but on the opposite side, so it’s interesting to go there and look from the opposite direction,” he said.
He said visiting the Golan, as well as the border city of Sderot, which has endured many rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip, “gives you a deeper appreciation for what the State of Israel has to go through.”
Israel’s observance of its Memorial Day, Yom Hazikaron, also impressed the retired Air Force officer.
“It’s more complete, more total,” Hall said of Israel’s Memorial Day observance. “For many, many Americans, Memorial Day is just a holiday. [In Israel], because the threat is so real and so many have lost loved ones, they take it more seriously.”
Rev. James Kirk of Ken Mawr Presbyterian Church in McKees Rocks, said the highlight for him was not seeing sites, but talking to people.
“Our media tends to be one sided over here, and my concern was that I only got one perspective,” Kirk said, “so I felt kind of stupid about Israel in the 21st century, not only the political situation, but life in Israel; how they live.”
While he does want to understand the Palestinian situation, “Most of our media tends to be Palestinian oriented,” he said. “Although I want to hear that side, I realize, as a Christian, my roots are with the Israelis, it’s Israel-based; they were the chosen people, and we came from that, our faith came from that.”
Pavilack said the message of the trip was to urge the ministers to question all media reports about Israel.
He said the ZOA-Pittsburgh is interested in doing another clergy mission. “It’s something the board will look at in the future.” However, “it’s contingent on funding.”
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at email@example.com.)