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Discovering Israel

Springfield JCC and St. Andrews Church plan an interfaith family mission

By Stacey Dresner

SPRINGFIELD – About 18 months ago, when Springfield was rocked by a bomb threat at the Jewish Community Center, some of the Jewish community’s staunchest supporters were Christian clergy from the area.

Rabbi James Greene

“Derrick was here the day of the bomb threat,” said the JCC’s Rabbi James Greene, referring to Rev. Derrick Fetz of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church. “He was very clear that this was his community and he was going to stand with us. Another member of the clergy – Rev. Marisa Ludwig — was one of the first people to come to the building after the bomb threat notification came out and was directing traffic in our parking lot.”

That connection is sure to get even stronger with next summer’s Interfaith Mission to Israel, organized by both Rabbi Greene and Rev. Fetz and sponsored by both the JCC and St. Andrew’s.

Discover Israel: An Interfaith Family Trip to Israel will take place June 30 – July 9, 2019.

“It is a wonderful mix of folks from the Jewish community and from the general community,” said Rabbi Greene.

“Given how polarized our society is at the moment, such a trip is needed to offer an example that there are people from diverse backgrounds who genuinely desire to be together and learn from one another,” said Rev. Fetz.

Greene added that there is still time for people who are interested to participate. The deadline for signing up for the trip is Nov. 1.

The interfaith group will arrive in Tel Aviv on June 30 and will immediately start learning about the early Jewish pioneers and Christian groups that were involved in “The Beginnings of the Modern Hebrew City of Tel Aviv.”

They will visit the Holon Children’s Museum and participate in a world-renowned interactive exhibit, which simulates blindness in a creative way. The itinerary includes a hike in Northern Israel, a visit to the Mount Tabor Monastery, camping under the stars, kayaking on the Jordan River and a visit to Mount Bental, an extinct volcano on the Golan Heights.

Rev. Derrick Fetz

“It’s designed to be inclusive for families with children. We have some folks who are bringing a grandchild; we have some folks who are coming who are empty nesters. And we have some folks who have younger children who are coming,” Rabbi Greene explained. “But the trip is designed to be inclusive of families, so while there are activities that are going to be child-focused – like the children’s museum we will be visiting – but there are alternative activities for those looking for something a little bit different.”

Other activities will include a chocolate workshop and a wine tasting, followed by a journey to the Church of the Beatitudes, the site where Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount. A boat ride on the Sea of Galilee will be followed by 4th of July fireworks.

The itinerary will include Masada, a visit to Afula-Gilboa and of course Jerusalem, including a guided walk of the Old City and the Western Wall.

This mission came about through the strong connections Rabbi Greene has made with clergy from other faiths – including Rev. Fetz.

“Two years ago I started having coffee about once a week with some other interfaith clergy in the community. Around that time, we started talking about some joint programming to do to help support some of the interfaith work that was happening in the community,” he explained. “We had talked separately about trips to Israel but were not sure about how exactly how to do it on our own. We were not sure that we would be doing anything different than any other trips to Israel that were already happening in the community.”

After the bomb threat, interfaith work in the community became even more important.

“After that incident, as we were talking about how we were going to respond, it became really clear that what we needed to do was partner together with some immersive experiences that would help strengthen ties, because that tie between our communities had been such a powerful moment both for Rev. Fetz and for me and I think for his community and for my community.”

“When people are given the opportunity to have a shared experience, they many times walk away with an increased appreciation for one another,” added Rev. Fetz. “We hope this interfaith endeavor will help foster deeper relationships between people of different faiths as they experience the religious sites that are important to both traditions and those that are unique to each one. We want to offer an opportunity for Christians and Jews to celebrate common traditions and values and at the same time celebrate the differences – we can manifest unity and work for the common good without uniformity of belief and practice. Also, I’m interested in helping plan this trip because it is geared toward young families — many trips to the Holy Land are not.”

Rabbi Greene and Rev. Fetz were already friends before planning the trip. Rabbi Greene’s wife Jen Greene serves as the administrator in the office at St. Andrews. Rev. Fetz was a member of the JCC and his daughter was a student at the JCC preschool. And Rev. Fetz and his congregation welcomed Rabbi Greene to St. Andrews two years ago to give a sermon.

“St. Andrew’s has a wonderful history of doing interfaith work and we have been really lucky to develop a strong relationship between the JCC and St. Andrews,” Rabbi Greene said. “Rev. Fetz is a good friend of ours and is a strong member of the community and it made perfect sense for him to be involved.”

This summer, Rev. Fetz left the Longmeadow area when he was called to serve at St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral in Buffalo, N.Y.

He will still go on the mission, along with his wife and daughter.

“Interfaith work is important to me and I want to honor my commitment,” Rev. Fetz said. “In addition, it will be an ideal situation to reconnect with former parishioners and community members.”

This will be the first visit to Israel for Rev. Fetz.

“I’m excited about enjoying the local culture firsthand and having better visual of the sites referenced in scripture with people I greatly enjoy,” he said. “I hope to share with my current community specific knowledge about Jewish history, customs and practices and I’m certain the trip will increase my excitement to work closer with the Jewish community in the areas of social justice, religious education and service.”

For more information about the Interfaith Family Mission to Israel, go to www.springfieldjcc.org/jewishlife/israel or call Rabbi Greene at (413) 739-4715.

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