The group of 28 lay leaders and communal professionals will embark this Sunday, Oct. 31, on the first trip of its kind for the Pittsburgh interfaith community.
The Pursuer of Peace Pilgrimage, as it is called, had its genesis more than 18 months ago, ignited by a casual statement over dinner from Bishop David Zubik to his friend, Rabbi Aaron Bisno.
“The bishop volunteered that he had never been to Israel. I told him I’d love to take him,” recalled Bisno, senior rabbi of Rodef Shalom Congregation. “I also told him I had never been to Rome.”
As both clergymen were eager to show the holy sites of their respective faiths to each other — and to experience the other’s holy sites through their friend’s eyes — a trip to both Rome and Israel was soon in the works.
Bisno contacted Jeffrey Cohan, the community and public affairs committee director at the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, as well as the Pittsburgh Area Jewish Committee, which promotes interfaith understanding, to get the ball rolling. But it was not until this past summer, when Rodef Shalom conferred its Pursuer of Peace Award upon Zubik, that the planning of the trip really gained momentum.
“The trip is an extension of the Pursuer of Peace award given to Bishop Zubik,” said Father Daniel Straughn, secretary to the bishop. “We hope it will bring our faiths and our traditions together.”
The itinerary in Rome includes an audience with Pope Benedict XVI, a tour of the Great Synagogue and a meeting with Rome’s chief rabbi. In Israel, the group will visit such sites as Yad Vashem, the Church of the Nativity and the Western Wall.
“The trip is an opportunity to pray and to journey with Rabbi Bisno and Bishop Zubik,” said Straughn. “Yes, we will visit important sites, but it is an opportunity to journey with these two men, and with each other. We will get to share our faith and our experiences with one another.”
Members of the group will attend both Catholic and Jewish prayer services together, Straughn said, “celebrating together as far as our traditions will allow us.”
Also traveling with the group will be a team of documentary filmmakers from Duquesne University, as well as the editor of the Pittsburgh Catholic newspaper, to chronicle the trip.
“The Pursuer of Peace Pilgrimage is the realization of a shared vision for our two communities,” Bisno said. “Involving leaders from Rodef Shalom Congregation, the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s community and public affairs committee and the Pittsburgh Area Jewish Committee, as well as similarly placed members of the Catholic community, we travel to the Eternal City of Rome and the Holy Land of Israel having taken upon ourselves the responsibility for bringing home a renewed dedication to finding common ground among those who are different from us and a deeper respect and regard for our neighbors.
“The real goal here,” Bisno added, “is to come back here and build better bonds of friendship and understanding between the two communities.”
Rabbi Alvin K. Berkun, rabbi emeritus of Tree of Life Congregation, and past president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, praised Bisno, Zubik and Cohan for putting the trip together.
Berkun, who helped start C/JEEP, a program that sends rabbis into Catholic high schools and Catholic educators into Jewish schools to teach about the other, stressed the importance of interfaith understanding and communication.
“Clearly, when you see what happened with Bishop Bustros [referencing Bustros’ recent virulent statements against Israel], that really awful, awful statement proves how important it is to have communication open, and to know to whom to turn. Dialogue is always better than the opposite.
“This trip is really a new venture,” Berkun continued. “Think about the 1,000 years of strained relationships between Catholics and Jews. This is really a new age.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)