Yad Vashem

Although it was unplanned, it is fitting that my new friend Colleen and I visited Yad Vashem this morning, on this International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Yad Vashem is Israel’s official memorial to the victims of the Holocaust; it also recognizes non-Jews who risked their lives to rescue Jews during the Holocaust.

Rather than words, here are some images from the visit. The first is a collection of victim’s shoes from the Majdanek death camp. The second is from the Hall of Names; since no cemeteries, headstones, or traces were left to mark the loss of the six million Holocaust victims, the Hall of Names is the Jewish People’s memorial to each Jew murdered in the Holocaust. The final is the Children’s Memorial, hollowed out from an underground cavern, a tribute to the approximately 1.5 million Jewish children who were murdered during the Holocause.

On this day of remembrance, it is good to keep in mind the words on one of the plaques at Yad Vashem: “A country is not just what it does – it is also what it tolerates. (Kurt Tucholsky, German essayist of Jewish origin)


The “Holy Land” Doesn’t Always Seem So Holy

Hakimah (the program of the Tantur Ecumenical Institute I am here in the Holy Land for) is not a political program, but it is impossible to be here and ignore the political situation.  I say that for reasons like these:

One of the leaders of the program is a Palestinian Muslim who lives in Hebron.  She could not be with us for the opening session of the program because while on her way to Tantur, there was a shooting on the road that resulted in all traffic to be stopped for several hours, after which she was forced to return home.  (And, while she has a permit that allows her to be in Israeli territory, she is required to depart before a certain time in the evening.)

Another program leader a Jewish women originally from the US who is now an Israeli citizen, could not join us for our visits to either Bethlehem or Hebron, since the Israeli government prohibits its citizens from entering Palestinian territory.

Our guide for two of our trips, a Palestinian Christian man, could accompany us to some places in Hebron, but not to the synagogue we visited. 

It is one thing to read about checkpoints, and quite another to see the wall, and to watch the stream of people going in and out as they move between Palestinian and Israeli controlled areas for school or work.  To amount of time it takes…the ever present possibility of abuse…the uncertainty that one might be turned back at any time.  (Our guide was punched in the arm going through a check point with us, for no apparent reason.)

Today in Hebron, we walked down street after street of a part of the old city that used to be a thriving Palestinian market area, but which is now empty buildings, as the streets have been closed to Palestinians, and nothing except broken windows and locked doors has taken its place. it is literally a ghost town.

I could go on and on with things that make me want to weep.  We must find a way to do better.

Inside the wall in Bethlehem:

Al-Shuhada street in Hebron:

The Seat of Mary

Our first pilgrimage as part of the Hakimah program of the Tantur Ecumenical Institute was to the remains of the Kathisma Church. “Kathisma” is the Greek word for “seat,” and the church was built around the rock where, according to early Christian tradition, Mary rested while on the way to Bethlehem; it sits halfway between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. (There is reference to Mary’s resting both in the Protoevangelium of James and the Quran.). The rock was already a pilgrimage site by the time the church was built.

One of the first churches dedicated to Mary, Kathisma was built in 456, by a wealthy widow named Ikelia. The church was destroyed around the 11th century, and only discovered again in 1992.

A couple of things struck me as we were there. First it is clear that the existence of a prayer niche facing Mecca that the church was used by Muslims (who have enormous respect for Mary) as well as Christians.

Second is the octogonal shape of the church that was built around the rock – the number eight being a symbol of new beginning and resurrection.

Did Mary really rest here on the road to give birth to Jesus? I don’t know. But I am touched by the thought of so many pilgrims stopping along the way to touch the rock, to sit on it, to take water from the spring believed to flow from the rock.

It is easy to capture an image of the rock itself. But while I could not get a good picture of the outline of the church as a whole, this video gives you a good description and a bird’s eye view of the site.

Susan Arrives in the Holy Land!

I arrived yesterday in Jerusalem, where I am staying at the Tantur Ecumenical Institute, participating in its Hakimah program, which explores the role of women in Jewish, Christian, and Muslim texts and traditions. This is the entrance to Tantur:

This morning, with several other participants in the program (which officially begins this evening), I attended mass at the Greek Catholic Melkite Cathedral in the Old City. (Co-presiding at the service was John Paul, S.J., formerly my spiritual director and now rector of Tantur.). These pictures do not do justice to the icons which adorn almost every surface of the church’s walls and ceilings, but they give you a flavor.

I have wanted to go to Israel for a very long time, so am excited to be here. The program has a pretty full schedule, but I will try to post some highlights over the next couple of weeks.