This past summer, through the support of a CSWR Greeley International Fellowship, MTS candidate Shira Telushkin worked as an intern at the Christian Leadership Initiative (CLI) run by the Shalom Hartman Institute of Jerusalem (SHI) and the American Jewish Congress.
Every other year, a diverse cohort of Christian leaders are selected from across the United States for an intensive year-long program that begins and ends with immersive stays in Jerusalem. Shira's summer internship involved working with the CLI fellows as a discussion leader and educational resource, while also pursuing her own research with the SHI on local Hebrew-speaking Christian communities in Israel. Below, Shira writes on her experience learning about the diversity of Christian groups, the shape of current Jewish-Christian relations, and how to rely on luck and initiative when breaching an unfamiliar world.
One morning, I noticed the gates were open to the Tantur Cemetery, just opposite where Rachel Immenu Street meets Emek Refaim Boulevard. I had never seen the gates unlocked.
Located on one of Jerusalem’s busiest streets, this block-long space is sandwiched between a hardware store and a pizza shop, shielded by tall walls and cut only by a narrow gate. Inside, I was met by a maze of graves set against a colorful mural of Biblical scenes that swirled far down the interior walls. The place was huge. In the corner was a small shed, and next to it sat a man on a white plastic chair.
I waved to the man on the chair. What is this place? I asked, in Hebrew. He smiled conspiratorially. Zeh bishvil ha’maminim. This is for the believers. He put his hand on his heart. Ani echad min ha maminin. I am one of the believers. Believers in what? He looked at me like I was an idiot. Yeshua. Jesus. Those who believe Jesus is Messiah and Lord. I was delighted. I had found one of my first Israeli Christians!
So you’re Christian, I clarified, using the Hebrew word notzri. I was eager to establish that I was a friendly inquirer. I study Yeshu, I continued, using the name as I had always heard it in Israel.
The man shrugged his upturned palms: I was raised in Bnai Brak and baptized in the Jordan River after I spent a year of silence at St. Claire’s. My King is Yeshua. Yeshu is a slur against his divinity. Don’t you know that? I didn’t. What’s the difference? I asked. He gestured to the adjoining plastic white chair. Do you want to sit down?
Something I hadn’t anticipated was how strange it would be to discuss Christianity in Hebrew, a language whose theological vocabulary is inexplicably Jewish. Later in the summer, chatting up a bunch of five year olds at a Catholic sleep-away camp in the Deir Rafat Monastery outside Beit Shemesh, I would mention St. John, only to be met by squinty eyes and furrowed foreheads until one explained to the others: zeh Yoachanan HaTzaddik. To hear John the Evangelist described as a tzaddik, a righteous individual often associated with the culture of Hasidic courts, was hilariously new.
Later we would file into the chapel for Mass, where the priests had put robes and stoles over their t-shirts and shorts. Lifting up a piece of matzah, fit for any Passover seder, Father David began to recite HaMotzi, the Jewish blessing for bread, word for word as I do every week at my Shabbat table.
The chalice was consecrated with the Jewish blessing for wine. Baruch ata adonei, eloheinu melech ha’olam, borei pri hagafen. For me, such words are not only part of an unambiguously Jewish ritual, but mark a particularly committed or knowledgeable Jew. It was like rounding the corner of a remote Indian village and running into my mother. I was shocked.
Afterwards, Father David laughed softly at my reaction—apparently it was not so uncommon—and for the remaining six weeks of my stay I would find any excuse to drag friends to the daily 6:30 pm Hebrew Mass celebrated in Jerusalem. To feel like an insider at church was too strange an experience not to share. In Boston, I am constantly explaining Judaism in the Christian terms of English, and it was fascinating to be on the reverse.
But adjusting to this new role of being part of the majority culture wasn’t always simple. One Sunday evening, having spent the morning at Christ Church in Jerusalem and then having met up with a local rabbi, I decided to stop by St. George’s Cathedral, where there was an English-language compline service at this Arabic-speaking congregation.
I was curious to see who in the city would be in attendance. I accidently entered the church from the back gate, a little lost, and by the time I found the entrance, the service had begun. I found myself in a small, beautiful, and dimly lit chapel, surrounded by seven or eight people in prayer. I felt like I had intruded on some first-century gathering of Christians in faith. I guiltily offered my “peace be upon you”s at the end, accepted by the group as with them in full communion, before slipping into the night, unsure how to introduce myself after sharing in their intimacy. For the rest of the summer I made sure to call ahead before arriving at smaller services.
I came to Jerusalem both to expand my understanding of modern Christianity (my time at HDS is mostly spent in Coptic monastic texts and the early Christological debates), and to get beyond the Jewish Jerusalem I knew so well from summers stays, countless family trips, and a yearlong visit where I studied in a nearby yeshiva before college. I wanted to understand what it was like to be an Israeli religious minority within the Hebrew-speaking community, and to think through the questions driving Jewish-Christian relations by analyzing them in this flipped dynamic.
For me, it was important I come to this work anchored in a Jewish space, and there was no better place to do this than the Shalom Hartman Institute, a Jewish organization that is one of the intellectual centers of Jerusalem, and whose connections with Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Israeli, and Palestinian leaders run deep.
The CLI fellows were ministers, pastors, and reverends—some worked at Christian universities, some taught theology, and some worked in Christian news. During the day, I led small study groups on the Talmud, politics, Jewish philosophy, and Hebrew poetry.
Otherwise, when the program was not in session, I was making my way through Bible studies, church services, monasteries, and pilgrimage sites. I was both finally grasping the nuances of lived Christian labels—what makes a Methodist not an Episcopalian?—and finally grasping the entirety of a city I thought I knew so well.