JERUSALEM — The nuns mingling with kippah-wearing men gathered in the bright lobby of Hotel Yehuda last week are not part of a political statement or social experiment. The unusual mix of participants are in Jerusalem for a groundbreaking new program that brings Jews and Christians together to discuss and learn about the Bible in its birthplace.
As the day’s first lecture is about to start, organizers Oded Peles and Petra Heldt make their way through the group while speaking to participants, many of whom they greet by their first names.
“It is such a wonderful thing, after all the history that we have all experienced to have such a bond. People studying the Bible together with no prejudices, in an environment where everyone is equal. For me this is the fulfillment of a life mission,” said Peles, the educational director of Jerusalem Journey, which provides personalized tours in Israel to Christian tourists.
Peles planned the conference together with Rev. Dr. Petra Heldt, the general secretary of the Ecumenical Theological Research Fraternity, a Christian interdenominational organization that works to promote Christian-Jewish dialogue in Israel. Heldt, who is German, has lived in Israel since 1979.
With teachers from Israel, Europe and North America, the International Bible Study Week is noteworthy not only for the diversity of its participants but also the range of backgrounds of its lecturers. The staff includes professors, tour guides, Orthodox and non-Orthodox rabbis, and a Protestant pastor.
Participants have brought with them Bibles in their own languages, which they thumb through during lectures. Often, Bible passages are read in Hebrew in addition to English, and a translator provides live translation to German as well. Somehow, all the languages blend together, and during lunch, participants do not segregate by language or background, but rather sit together and share experiences.
Many of the participants are strong supporters of Israel, such as Christiane Klein, a church choir director and musician from the town of Bodenwerder, Germany. Klein is part of a group that organizes pro-Israel lectures and events in her hometown.
Although Bodenwerder only has a population of 6,000, five residents are in attendance at the conference. When asked to be photographed as a group, they agree immediately, excited to be featured in the Israeli media.
For Klein, being in Israel has provided her with the opportunity to deepen her understanding of the Bible.
“I hope that the connection to the Land of Israel will help me to read the texts differently, with more background, with the smells and the pictures of the landscape,” said Klein.
This is precisely what the program seeks to do: to show the vitality of the Bible in Israel, and underline the importance of visiting the country to completely understand the biblical text. To fully experience the origins of the Bible, at the end of the conference participants also visited biblical sites.
“We were dreaming of bringing the Bible from Jerusalem to the people of the world. There is such a revival of the Bible in Israel that we thought this gives Israel so much strength and beauty and life, and this is something we can encourage Christians in the world to pick up on,” said Heldt, looking out over the green Massuah Hills, on which Hotel Yehuda is located.
Sister Agnes and Sister Rebecca stand out in the crowd in their long brown and white nuns’ garments. They are both originally from France but have been living in Israel for over a decade in the Emmaus Nicopolis monastery in Latrun, which is located in the Ayalon Valley. Although they have both previously been involved with interfaith work, the opportunity to study rabbinic texts proved unique.
“What is new for us is the Talmud and the Midrash because it is not part of our tradition, but discovering the beauty and the wisdom that is in those texts is very rich,” said Sister Agnes.
Ultimately, however, they were happy that the program emphasized the commonalities between Jews and Christians, rather than the differences.
“This is a source of richness: that in spite of the differences, we have so much in common, and we have so much to receive,” said Sister Agnes.
The fact that a program like this is not only conceivable but also appealing to Christians should not be taken for granted. It is the result of years of work in Jewish-Christian relations, explained Professor Lawrence Schiffman, one of the lecturers at the conference.
“Many types of anti-Semitism that we used to have to fight, whether racial, religious or political, a lot of it is gone for a lot of people, and we have a lot of friends,” said Schiffman. “We talk so often about the negatives we experiences, we very often don’t notice all the good things that are happening.”
While the organizers tried to distance the program from politics, the fact that it is taking place in Israel speaks for itself.
“We don’t speak about BDS, but everyone here at this conference sees that it is so ridiculous, we don’t even need to speak about it. We offer something else, by showing the brightness and liveliness and beauty of Israel,” said Heldt.
For Peles and Heldt, this year’s event is only the beginning. They have already started planning the second International Bible Study Week, which will take place on July 4-7, 2016. For next year, they hope to recruit more participants from a larger number of countries, and offer a wider variety of lectures as well as additional options for attendees to extend their trip and participate in a week of touring at the end of the program.
“This will become a festival of getting together and studying, which will bring people from all over the world to study and to get the know the people of this country,” said Peles.