A yearlong interfaith program conducted by the American Jewish Committee in conjunction with the Shalom Hartman Institute will draw to a close on Thursday, following 13 months of study and travel by a group of Christian leaders and academics from the US.

The 13 members of the Christian Leadership Initiative who began the course back in July 2010 have been in Israel on the second of two 10-day trips in which they have studied classical Jewish texts with rabbis and educators at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.

Since last year’s trip, the CLI participants have been engaged in weekly interactive study sessions via videoconference, facilitated by Hartman Institute teachers.

“The purpose of the program is to bring Christian religious leaders and academics to Israel and expose them personally to Judaism and Israel in a direct manner, and not through someone else’s interpretation,” Rabbi Noam Marans, AJC Director of Interreligious and Intergroup Affairs, told The Jerusalem Post.

“Through studying the most basic foundational Jewish ideas as expressed through our classic texts, the participants on the program are able to understand Judaism from a Jewish perspective,” he added.

The AJC also wrapped up last week its Interreligious Diplomatic Mission, in which an AJC leadership delegation met with senior Christian clerics in Israel and the Palestinian Authority, as well as Israeli and Palestinian government officials.

The mission met with Papal Nuncio of the Holy Land Archbishop Antonio Franco; Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem and the Holy Land Theophilos III; the Minister for Religious Services Ya’acov Margi; Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon; and Palestinian Authority Minister of Wakf and Religious Affairs Mahmoud Habbash. Delegates also spoke with clergy from the Melkhite, Lutheran and Anglican churches.

This month’s Christian Leadership Initiative trip included visits to Yad Vashem and the Supreme Court, as well as an excursion to Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered, and a presentation at the Shrine of the Book at the Israel Museum.

CLI participant Elena Procario- Foley, a professor of Christian Theology and chairwoman of Jewish-Catholic Studies at Iona College in New York, said that the ability to study and communicate directly with Jewish teachers was crucial in gaining a better grasp of Judaism, the connection of the Jewish people to the land and Christianity itself.

“It’s important to learn directly from Jewish scholars and to interact with people in order to create a foundation for Jewish-Christian understanding and for reconciliation. Our job as professors and pastors is to open up the doors of understanding to that relationship.

“For those of us who teach this material, learning about such texts should be a transformative process. Doing so in the Holy Land makes the experience really exceptional and it is a privilege which not many people get to do,” she added.

“Interfaith work is about understanding the distinctions between our religions, while at the same time looking for the common ground between us,” said Derrick Harkins, CLI participant and pastor at the 19th Street Baptist Church in Washington, DC. “No other religions share the same sacred texts in the way that Judaism and Christianity do. But we’re not looking for some unified mélange of belief and faith, the purpose of the initiative is to appreciate the differences between us in order to give a sense of clarity to each other’s faith.”

“The program has also enhanced our ability to help our congregations in the US understand these issues, and it’s almost impossible to do this without the kind of exposure we’ve gained by coming here in person,” Procario-Foley added.

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