February 11, 2016
Dear Friend of Israel,
It is always a unique and moving experience for me to see Israel through the eyes of those who are setting foot in the Holy Land for the first time. Though I live in Israel, I find that the first time people wander the narrow streets of the Old City of Jerusalem, the first time they have the incomparable experience of praying at the Western Wall, the first time they walk on the very stones where the prophets and patriarchs walked, they are changed.
Recently I had the privilege of welcoming members of the Progressive National Baptist Convention (PNBC) – a prominent African-American denomination – on what was, for many, their first trip to Israel. I cannot help but remember, as the U.S. observes Black History Month, that this was the denomination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who was not just a great Civil Rights leader, but truly one of history’s great men of peace.
The days were full for this group, and sometimes contained surprises. One day began with an unexpected meeting with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, during which Mr. Blair both spoke to and took questions from tour participants. As Mr. Blair is a man who has worked tirelessly for peace and reconciliation, we felt truly blessed by his presence and his willingness to spend time with the group.
But the days without unexpected visits from dignitaries were no less inspiring and memorable. Capernaum, the Mount of Beatitudes, Caesarea – all of these biblical sites, and many more, provided PNBC participants moments for spiritual reflection, learning, and a chance to experience firsthand places that many had only read about. As we sailed on the Sea of Galilee, I myself experienced that moment of “seeing Israel through new eyes.” As I sang Hebrew songs to the group, I looked across the tranquil waters and thought of the richness and history of this land that God Himself called “the land flowing with milk and honey.”
Since that tumultuous era of the Civil Rights struggle in the U.S., it has been clear that the African-American church community takes very seriously the biblical imperative to stand with Israel, and they have consistently shown through their support and prayers that Israel is not alone. During this tour, I reminded those gathered of our rich shared history and expressed my gratitude for the strong bridges that have been built between our two communities – bridges built through a shared history of oppression and struggle.
Despite the tragic nature of this shared history, I feel grateful that God has created out of it two great communities of faith, and that He has called us to build bridges between the two. Together, let us pray for the day when Jewish and Christian communities of all colors are free from prejudice and hatred, and when we will know God’s most precious gift of shalom, peace.
Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein
Founder and President