Marymount professor visits Israel on yearlong study of Judaism

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Brian Flanagan, an associate professor of theology at Marymount University, is still processing a 10-day seminar on Judaism he attended in Jerusalem last month, which included intense discussions on religion and the challenges of life in Israel. He also made personal pilgrimages to several Christian sites.

Flanagan is one of 23 American Christian leaders participating in 13 months of study that begins and ends with seminars in Israel. "Encountering Judaism: Faith, People, Land" launched July 12-22. Participants range from the senior pastor at a Baptist church in St. Louis to a lecturer at Georgetown Law School to university chaplains and theologians.

Each day's study made use of a modified form of a traditional rabbinic approach to Talmudic study called havruta, in which a pair of students read aloud, analyze and discuss a shared text.

"In our case we did this with small groups of three, four or five people," Flanagan said. "For example, we might take Genesis 1 and 2, read a sentence or two at a time, discussing what it means and why. We would do this for an hour to an hour and a half, multiple times each day."

They eventually used this approach to read documents such as the Israeli Declaration of Independence, essays by scholars on contemporary Judaism, even works by Jewish and Arab Israeli poets and novelists. Flanagan may use a form of this method with his Marymount students.

"You can't talk about contemporary Judaism without talking about the Israeli/Arab conflict," Flanagan said. "It's going to be more of a focus next summer, but we've already had some moments."

That included a walking tour of Jaffa, an ancient city south of Tel Aviv, led by two historians, an Arab and a Jew, from the perspective of their communities.

"It's one of the few cities that still has a mixed population of Arabs and Jews," Flanagan said, "and it helped us see the complexity of their relationship as both friends and colleagues."

Other highlights included an audience with Israeli President Reuven Riylan, shabbat dinner with a local family, fellowship at the Jerusalem Craft Beer Festival, and services at an Orthodox synagogue.

Flanagan, who was making his first trip to Israel, made his own Christian pilgrimage, which included Mass at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, believed to be on the site where Jesus was crucified and where His empty tomb is located. The church is shared by Roman Catholics, Greek Orthodox, Armenian, Syrian, Coptic and Ethiopian Christians, and is at the center of the Christian Quarter in Jerusalem's Old City.

"That was one of the more moving experiences as part of my Christian pilgrimage," Flanagan said.

After the seminar, he stayed four days with friends in Tel Aviv and visited Nazareth and the Sea of Galilee.

"I'm grateful that we have a year and another trip to process the experience because of the complexity and intensity of this experience," Flanagan said. "I made a lot of good friends both from the States and from Jerusalem. I'm also excited to see how what I've learned will help me this fall in the classroom. I was already committed to ecumenical and interreligious dialogue, but this trip has rekindled my calling to do more, both at Marymount and in the region."

In the coming year, the group will engage in monthly webinars and study classical and modern Jewish texts with leading Israeli and American Jewish scholars. The program is a partnership between the Shalom Hartman Initiative in Jerusalem and the American Jewish Committee, a global Jewish advocacy organization headquartered in New York that works to advance human rights and democratic values.

"There is so much that we can all learn from one another," said Marcie Lenk of the Hartman Institute, whose Christian Leadership Initiative began in 2008.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016