Pastor Carlos Smith of the Journey church said he and Rabbi Noah Arnow did not get much sleep during a recent trip to Israel.
It wasn’t jet lag or that the beds in the hotel rooms they shared were uncomfortable. Rather, it was because the two St. Louis clergymen spent much of the night talking about religious and nonreligious matters.
And that was one of the primary goals of the eight-day trip: to build connections between seven pairs of rabbis and African-American Christian clergy from different cities.
“These are some of the most important relationships that we have, and they are underresourced, and we wanted to lift up these important pairs,” said Ethan Felson, executive director of the Israel Action Network, an initiative that aims to build support for the Jewish State. It sponsored the trip earlier this month.
The Network, which is funded by Jewish Federations of North America, has sponsored six similar trips among leaders of different groups, but this was the first trip specifically targeted at rabbis and African-American Christians. Other pairs came from Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee, Washington, D.C., and Durham, N.C.
Arnow, of Kol Rinah, a Conservative synagogue, said Jews and African-Americans make for natural allies because of the history of oppression both groups have faced. And he recalls Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel walking with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1965 in Alabama during the first Selma to Montgomery march for voting rights.
But still, Arnow says, “Until rabbis are actually marching together with our African-American pastor friends in 2018 — and not only for things that matter to people of color and not only for things that matter to Jews — until we are doing that on a regular basis, we could be doing more.”
Felson described the relationships as “underresourced” because clergy often have to focus on their own congregations rather than on building interfaith connections.
The St. Louis pair already had a relationship before the trip. Their congregations are swapping buildings. The Journey recently moved into Kol Rinah’s home in University City, while Kol Rinah is remodeling the Journey space in Clayton, where it hopes to move next summer. Until then, Kol Rinah is sharing the U. City space with the Journey.
“Being in the same space and seeing each other do our thing creates a little more comfort and familiarity with the other, and it’s helped us see the ways that we are very similar and the ways we are different, which are important and interesting as well,” said Arnow, who joined Kol Rinah in 2014.
But Arnow and Smith were still eager to get to know one another better, they both said.
The trip featured visits to Jewish and Christian holy sites. Smith, who is pursuing a doctorate in biblical studies, said he was moved by time walking on paths at the Sea of Galilee, where Christians believe Jesus walked and ministered, and the Church of Nativity, thought to be the birthplace of Jesus, in Bethlehem, among other spots on the itinerary. He also visited the Western Wall twice.
“It was incredible to be there and see the energy among my Jewish brothers and sisters and the joy that was there for them,” said Smith, who also ate babka for the first time on the first day of the trip — and every day in Israel thereafter.
Even though Arnow had spent significant time in Israel, he had not visited many Christian sites.
“It was fascinating to go to the Jordan River, where Jesus was baptized, to go to the Church of the Nativity,” he said. “To be in these places and see them through the eyes of my Christian brothers and sisters was incredibly powerful and not something you could do if you were just on a trip with Jews.”
The rabbi and pastor both mentioned the lively theological discussions that took place on the bus between stops.
Smith said he was “able to hear from the rabbis and have conversations about our faiths, about Jesus, about the Jewish community, about Israel. I love conversations, so to be able to do that with a crew of rabbis for a week straight was just second heaven to me.”
The men said that clergy could also feel the weight of the mass shooting that occurred at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh a little more than a week before they arrived in Israel. A rabbi from that city who had been slated to participate had to cancel.
“In light of Pittsburgh, it’s been really important for me as a Christian for our Jewish brothers and sisters to know that they are not alone and that we are here,” Smith said. “I’m not Jewish, obviously, but I’m an African-American guy in America and have a sense by virtue of my ethnicity to know what it means to be outside of the mainstream of the country.”
Arnow said that while it would have been easier if their congregations had been able to trade buildings right away, the arrangement has become something special.
“The trip helped Carlos and I develop our relationship much more intensely, and I consider him a brother, a partner,” he said.
Smith and Arnow will speak about their trip over a light lunch Dec. 16 at 12:30 p.m. at Kol Rinah, 829 N. Hanley Road.