Sunday, December 28, 2008

Local leaders travel to Israel

Amanda Cuda

BRIDGEPORT -- When Rev. Brian Schofield-Bodt traveled to Israel 30 years ago, it was a traditional Christian pilgrimage to see the sites of events sacred to his religion. These included the pools of Bethesda, where Jesus Christ is said to have healed a man who had been paralyzed for 38 years, and the Mount of Beatitudes, where Jesus is said to have given his famed Sermon on the Mount.

Earlier this month, while visiting Israel for second time, Schofield-Bodt went to many of the same places he visited the first time. But this time, he wasn't there to sightsee. This visit had an entirely different meaning.. Schofield-Bodt, president and chief executive officer of the Council of Churches of Greater Bridgeport, was one of six non-Jewish leaders across the nation who went to Israel earlier this month as part of an initiative to educate people of various backgrounds about the history, politics, religion and other elements of modern-day Israel. The trip, known as the Israel Institute, is sponsored by the New York-based Israel Advocacy Initiative, which runs several such trips a year.

When Schofield-Bodt was invited to go back to Israel through the program, he jumped at the chance. He knew much had changed in the 30 years since his last visit. "As a leader in the community, it's important to be aware of international issues, as well as regional ones," he said.

Israel Advocacy Initiative Director Amos Kamil said the point of the program is to give

non-Jewish leaders a new perspective on Israel. "Really, what we're trying to do is give people a more nuanced portrayal of the issues Israel faces," he said.

Most of these issues stem from conflicts between Israel and its neighbors. Last week, a barrage of rocket attacks in Israel marked an end to a six-month cease-fire between Israel and the Hamas, a Palestinian militant group that controls the nearby Gaza Strip. On Friday, speculation grew that Israel would soon retaliate for these attacks. Other concerns in the region include fears about nearby Iran obtaining nuclear weapons.

Part of what makes Israel unique, Kamil said, is that it's a small nation -- roughly the size of New Jersey -- bordered tightly by its neighboring countries. Some of those countries are friendly to Israel; some aren't. "It's a very small place, and its issues are very complex," he said.

Most of the people who attended the Israel Institute were accompanied by a representative of their local Jewish community. For Schofield-Bodt, that was Laurie Gross, director of community relations and Israel Advocacy for the Jewish Federation of Eastern Fairfield County. Gross has gone on the Institute several times before, bringing along other community leaders.

Like Kamil, Gross said most of what people know about Israel is limited to what they read in newspapers and see on television. There's more to it than that, she said. "Israel is the only country that has to fight for its right to exist," she said. "So many faiths and traditions look to Israel for their history."

While in the country, Gross, Schofield-Bodt and their group visited many of the same sights Schofield-Bodt saw three decades ago, but also many others, including Israel's Supreme Court in Jerusalem and Independence Hall in Tel Aviv, where Israel's Declaration of Independence was signed.

The group also visited the city of Haifa, one of the few cities, Schofield-Bodt said, in which Israeli and Arab coexist in relative peace. "They have a long history of getting along well," he said. "It's actually very inspiring, and you don't hear about that."

The visitors also met with a support group known as the Parents' Circle, a forum of Israelis and Palestinians who have lost loved ones in various terror attacks. Members of the group included a Jewish man whose mother was killed by a suicide bomber entering a bus, as well as a Palestinian man whose son was run over by a Jewish settler in the West Bank.

If all you do is read media reports of violence in Israel and the surrounding areas, Schofield-Bodt said, you can lose sight of the impact these attacks have on people's lives. "These people who are being reported dead and injured, they have faces," Schofield-Bodt said. "They have stories. They have names.


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