Former Birthright trip organizer branches out to interfaith groups
As the founder of educational tour company Roots of Faith, Joel Rosenfeld provides a challenging experience to trip participants.
A rabbi, a bishop and an imam walk into a synagogue. It sounds like the setup for a joke, but it happened at Bavat Ayin Congregation in Rosh Ha'ayin last Friday evening when a group of 30 Jews, Christians and Muslims from New Jersey came to town.
Standing on the bimah, the visiting rabbi led the Kabbalat Shabbat service, the imam recited a few verses from the Koran in Arabic, and the bishop gave a sermon about egoism and the story of Noah, the week's Torah portion. Laughter was quick and smiles were plentiful on the faces of the diverse crowd.
Clearly, this wasn't your typical Friday night service - nor your typical tour group, for that matter.
"My blood pressure was very high because there are all different kinds of sensitivities," said Joel Rosenfeld, the tour organizer and a former chairman of Bavat Ayin Congregation.
After kiddush was made - over grape juice, in deference to the Muslims present - Rosenfeld ushered the group members off to enjoy a home-cooked Shabbat meal with a local family. In a phone call a few days later, he gushed about the success of the evening: "It was just unforgettable. I felt really proud to have been the facilitator."
As the founder and CEO of an educational tour company, Roots of Faith, and before that a tour organizer for Israel Experience, a subsidiary of the Jewish Agency, Rosenfeld has run hundreds of trips for Jewish and Christian groups. This was his first interfaith trip to include American Muslims.
The idea for the trip grew out of a conversation with Rabbi Matthew Gewirtz of Congregation B'nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, New Jersey, a sister congregation of Bavat Ayin. Gewirtz then reached out to Bishop Mark Beckwith from the Episcopal Diocese of Newark and Imam W. Deen Shareef of the Waris Cultural Research and Development Center, a mosque in Irvington, New Jersey. All three work together to reduce gang violence and encourage reconciliation through the Newark Interfaith Coalition for Hope and Peace. They soon found themselves on the same bimah in Rosh Ha'ayin.
Gewirtz, who has led nearly a dozen trips of American Jews to Israel, said he collaborates with Rosenfeld because he provides a unique and challenging experience to trip participants.
"Instead of coming from the vantage point of touring, he comes from the vantage point of education and of connection to the land and conflict resolution," the rabbi said.
A native of New York City, Rosenfeld was active in the Young Judaea movement and participated in Year Course, an Israel immersion experience, in 1974-75. He later worked at Camp Tel Yehudah in upstate New York, where he met his wife Gail. The couple immigrated to Israel in 1984.
After teaching English and working as a shaliach [messenger] for the Jewish Agency to Young Judaea in the United States, he returned to Israel to work in incoming tourism, first with Birthright groups and then with Christian groups through Israel Experience.
Rosenfeld said he quickly embraced the challenge of catering to Christian groups. "I just knew it would take me to new places, new sites, new people and a new narrative," he said.
In 2010, he branched out on his own and founded Roots of Faith. "I offer something that's different," Rosenfeld explained. "I'm not doing the standard pilgrimage trips. The idea is meeting the 'other' and learning about the other narratives."
For the Newark Interfaith Coalition trip, Rosenfeld built a custom itinerary with input from all three religious leaders. During their week-long tour, the group met with members of the Parents Circle-Families Forum, a network of Israeli and Palestinian families who have lost loved ones as a result of the ongoing conflict; visited the Azza refugee camp in Bethlehem; and attended a graduation ceremony for Arab volunteers with United Hatzalah of Israel, an ambulance corps of Jews and non-Jews.
Rabbi Marc Rosenstein, director of the Israel rabbinical program at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, called Rosenfeld a "thoughtful and serious tour educator." Rosenstein has spoken to several of Rosenfeld's groups about relations between Jews and Arabs in Israel. He said that the New Jersey group could teach Israelis a thing or two about coexistence.
"It's useful for groups like that to come to Israel to show us Israelis that such things are possible, that people can really listen to each other across a big divide," said Rosenstein, who immigrated to Israel from the United States in 1990.
While he continues to grow his business, Rosenfeld is also studying to be a licensed tour guide. He said he sees Israel as a laboratory for people from different faiths to explore connections between competing historical and religious narratives.
"I believe in questioning," he said. "I think questioning strengthens one's belief."