Rabbi Loren Sykes is the Principal of the NFTY-EIE High School in Israel. In these weekly postings, he gives a description and rundown of what the group is doing day to day, which he hopes sheds some light on what the EIE experience is like.
This past week, EIE focused on the period immediately following the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. Specifically, we learned about the Bar Kochba rebellion and religious developments in the post-destruction period in the land of Israel. Our Tuesday trip took us to the limestone caves and ancient ruins of Bet Guvrin and Hirbet Midras while our Wednesday trip took us to the beautiful Jerusalem neighborhood of Ein Karem.
The first two hundred years of the Common Era are fascinating. They were also tumultuous and included sectarian tensions, the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, rebellion and the development of post-destruction Judaism and, concurrently, Christianity. The Bar Kochba rebellion was the last of the three wars fought between the Jews and the Romans. After initial successes and the re-establishment of a Jewish government in Judah, the failure of the rebellion led to mass killings of the remaining Jews or transfer of the remaining populations. The Martyrology or Eleh Ezkrah, which is often recited in synagogues in the afternoon of Yom Kippur, describes the horrific murder of many of the greatest Torah sages of the era. Barred from Jerusalem except to mourn the destruction of the Temple on the Ninth of Av, Jewish religious leadership moved to the north of Israel. The caves at both Bet Guvrin and Hirbet Midras were pre-existent communities in ancient Israel and served as hiding places during the rebellion.
While learning about the rebellion, EIE students also learned about the development of early Christianity. Ein Karem is filled with beautiful, ornate churches related to the family of John the Baptist. We spent time in the Church of the Visitation where Mary is believed to have visited Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist. We also visited the Church of John the Baptist in the Mountains. Students also went to a cave that is believed to have been used by John for ritual immersion, what we call a Mikvah in Hebrew. Visiting Ein Karem is important both to learn about the development of early Christianity and to understand it in the context of the sectarian controversies of the time. Students were fascinated to learn that early Christianity was very similar to Judaism, how similar terminology was used, and how faith in Jesus and doing mitzvoth were required. They learned about how things took a very different direction under the leadership of Paul.
Encountering early Christianity, meeting it in modern Jerusalem, created the opportunity for fascinating conversations about everything from the role of beautification of religious sites – what is too much and what is just right – to the kinds of experiences some of our students have in private Christian and Catholic high schools in the US. Encountering the “other” becomes a mirror for encountering your own experience and understanding. I was amazed by the depth of student comments to the kinds of religious struggles they experience in their schools.
After our church visits, students had free time on one of the streets of the neighborhood. There is a fantastic homemade chocolate and ice cream shop on the way to the Church of St. John the Baptist, along with shops selling all kinds of tourist items. About one block long, our students loved the chance to have some free time.
Today, we went north for the day to Bet Shearim, Bet Alfa and the Sachne as our focus shifts to the next phase of rabbinic Judaism and the Oral law.
Rabbi Loren Sykes