Jewish Community Relations Councilof San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin, Sonoma, Alameda and Contra Costa Counties


Blog from Israel - Part 2

July 17, 2019
Posted by: Sarah Fields, Public Affairs and Civic Engagement Manager, Peninsula

Origins of Christianity in the Jewish State

On Sunday, quite appropriately, the Christian-Jewish leadership study group spent the first part of the day in prayer. Then we explored Christian sites in Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

At this point in the trip an emerging theme of “love your neighbor” had come to the surface, which we felt starting in the service in the morning. Pastor Kaloma Smith of University AME Zion Church discussed the enormity of preaching not only in the holy city of Jerusalem, but on the Mount of Olives in particular. I learned that the Mount of Olives is mentioned many times in the New Testament and it is believed that Jesus taught and preached at this very location.

After a thoughtful service, we were lead in song by Pastor Smith’s wife, Larin (referred to as the First Lady of the Church), as well as by other visitors who shared in our group’s joys. Looking out into the Old City of Jerusalem is a strong visual reminder of the close proximity to all of the literal and figurative neighbors of Jerusalem. As we left our Sunday-morning service and walked down to the Garden and Church of Gethsemane, we were able to see the still active Jewish cemetery along the hillside.

This trip really took on a sense of shared and mutual learning as it progressed. As we entered the Garden of Gethsemane, our guide, Danny — a religious Zionist with an impressive knowledge of Christianity — noted that the word “Gethsemane” comes from the Hebrew words for olive press, gat shmaním. While the garden of olive trees was inviting, Pastor Smith reminded us that this was a dark place for Jesus. Turns out this is reflected within the church, which proved to be literally darker than the other two that we visited later in the day, both of which were filled with light.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is bright and ornate, but since this is the believed site of Jesus’s burial and resurrection it was the emotional reactions from the visitors were even more striking. For me, as a non-Christian, what really stood out was the sectarian divvying up of the space. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, on the one hand, is maintained jointly by the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches. But the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem (a West Bank/Palestinian controlled city, and Jesus birthplace, which we visited last) is maintained as two separate church buildings, one Catholic and one Eastern Orthodox.

Although I have spent time in Israel before, this was my first real exploration of the Christian sites. The tour focused significantly on the biblical story of the land and the connection of the two faiths to the region. Current political challenges came up only briefly at the security wall. While I found this surprising, since the issues relating to modern-day Israel come up often in our community relations work, the focus of the Christians and Jews on this trip was simply more spiritual and historical, connecting to an older and theoretically longer-lasting ideology than that driving the current conflict.

(See Part 1)

Top left: Church of the Nativity (Catholic)
Top right: Sharing in song on the Mt. of Olives
Bottom left: Church of the Nativity (Eastern Orthodox)
Bottom right: Sunday morning service led by Pastor Smith on the Mt. of Olives