Windy City Residents See Israel in a New Light

By: Rachel Kontorovich

Marc and Sue Sacks with JoJo and Pastor Chris Harris


Israel, the Holy Land, is a melting pot of religious and cultural influence that is both breathtakingly ancient and strikingly modern. From King Solomon and the Kingdom of Israel and Judea, to the Roman Empire, the Crusaders and the Ottoman Empire, Israel has been a vessel for some of history’s most profound civilizations. Nowhere is this more evident than taking a casual stroll through the bustling, yet ancient, streets of Jerusalem, whose storied stone façades and traditionally-clad residents bespeak of ancient times, all while sharply contrasting with the glass and steel of contemporary architecture and a palpable, high-energy buzz of modernity. It is this deeply interwoven history and religious connection that makes Israel such a melting pot of various faiths, ethnicities, and beliefs.

Different faith communities not only coexist in this country, but are built into the very social fabric of Israeli life. Recently, Jewish National Fund-USA (JNF) and 31 members of the Chicago community traveled to Israel to witness firsthand the reality of the organization’s work, which seeks to improve the land of Israel for all who call it home—including Jewish, Christians, Muslims, Druze, and many others. The participants of JNF’s Chicago Interfaith Mission themselves—similar to Israel’s social makeup—contained a broad representation of cultural and religious affiliations, coming together to experience the cultural mosaic that is the land of Israel.

“The idea for the JNF Chicago Interfaith Mission was to take a diverse group of Jews and Christians to see Israel as they have never seen it before,” said Scott Gendell, JNF National Vice President of College Activists. “This was an opportunity to learn from one another and to challenge ourselves to be the best we can be.” The mission’s itinerary included touring historic and biblical sites through a mutual exchange of Christian and Jewish narratives, showcasing the rich history of Israel as a beacon of tolerance and mutual respect for all.

Steve Lavin with Scott Gendell and Deb Lust Zaluda

“It was like drinking from the firehose,” remarked Leon Walker, a practicing Christian from Kenwood, IL. “It was a real overwhelming adventure that was unforgettable.” Indeed, the enormity of JNF’s work in Israel, especially across diverse populations, can be a lot to absorb. For many of the first-time visitors to the country, there was at least one Jewish National Fund project that resonated with them. Walker, who works to bring fresh produce to the “food deserts” of Chicago’s Southside, was amazed by HaShomer HaChadash, a JNF-supported organization that assists local farmers and teaches young people of all faiths the importance of agriculture while reconnecting with the land and their roots.

Another site that touched many participants was a visit with Special in Uniform, a Jewish National Fund partner that provides an opportunity for individuals with special needs and disabilities to serve in the IDF alongside everyone else. “One of the best parts of our mission to Israel was when we went to Special in Uniform at the Palmachim Air Force Base. It allowed me to not only fall in love even more with the work JNF does, but also allowed me to see Jewish National Fund’s determination to leave no one behind,” said Pastor Chris Harris, Senior Pastor of Chicago’s Bright Star Church of God in Christ, and a leading participant on the Interfaith Mission. “Everyone matters, and, as a result, Jewish National Fund matters even more to me.”

“By bringing an interfaith group to Israel, Jewish National Fund is strengthening their connection to Israel and they return home as advocates” said Dov Lipman, an American-born former member of Israel’s parliament, after addressing the group in Jerusalem. “There is no better way to change people’s perspective on Israel other than to come here and experience it for themselves.”

Patricia Harris with JoJo Harris and Pastor Chris Harris


Although the mission was just nine day, the visit to the Jewish homeland was one of self-discovery and religious reflection, regardless of their race or religion, for the JNF Chicago community. “This is about Chicago people coming together and seeing Israel through multiple religions and faiths,” said Susan and Marc Sacks of Deerfield, IL. “We have built something special here, which will continue back in Chicago, helping make the next step in interfaith and community relations.”

Perhaps one of the most important takeaways is that JNF’s Chicago community has paved the way for more interfaith dialogue, friendship, and mutual reliance between often too-separate communities in Chicagoland. “As I travel the country, building bridges between African Americans and Jews, it is exciting that we were able to take this interfaith trip allowing us to appreciate not only each other’s beliefs, but also a mutual love for Israel. I am thoroughly convinced that our communities are better together,” remarked Pastor Harris. “It is not enough for us to come together once a year, during MLK’s birthday, linking arms, singing ‘We Will Overcome.’ The fact is, we will never overcome, until we come over into each other’s world and see how we can strengthen, sustain, and support, one and another.”

And if it took traveling across the to get there—then all the better.

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Participants of the Chicago Interfaith Mission with Soldiers from Special in Uniform at the Knesset