Pilgrims. On a Pilgrimage. By Vasily Perov, 1867. Source: wikiart.org.
When one hears the word “pilgrimage,” images such as the one above come to mind. Certainly, when I searched for images of pilgrimage, they either reflected Christian pilgrimages of old, or more current Haji pilgrimages. It’s hard to envision a modern, American, Jewish woman undertaking a Catholic-sponsored pilgrimage to Ireland, but that is exactly what I am doing.
How did this begin? Those at Carlow know it was founded by the Sisters of Mercy, and understanding this Mercy heritage is central to the university mission and beliefs. All students, staff, and faculty have a session that introduces them to the values and actions that led to the founding of both the Sisters of Mercy as well as the institution. Those interested in learning more can take a year-long course that more deeply explores the history of the Sisters of Mercy, the role of Mercy in higher education, and what the spiritual and corporal works of Mercy mean today. I enrolled in the McDarby Institute and completed the year of study last May.
Interestingly, I found many connections between Mercy history and beliefs and my own. Comfort (to the ill and mourners), caring (for the physical and spiritual needs of others), and promotion of social justice were all religious elements that Catholicism and Judaism share. Another rewarding aspect of McDarby Institute participation was the ability to connect with different people from the campus community with whom I wouldn’t ordinarily interact.
All graduates of the course were eligible to apply to participate in the pilgrimage opportunity. Nevertheless, I never considered myself a candidate. I’m not Catholic, I’m not even Christian; do Jews even go on pilgrimages? A colleague encouraged me to go to the information session to learn more, and afterwards I spoke to someone who’d gone on a past pilgrimage trip. She said that the trip changed her in significant ways. Actually being where the Sisters of Mercy started their work and physically walking in these places of history was transforming.
“You bring it home with you,” she said. “Somehow you bring that feeling home and it affects your work and your way with students and everything you do.”
I immediately knew what she meant. Several years ago when I was an teacher of Holocaust and Torah studies for 5th and 7th grade students, I took a trip to Israel with other educators. Not all people on the trip were Jewish, but I remember that during our final group reflection every single one of us felt like the experience would affect our teaching. I visited Israel again a few years later as a tourist with my family, and although the trip was memorable and enjoyable, the tone was different. Perhaps the first time was more of a pilgrimage than I thought: it was a significant journey that had the purpose of more deeply connecting with a place in a way that could affect others.
When you grow up in a young country like America, it’s humbling to walk in ancient streets of cities that existed long before anything you’ve seen before. Yet it’s not just the age, but the sense of a place that can linger long after the last crumbling ruin is seen or local delicacy tasted.
I decided to join the group and become a pilgrim.