Millions of religious travelers pass through the Holy City. Can they go back home spiritually and environmentally transformed?
By Rivka Borochov
Traveling to Jerusalem’s Old City is tantamount to a religious experience in itself, even if ye are of little faith. Religion in the Old City is in every crack and it’s hanging on every rack of mementos. You can hear it singing, chanting and calling. You feel it in the stones and smell it burning and baking.
Pilgrims have braved the seas, sand and craggy roads up to Jerusalem for millennia to experience the holy feeling for themselves. And now they will be able to do it as nature intended.
How Jerusalem is becoming a green pilgrimage destination will be celebrated, discussed and experienced at the First International Jerusalem Symposium on Green and Accessible Pilgrimage, April 21 to 26, 2013.
Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Naomi Tsur wants to let future waves of pilgrims — Jewish, Christian and Muslim — examine this iconic city in a new “green” light. As an avid environmentalist, Tsur has shaped policies and practices throughout Israel, first as a leader of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, and then as a green influencer in the mayor’s office.
Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Naomi Tsur
Tsur’s idea to turn Jerusalem into a green pilgrim destination started cooking in 2009 when she was invited to Windsor Castle to see how faith-based groups could influence climate change outcomes about to be proposed at the Copenhagen RIO+ conference happening then.
The United Nation’s Ban Ki-Moon was there, eager to know how the 80 percent of the world’s population that identifies itself as religious could be swayed to incorporate ecological ideals. A Green Pilgrimage Network was established in 2011.
“There are a quarter of a billion people going on pilgrimages every year,” Tsur says. “We have nine million alone coming to the Kotel [The Western Wall in Jerusalem] every year.”
“A pilgrimage is transformative spirituality,” says Tsur. “And it’s usually something you do once in a lifetime. We ask: Can we take that moment so when they go back home they will be spiritually and environmentally transformed as well?”
This question will be discussed shared, and shown in practice in Jerusalem at the symposium.
Impacting tourists and communities
The six-day event to be held at the Jerusalem YMCA will include spiritual leaders from Jerusalem to all the way from Katmandu.
The hotel industry and existing pilgrimage networks based in Israel – such as the Gospel Trail and Abraham’s Path, as well as people from the Baha’i faith in Acre – were invited, too.
Not only will the experience of making a pilgrimage in a way that treads lighter on the planet have an impact on the pilgrims, Tsur surmises, it will have a positive ripple effect on communities to which the pilgrims gravitate.
The neighborhood of Ein Karem on the southern outskirts of Jerusalem, where many Christian sites draw large numbers of pilgrims, is one example Tsur gives where residents might be apt to play an active role in shaping, and even earning, a living from green pilgrims going there looking for a Christian experience.
Going green can simply mean cleaning up trash and unsightly billboards, preserving old buildings and welcoming people who arrive on foot by serving them local, sustainably grown food.
“We are positioning ourselves as a solution. We want to show Jerusalem has an effectively harmonious domain, which we want to share and celebrate with other cities in the world,” adds Tsur. “We want to use Jerusalem as a backdrop for interfaith dialogue and one which can impact all pilgrim communities around the world.”