Standing on the Temple Mount overlooking the Dome of the Rock is a powerful destination for any number of people. For nine students of Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths, though, this site of such significance and contention also represents the beginning of a new perspective on multi-faith relations at the University of Richmond.

The Office of the Chaplaincy’s Pilgrimage: Israel program wasn’t designed to be a purely academic study abroad experience. Students spent the semester leading up to the early-May trip exploring their personal faith, learning more about each other’s religious backgrounds, and discussing how to develop relationships across their similarities and differences. The program culminated in a 10-day experience in Israel, with stops in the Galilee region and Jerusalem, where students were able to visit sites of importance to their own faith, as well as see firsthand how the people of three major religions coexist in the Holy Land.

“Israel is an incredibly intense place; it’s like living in high-definition,” says Craig Kocher, University chaplain and Jessie Ball duPont Chair of the Chaplaincy. “The fragility of life and questions of violence and peace, questions of place and history and future are everywhere. We wanted to journey to that land through the lens of faith, and we wanted to engage the political questions facing that land thoughtfully. This was not religious tourism; this was a commitment to learning and engaging.”

Victoria Lyon, ’13, a reform Jew, had a baseline understanding of Christian and Islamic traditions from religious school and academic classes, but was looking to dive deeper. “The pilgrimage was an intense immersion that helped me understand these cultures in an authentic and powerful way,” she says. “[We kept hearing that] we were going to engage in emotionally challenging dialogue, and I think we all underestimated how difficult interfaith conversations can be.”

For Colin Billings, ’13, who grew up in a rural, “homogenous” town in Connecticut and had little experience with non-Christian religions, the transition to being a minority was particularly challenging. “It was a little uncomfortable at first,” he says. “When you’re a minority faith and you’re directly engaging in a religious service of a different faith, it’s a very intense experience. [But as we learned,] different is not bad, and you should be a little uncomfortable.”

The majority versus minority perspective also proved to be an important one for Jewish and Muslim participants, who found themselves just a plane ride away from becoming the predominant religion and culture. Andrew Goodman, a local rabbi who participated in the trip as a Jewish leader, explained how it’s surprisingly easy to slip into the majority mindset and why those in the dominant position have a responsibility to look out for marginal populations. “We can be one-and-a-half percent of the population here in the States, but there’s something that just feels comfortable about being in Israel,” he says. “I don’t have to work as hard and defend who I am at every turn — I get to just be. That’s one of the gifts Israel gives to the Jews, but there are some social and humanitarian issues that we can block out. [Anyone in the majority] has to work hard to not take advantage of that.”

As the trip drew to an end and interfaith understanding and communication reached a tipping point, conversations naturally shifted to what would happen when the group returned to Richmond.

“With a religious life coordinator, a reverend, a rabbi, four Jews, four Christians, and a Muslim, we sounded more like the punch line of a joke than a revolutionary force,” says Dana Urban, ’14. “With each discussion, we engaged in the tough questions and later reflections with one another. Our geographical journey transitioned into an emotional journey that none of us was prepared for.”

That journey will continue when students return to campus in the fall. The trip was not intended as a one-time event, but rather the inaugural meeting for one of the University’s newest student organizations, the Multi-Faith Student Council. While the group’s activities are yet to be determined, one thing is clear — they intend to use their foundation in multi-faith education to become a model for engagement across lines of difference and similarity.

“Ultimately, our responsibility is not to make all things better in Israel; our responsibility is to help make the University of Richmond better,” Kocher says. “Israel, that land, begs a question to the rest of the human family: Can we be fiercely committed to our communities and differences, and honest about our past and our love of place, and the histories that have formed us? Can we do all of that with integrity and find a way to live together? My hopeful answer is yes, but it’s not always clear how we’ll get there.”