Rev. David Pileggi of Christ Church in Jerusalem has been taking Christians to Poland and other parts of Central and Eastern Europe for years to learn more about the Jewish people and their history as it unfolds in the Bible.
Pileggi sat down with Christian journalist, Paul Calvert, to talk about the in-depth study tour of Poland, formerly home to the world’s largest and vibrant Jewish community for almost 1,000 years before its tragic demise during World War II.
The Narrow Bridge Tour was created because many people have a fascination for understanding the Jewish people and their history from biblical times leading up to the modern generation.
“We’ve been bringing people to Poland for many years, so you might say it’s part 2 of the story: God’s dealings with His people, Jewish-Christian relations, the political history of that part of Europe, how Jews influence Poland and European civilization,” Pileggi explained.
The tour covers Jewish life and how Jews prospered and survived spiritually, economically and culturally. There is also a discussion about the Orthodox Jewish movement, Hasidism, and its revival, as well as Jewish messianism.
Great emphasis is given to the history and events of Holocaust, including what happened, how it happened and learning more about those who endangered their own lives to save Jewish people, despite the risks.
The summer tour will begin in Warsaw and continue to today’s eastern Poland, visiting cities like Bialystok, Lublin and Krakow in the south. Pileggi said that while the tour will not enter any concentration camps, it does include a visit to at least three death factories – Treblinka, Sobibor and Belgrade, as well as widely-known Auschwitz-Birkenau.
“Many people, when they think of the Holocaust, they characterize Jews being brought to camps where they stay for quite some time and then they’re eventually killed,” Pileggi explained. He said most people often think about the black and white photos of starving prisoners in pinstripe uniforms with numbers on their arms.
“But in most cases – the vast majority of cases – Jews were killed at death factories almost immediately upon arrival,” he clarified, “or they were taken into the forests close to the places where they lived, and they were shot and buried in pits.”
“So, it’s a very brutal and even shocking picture,” he continued, “but it’s a story that really needs to be told. And we need to understand the chronology of this and actually how it came about.”
The Holocaust portion of the tour attempts to answer the difficult question of how this horrible tragedy could have happened and the reasons why.
Pileggi emphasized that all of us can learn a lesson about the dangers of apathy– not to be a bystander when mass murder or genocide is happening anywhere in the world.
“The Nazi ideology was extremely anti-Christian, anti-God, at least the God of the Bible. And those who carried out or planned this policy were not churchgoers, but there were many believers or many Christians. And for one reason or another – maybe because of fear or because of confusion, not knowing what to do or what to say – simply did nothing,” Pileggi said.
Pileggi emphasized that all of us can learn a lesson from this horrible tragedy – not to be a bystander when mass murder or genocide is happening anywhere in the world.
He quoted Exodus 23: “Do not follow a multitude to do evil,” adding that it is each one’s personal responsibility to know how the multitude operates, to understand the pressures they may eventually face, and how to resist those pressures and remain faithful witnesses to the Lord.
Pileggi further explained that Poland once had the largest Jewish community in the world and that at least 90% of Poland’s Jewish population was murdered during World War II.
“Maybe 10% survived, and they survived mostly because those Jews were deported by the Soviet Union to other parts of the Soviet Union when the Soviets occupied half of Poland in 1939. So ironically, it was the fact that many Jews were sent to the Gulag, or they were deported to places like Kazakhstan, that enabled them to survive.”
Pileggi said there is a lot of bible study and teaching during the tour about Jewish life, Jewish culture and the way the scriptures have been interpreted in light of the Jewish pursuit to be a living example of the Torah and its message.
During the interview with Calvert, Pileggi shared his personal thoughts about the current wave of global anti-Semitism and its role in the Holocaust.
“Anti-Semitism was the background or the context – all of this is certainly anti-Semitism and I don’t want to minimize or downplay that. But anti-Semitism isn’t necessarily, in and of itself, murderous.”
He said the vicious anti-Semitism of the 1930s and 1940s was mixed with the even more potent apocalyptic political, social and cultural ideology of Nazism.
Pileggi noted that the real danger is when people are targeted based on a false ideology which believes that, “as soon as I can take care of them or remove them or dehumanize them, then all our problems as a society will be solved.”
While there has been an increased global, awareness and condemnation of anti-Semitic activity, Pileggi said he doesn’t believe the world has truly learned its lesson.
“Some lessons have been learned. I think in many places in Europe and in the West, we are much more sensitive to anti-Semitism. At the same time, you know, we have replaced anti-Semitism with an unfair criticism of Israel,” he added, saying that there has been a persistent mindset that Jews are responsible for every problem in the world, which has led to the demonization of Israel.
“We need to say that it is not anti-Semitic to criticize the State of Israel and to criticize their policies. Many policies of the State of Israel need to be critiqued and should not be, perhaps, condoned or easily swept under the rug by Christians, especially those Christians who may understand God’s future purposes for the Jewish people. But at the same time, if you look at the press, if you look at universities or the UN, you know, virtually all the attention – or a huge proportion of [negative] attention – is given to Israel. It’s false. And it’s sin.”
Another form of anti-Semitism today, according to Pileggi, is the perpetual rhetoric that the Jewish nation’s policies are the reason for the Israel-Palestinian conflict. He called it hypocritical, adding that Lebanon and other Arab states are known for suppressing or even oppressing Palestinians, and denying them their rights.
And while many people may say they are “pro-Palestinian” and “love the Palestinian people,” Pileggi said these kinds of statements may simply reflect anti-Israel bias and not truly be coming from a place of love for those who live in the West Bank or Gaza.
He claims that Israel has been unfairly singled out for its treatment of Palestinians, while most nations did nothing when it came to Darfur or challenge the way China treats its Muslim minority. “China, for example, and up until recently, Russia or Saudi Arabia, or places that had much worse human rights records, you know, somehow get a pass,” he said.
Pileggi wants the tour to Poland to be relevant for the present and the future, not just the past.
“We hope that the tour will not only challenge us to be firm in our stand against anti-Semitism, but also to, you might say, to check us in a way so that we’re not bystanders or we’re apathetic while other genocides are taking place around the world.”
“Whether you’re a Christian or not a Christian, you know, the mass murder –wherever that takes place for political reasons or religious reasons, ethnic reasons – we think should be No. 1 on everyone’s list….this is the kind of thing that we should be praying about – taking practical action to do what we can to prevent, to stop mass murder from happening and to prevent it from ever getting started.
While the Narrow Bridge Tour is primarily a study tour, time is set aside for reflection, discussion, group fellowship and daily worship. Participants come away with a new perspective and consistently say that their way of understanding the world has been radically changed.
Pileggi’s prayer is that the “eyes of the heart” will be opened and that those on the tour will be challenged to explore the spiritual realities of today’s current events, especially as Jews and Christians.
“Ultimately, that we’ll know that we fight not against flesh and blood but that there’s a greater spiritual battle going on.”
David Pileggi lives in Jerusalem with his wife Carol where he is the rector Christ Church in the Old City Jerusalem. They have lived in Israel for more than 40 years where he has worked as a journalist/researcher and for 19 years was director of Shoresh Study Tours, a program dedicated to teaching Christians about the Jewish context of their faith.
David has a Master of Arts in Jewish Studies from Hebrew University and is a licensed tour guide. Fascinated by Eastern European Jewish life that existed before the Second World War, he has led a number of trips to Poland, Austria, and the Czech Republic, designed to teach Christians about Jewish life in the modern era. He has served as the rector of Christ Church since 2008.