MEJDI Ambassador Spotlight

 Introducing Rebecca Esterson

A professor at the Graduate Theological Union, an interreligious, interdisciplinary center for graduate level education.

Rebecca recently brought a group to attend our Dual Narrative Tour of Israel and Palestine. We had the privilege of sitting down with Rebecca and hearing more about her experience on the trip, how it has impacted her work and how she was better able to show up for her Palestinian and Israeli colleagues on and after October 7th.   

Read on to learn more…

Could you tell us about the work you do?

I am a professor at the Graduate Theological Union, which is an inter-religious, interdisciplinary center for graduate level education. There are people of many different faiths and nationalities in our learning community. Our students are here for different reasons: some of them will go on to some form of ministry or chaplaincy, some will become thought leaders in their own communities as academics or working for non-profit, change-making organizations. It the GTU, I work for a small seminary, the Center for Swedenborgian Studies. It was in the context of our Swedenborgian seminary work that we took this trip (to Israel and Palestine with MEJDI). Those on the trip were either students, faculty, board members, or community friends of the CSS.

As part of my own graduate education I spent three semesters living in Jerusalem in 2000-2001, and I knew the impact of the people and the place could have on those doing graduate studies. I also knew, given the history of seminaries and the Holy Land, that I wanted to avoid the common fixation on ancient history and ancient texts. I knew that we needed to engage the present and recent history, and to interface with people living in Israel and Palestine today. When I heard about Mejdi, I knew I needed to learn more.

Could you describe some of your most memorable experiences on your Mejdi trip?

Yes, we were there during Ramadan, and just before Easter and Passover. So there were people fasting, people cleaning their homes of chametz, and people getting ready for the Palm Sunday and Easter pilgrimages. What a time. Our Christian Palestinian tour guide (Ramzey) was very concerned for our Muslim Palestinian bus driver (Mustafa) and encouraged us to be mindful of the time at our various stops, so that Mustafa could break the fast as soon as it was time. We were happy to be in on this caring gesture. Therese, who was our host for the home stay in Beit Sahour, was telling us stories about her community’s plans for Easter, which is the highlight of their year. They were anxious, as they had not yet heard if their requests for permission to travel for the annual pilgrimages in Jerusalem had been approved. It was such a difficult thing for us to fathom – having traveled across the world to be in her home as tourists, that she couldn’t even travel to a neighboring town for a religious ceremony. 

A major highlight was when our Israeli tour guide, Rotem, took us to the home of his very good friends, a Palestinian Muslim family who live just outside the gate of the Old City. Their home is in the middle of a construction site, where they are building new underground roads for the purpose of moving tourists around the city more easily. We were invited into their home, even as they were preparing for Ramadan (which hadn’t yet started) and fed a wonderful home-made meal while we listened to their stories. This struck me as a better way to do tourism than disrupting people’s lives to build disruptive throughways. Build relationships instead!

Can you describe how traveling with MEJDI has helped you navigate the current conflict?

Yes, I have colleagues and students at the GTU who are deeply affected by the conflict. We are an interreligious and international group. My co-teacher for one of my classes this semester is from the West Bank, and there are others here with family and friends who were directly impacted by the violent acts of Hamas and the response to those acts. 

The week of October 7, those of us who were on the trip didn’t hesitate to show up for those in our community who are affected, not with easy answers or opinions, but with a sense of the complexity and the heartbreak on all sides. I think we have a sense, from MEJDI’s modeling, that the most important thing we can do is show up in person and in action, rather than spewing opinions on social media. We were able to show up for the people in our community in person, and also to take up a collection for one of our host families in Palestine who had lost all their income.

What does the ‘dual narrative tour’ mean to you, and what was its impact?

This model puts an emphasis on relationships and connections, even across political lines. I don’t see any other way of responsibly engaging as a tourist in the area. If you only engage with one narrative about the history and the present day situation, you will contribute to the powers of division that are perpetuating violence on innocent communities.

Describe what you think the travel industry needs right now. 

We need to grapple especially with the economic disparity between tourists and host countries. I still have a lot of questions about how to do this responsibly, but the people at Mejdi have thought as much about this as anyone, and have put in place a model that builds relationships rather than transactions, all for the sake of peace-building. Travelers want to contribute substantively to the building of peace, so we need to find ways to do this effectively and it will be successful.


Rebecca Esterson is the Dean of Swedenborgian Studies at the Graduate Theological Union. She earned her PhD from the Graduate Division of Religious Studies at Boston University. She earned her Masters of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School with a focus in world religions, and also studied at Hebrew University in Jerusalem as a visiting graduate student. After receiving her master’s degree, she worked at Harvard’s Center for the Study of World Religions for 9 years where she was able to further develop her interest in comparative studies and interfaith learning. Her teaching and research interests include: the history of biblical interpretation, hermeneutics, Jewish and Christian mysticism, Jewish-Christian relations, eighteenth century intellectual culture, Christian Hebraism, and comparative religious studies.

To contact or learn more about Rebecca’s work with GTU, visit the faculty page here

If you’d like to learn more about sharing your travel story through MEJDI’s ambassador program, we’d love to hear from you! Please reach out to [email protected].