Category Archives: Pilgrimage Places

The Last Time

View of the Mediterranean from the Peres Center for Peace & Innovation

The last time I went to Israel, the world was evidently ending. It was near to the end of 1999, and people were feeling frantic about the arrival of Y2K and start of the second millennium in the common era. Either all our interactive computer systems were predicted to fail all at once, resulting in mass chaos and global destruction, or we were going to witness the cataclysmic second coming of the Christ. The former was a largely secular concern, so I heard people in Jerusalem, mostly Christians and Muslims, speculating far more about the latter. 

People had competing notions about which direction Jesus would come from and which gate he would use to enter the holy city. I had a Palestinian cab driver who was certain that he knew the answers to both those questions and who had little patience for quarreling about the basic premise with me. I somehow remained far less credulous than everyone else. My overweight backpack was bursting at the seams because I inevitably packed for every possible contingency. But there was one I would not allow, namely the arrival of the apocalypse.

Jews keep a different calendar than Gentiles do; it is the same one they have kept for several millennia now. This year in Jewish time, for instance, is 5782, not 2022. So the Jewish Israelis seemed less concerned than others in the country about the impending end of the world. They had already marked 2000 many years earlier. While the Hebrew Scriptures, like the the Christian Testament, hold out apocalyptic visions, Jews have been watching the world not end for longer than their Christian and Muslim siblings have.

At the Israel Museum, an entire exhibit hall is dedicated to the Shrine of the Book, which houses the Dead Sea Scrolls that were first discovered in Qumran in 1947, the same year that the United Nations adopted its resolution about the creation of an Israeli state. Among the Dead Sea Scrolls are liturgical materials from the Essenes, and among the prayers and hymns is a prayer for the End of Days. The days of the Essenes ended before they could mark that momentous occasion, although their sacred literature was somehow not lost in the sands of time.

The Essenes were a mystical sect of Jews who dwelled in desert from the 2nd Century BCE until the 1st Century CE. They lived in Judea when Jesus was wandering it with his disciples. They believed that humans had immortal and imperishable souls, souls that could outlast the world itself. I remember one of my seminary professors asking us what sort of world we students believed we inhabited; if it was corrupted, conflictual, and cruel, this professor suggested, it would appear a cosmic kindness if it were simply to end. In a sense, apocalyptic literature held out a strange hope to its readers. 

Today, globally, we are witnessing the catastrophic consequences of climate change. Some have suggested that we use the term climate collapse instead, and indeed, it seems we are teetering on the brink of that. At the congregation I used to serve, the Social Action Council asked if we should try rank ordering our priorities. To the obvious annoyance of one long-time council member, I quickly suggested that we put environmental concerns at the top of the list. “Everyone thinks that their causes are the most important,” this member told me, although I had not thought of this previously as my particular cause, just as a pressing issue none of us could ignore any longer. She seemed to think the matter was open to debate. “The planet people are right,” I replied. “In the absence of a planet, all of our causes are lost.” 

The last time I went to Israel, I travelled solo. This summer, I went as part of a Protestant clergy leadership tour led by the Jewish Community Relations Council of Boston. Places look different, I discovered, when they are beheld with communal eyes. In the time were were traveling together, Boston seemed very far away to me. But a ministerial colleague back home told me that by late July, Boston was getting as hot as Haifa. This has been a summer of heat wave after heat wave, and not just in New England. 

At the end of our final day in Israel, just before we left for the airport in Tel Aviv, we visited the Peres Center for Peace & Innovation, established in honor of the late Isreali prime minister Shimon Peres, who won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1994 and whose memory remains a blessing to the country he helped found. He always believed in the human capacity to solve our most stubborn, seemingly intractable problems, primarily by actively expanding our imaginations. “Optimists and pessimists die the same way,” Peres famously said in one interview. “They just live differently. I prefer to live as an optimist.” Who wouldn’t prefer that? As we confront climate collapse, we may need to stay optimistic about the possibility of dramatic and systematic change in order to stay alive.

The contemporary center that bears his name was completed in 2009; it boasts a beautiful view overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. What we clergy-tourists saw from there was blue sky and wide horizon. There is a motto sculpted in in metal letters that gleam under the strong sun: DREAM BIG. In his 2017 book, No Room for Small Dreams: Courage, Imagination, and the Making of Modern Israel, Peres writes: “If an expert says it can’t be done, get another expert.” When the Peres Center showcases innovation, it includes social and ethical reforms as well as scientific and technological advances. We need reforms and advances alike these days, and fairly immediately, to slow the sequencing of future climate disasters. We have a world full of wonders — past and present and future — to preserve.

As you may recall, the world did not in fact end at the close of 1999 or at the start of 2000. Thankfully, computer programmers fixed all those Y2K bugs in time. My cab driver lost the bet he would have gladly made with me, were I a betting woman, and miscalculated the timing of the apocalypse. Obviously, he was not the first to do so. Even the Essenes were not the first to so, and they arrived fairly early on the scene. My guess is that people have been forecasting the end of the world probably since the beginning of time. I honestly do not know if the timeline of humanity has a terminus nearby that it is rapidly approaching. I certainly hope not. None of us wants to see that pulling in to view, not even those most ardently predicting it will. We humans have been wrong so many time before; I find that fact in and of itself inspiring.

Failed and Fruitful Utopias

Because we recently relocated to the area, my husband Ben and I spent a lot of the past summer exploring areas in New England, traveling to New Hampshire, Connecticut, and Maine. It gave us a better sense of the region, but we sometimes just visited sites in our state. One day, when we had plans to meet friends at the Fruitlands Museum, Ben had to bow out, which was disappointing for us both. “Don’t worry,” I told him. “There are no shortages of failed utopias in Massachusetts. There will most definitely be other opportunities for you here.”

Like the fabled Fruitlands, some of these nineteenth-century utopias had the significant participation of American Transcendentalists, whose ideals were usually some combination of inspiring and infuriating for their neighbors. Fruitlands was a fairly short-lived experiment; it lasted only a matter of months, when it became clear that this farm in central Massachusetts could not remain self-sufficient through the winter.

Eventually Louisa May Alcott wrote a parody of her father’s farming project that became a book titled Transcendental Wild Oats: A Chapter from An Unwritten Romance. This thinly veiled autobiographical account of their family’s time at Fruitlands ends with her mother telling her father, “Don’t you think ‘Apple Slump’ would be a better name for it, dear!” Clearly the author thought so herself.


It’s easy to make utopian communities the subject of satire, but I think we ought to resist the temptation to do that too quickly. As my friends and I wandered the museum grounds, we saw how the beautiful site itself could inspire visions. A student I had met from the chaplaincy at Wellesley College was working at Fruitlands over the summer and it was surprisingly pleasant to see her there. She allowed how enjoyable it was to do any job in such a lovely spot.

As we toured the historic house where the Alcotts lived, the museum guide soon deduced that all of us in our group of three were Unitarian clergy. Within minutes, she was telling us a story of her involvement several years ago with a local church that had left her disillusioned with congregational life. These accounts are more commonly occurring than most of us generally care to admit and also quite informative. We suffer failures large and small.

Our faith communities lift up high ideals that we struggle to realize in our lives — that does not make those ideals false, though. The boldness of utopian communities (there were more than 100 of them across the U.S. in the 1800s) was that a group of people committed to living together according to unusual expectations of one another, expectations that were spiritual and social in equal measure. While these communities rarely survived long, they did introduce imaginative possibilities for communal life.

At Fruitlands, pioneering ideas formed around environmentalism, education, and gender equality; in time, these would become increasingly influential around America. Social reformers such as Henry David Thoreau — himself a close friend of Alcott — found inspiration in the experiments that the farm residents had attempted. Instead of being too unsparing of our appraisal of failed utopias, I wonder if we shouldn’t be more appreciative of all they ventured. They sensed so much potential to tap.

These days, most of us inhabiting faith communities find ourselves operating in an innovative mode — we are working with newer models of religious education, finding different ways to use media and technology, and adopting a fresh approach to the social actions we take on behalf of greater justice. Whether or not our experiments succeed, it matters that we are willing to run them. As one wag has observed, we tend to forget that Icarus flew for a little while before he fell.

At the turn of the calendar year, when our minds turn to New Year’s resolutions, we might start to feel some loftiness rising within ourselves; perhaps that merits our indulgence. We human beings tend to be future-forward creatures. In his compelling history Paradise Now: The Story of American Utopianism, Chris Jennings writes that “the tens of thousands of Americans who lived in these communities were not fools…. [these] utopians hoped to construct the perfect society in miniature and then lead by example — to pull, rather than push, the world toward perfection.” Of course they failed. After all, on this side of glory, where does perfection permanently reside?

Yet what I admire about those long-ago residents of Fruitlands and Hopedale and Brook Farm and the rest of the storied sites in this Commonwealth was that they dared to raise their eyes and tried to catch glimpses of glory in their own place and time. So I will resist joining in the snide jokes of cynics and remember that instead. They pulled us ahead. We don’t have count to the days of those utopias existence as failures, whether they spanned months or years. The days were distinctive ones, however many they numbered. Isn’t that what we all hope for in our own lives — days we ourselves can make distinct? There are far worse things we could be than heirs apparent of neighboring idealists.