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Living the Call

Hayley Cohen ’16 MDiv describes her experience doing ecumenical ministry in the Holy Land

In this series, we asked alumni to update us on their path to ministry since graduation. They reflect on how their time at Princeton Seminary prepared them for leadership, while sharing some of the surprises and challenges they’ve experienced along the way.

Hayley Cohen ’16 MDiv spent 14 months in the Holy Land. She talks about the complexity of human beings, listening to the voice of God, and why self-care is important, but sometimes difficult. 


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How has your time at Tantur Ecumenical Institute informed your ministry?
My time at Tantur has been so radically informative and transformative. Working at an ecumenical institute has brought many challenges. We have Christians from all over the world and from all different denominations living together, experiencing the Holy Land together, praying together, and worshipping together … there is bound to be tension. Despite all of the tension, I have witnessed some beautiful moments between people of different denominations. I have learned that it is best for us to acknowledge our differences, learn from them, celebrate them, and then find common ground where we can work together to build God’s kingdom. I think this rings true for conflicts that occur in interfaith dialogue and for peace-building. Tantur has taught me about conflict in many forms and how to transform it into peace. I am not saying I have solutions, but I have a deeper appreciation for the complexity of conflict and I have been witness to some serious transformation while living here. 

Looking back, how do you think Princeton Seminary prepared you for the work you’re doing?
At first glance, my work doesn’t seem like the kind of job someone would immediately associate with an MDiv and time spent in seminary. On the surface, my position at the Tantur Ecumenical Institute in Jerusalem seems like a tourism and hospitality position, but it really it is much more than that. Our continuing education participants are clergy and Christian laity who choose to spend their sabbaticals in the Holy Land because they want to encounter the land of the Bible. However, they also want to encounter the modern-day reality of life here, which has a complex political circumstance.

While most of our participants come with some idea of what they might witness, the expectation of seeing the Holy Land as it was in the Bible versus the reality of the Holy Land today can be quite jarring. This often provokes an emotional response that requires a great deal of pastoral sensitivity. Princeton Seminary prepared me to be able to help people process the challenges of what they experience while also bolstering them in their faith that there is always hope in the midst of strife.


Now, I know this is what I was meant to do and I am grateful I listened to the voice of God. 

What is a lesson or learning that continues to inform your ministry?
The sheer complexity of a single human being. People are more than just the boxes we place them in—they are made of complex histories that need to be acknowledged, unpacked, and, ultimately, healed, so they can live their most whole lives.  

What has been the biggest challenge for you in your ministry?
Having to be “on” all of the time. I live and work in the same place, so I never really escape work unless I leave the grounds of the Institute. I remember frequent discussions about boundaries and self-care when I was a student. Now, I have to laugh a bit about it because I finally understand how difficult it is to enforce those things when you feel obligated to the people you serve.

What advice would you give to current students about choosing a vocation after graduation?
Listen to the call God made on your life and don’t compare yourself to your classmates. During my final year of seminary, I felt very self-conscious because I was not interested in doing the things my friends were going to do. I was not ready to be ordained and become a pastor. I was not applying for further degree programs, and I was not going to do a clinical pastoral education residency. Even though I knew I was listening to the call God made on my life and I was very excited to be going to the Holy Land, part of me was still thinking: should I have done what my friends did? Now, I know this is what I was meant to do and I am grateful I listened to the voice of God. 


Because of her guidance, I felt I could continue to be a Christian. 

You mentioned that Dr. Ellen Charry was one of your mentors. How did she encourage you to grow?
Dr. Charry is the only person that I have ever met who could accurately describe the challenges, pains, and joys, of being a theologically astute Christian with a Jewish background. My father is Jewish and my mother is Christian. Since my dad was not religious, but my mom was, I went to church, was baptized, and was raised to be an active member of my church. Growing up, being Jewish was still important to my identity, but was more significant to me culturally than religiously.

During my middler year, Dr. Charry agreed to do an independent study with me on Christian anti-Judaism. I had not realized that two halves of myself were, for most of history, directly opposed to one another in violent theological ways. Through that course I saw the worst of Christianity. It made me deeply uncomfortable, and I could not stop seeing the anti-Jewish theology and biblical interpretation that pervaded my Christian reality. Dr. Charry was pivotal in walking me through a period of theological deconstruction and reconstruction. For the first time in my life, I was able to critically assess my theology and reconcile these two parts of myself. She encouraged me to ask questions, to explore my feelings, to sit in tension, and to have hope in the future of Jewish-Christian relationships. Because of her guidance, I felt I could continue to be a Christian. 


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