Israel by bus

Since Sunday morning when we left Jerusalem, we have traveled a great distance around Israel. We went north, then south again before winding up in Tel Aviv last night. We are now sitting in the airport waiting to catch our 10am flight to Istanbul. It’s important to note that the country of Israel is the roughly the size of New Jersey, so it’s fairly easy to travel as far as we did in just a few days.

Sunday and Monday nights we stayed in a hotel in a kibbutz in the Lower Galilee region. Kibbutzim (the plural term) are unique to Israel and resemble what we know as communes. They are around a century old and there are around 200 here. Founded by pioneers, they were fairly basic in their early days. Many are being privatized now, so members of a kibbutz no longer pay in “according to their abilities” and receive “according to their needs.” The hotel where we stayed is the main source of income for Kibbutz Lavi and the members of the kibbutz staff the hotel. Being able to stay there offered us a glimpse of another way of life here. Sunday we also hit many places important in Jesus’ ministry – the Jordan River, the Sea of Galilee, Capernaum.

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(A first-century fishing boat from the Sea of Galilee. Brings to life so many Gospel stories.)

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(Pomegranates are found all over, whether hanging, ready to be squeezed into juice, or represented in artwork.)

Monday and Tuesday, among other stops, we visited two extreme regions – the Golan Heights and Sderot, a city just a mile from the Gaza Strip. Lookout spots offered us the chance to peer into these intense regions. While peering into Syria from the Golan Heights, we could hear the civil war going on below. In Sderot, we were told of the challenges residents face because of rockets fired from Gaza. Politics play a big role in and around Israel. This is a complex part of the world. But it is clear that innocent people are suffering in Gaza, the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Syria. It’s imperative that we pray for peace to come to this holy place.

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(At the lookout spot in the Golan Heights)

Saturday in pictures

(March 22)

Saturday morning we left Jerusalem to spend the day in the desert. We visited three important places – Qumran (where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered), Masada (where King Herod had a palace) and the Dead Sea, where we floated and covered ourselves in mud. I’m horribly behind on this blog since our days are so full and long, but here are some pictures from our adventure outside Jerusalem.

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The Dead Sea from Masada

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Masada

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Float party in the Dead Sea

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Muddin’ up!

The Layers of Jerusalem

(Friday, March 21)

Today we walked the streets of the Old City. For ten hours we wandered on roads and walkways which lie on top of other roads and walkways. There are so many layers in Jerusalem, and each layer has a history of its own. We all set out eager to see what this holy place would show us.

A marathon was happening in the morning, which made life annoying for those wanting to drive. But for us – life was better. We could see the most important holy sites on foot, and join hundreds and hundreds of other pilgrims and tourists on the trek to the holiest of all sites. What that site is depends on who you are. Christians flock to the Christian quarter to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Jews head to the Western Wall. Muslims go to the Temple Mount to visit the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Yet I would hope that no matter one’s faith, we all knew and honored that when in this place, we are on holy ground.

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(Marathon runners heading up the streets into the Old City)

Throughout our tour of the Old City, we were reminded by Yishay that Jerusalem is a city where tradition often matters more than fact. Many of the places tell stories of meaningful and important events, many claiming to be the “exact spot” where things happen. Yet one doesn’t have to dig too deeply to learn that though the city is old, most structures were built after the fact to give honor to the important event. But tradition tells us why these places continue to be so meaningful.

The Old City feels fairly small when you understand how important it is to most of the world. The four quarters (Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Armenian) seem to blend seamlessly together, but I know that’s just become I come with untrained eyes. There can be tension in and between the quarters. One example is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Believed to be the place where Jesus was crucified by the Romans, buried and rose on the third day, this place holds meaning for thousands and thousands of Christians. It certainly was a holy place to enter. Yet the place is shared by six Christian denominations who can’t quite share it comfortably. Mopping the floor, picking up trash, any other task, large and small, is an honor in such a place. And so the different groups make part of it their own, while also sharing it with the world. It’s a beautiful ornate place.

20140323-183131.jpg(The central chapel is Greek Orthodox and under the the altar is the place where the cross stood. People bow down and kiss the silver disc above the stone.)

While we wandered the streets we encountered other tour groups from around the world. While walking the Via Dolorosa, we found ourselves behind a group somberly singing, “Were you there?” Later we would find ourselves back at the Western Wall, waiting for Shabbat to begin. THe excitement was palpable and as the sun began to set, we tourists couldn’t wait to see what happened. The men in the group went to the men’s section of the wall and the women, to the women’s section. From there we stood on chairs to watch what was happening on the men’s side! Young Israeli soldiers came bouncing into the plaza and began joyfully singing many of their national songs. The men danced in a circle, arms on shoulders, singing their hearts out. Other men were either joining in on the excitement or praying their own prayers closer to the wall or somewhere else in the men’s section. I had expected it to be a service for the whole crowd, but it was a personal time of prayer. Eventually we headed back to the hotel and enjoyed a festive Shabbat dinner.

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(The Western Wall about 20 minutes before Shabbat began. Once it begins, photos are not allowed in the area.)

Remembering

(Thursday, March 20)

A poem by Selma Meerbaum-Eisenger:

“Fairy Tale”
So. And that must be the end.
The rain is crying, as is the night,
and my lips cry for a kiss
and cry and cry–and laugh.

So this is how every fairy tale ends,
or else–it isn’t true:
someone alone out in the wind
and the night becomes his altar.

And deepest yearning becomes his priestess.
In a billowing dress of blue,
she kneels down there at his feet,
and she is so far…so far…

As far as my two eyes–
lost in the deepest forest,
blind and dead, they play with the wind,
and I–am tired and cold.

The paths are all so endlessly long,
just like all my days.
And all the trees are so afraid.
The bushes are soaked by rain.

I walk in union with the night
and am as lonely as she.
The rain is crying, as is the wind,
for me–or is it for her?

(March 7, 1941)

Our group visited Yad Vashem today, the Holocaust History Museum. The name means “a memorial and a name (a memory)” and comes from the book of Isaiah (56:5). The purpose is to preserve a record of the horrific event, honoring those who perished, as well as those who risked their lives to save the Jewish people. Yishay guided us through the museum, highlighting the importance of the museum for the younger Israeli generation. As we’ve heard several times now, the Holocaust is deeply seared into the Jewish national psyche, and therefore it is important to understand that if one is to understand Israelis. The building itself takes one on a journey from one side of a mountain to another, zigzagging through the details until the end when you enter a circular room full of photographs and names of those who died. Remembering a name and a story keeps someone’s life from just being a statistic.

The poem I began with was written by a Jewish teenage girl named Selma. The first cousin once removed of my first cousin once removed (by marriage), Selma wrote poetry for three years, beginning at age 15. In her notebook, translated as “Harvest of Blossoms,” she wrote about her life as a teenager in Czernowitz, Romania. Her earlier poems (from 1939) reflect a hopeful outlook on life. She had dreams and desires like any young girl. As the situation around her changed, her understanding of the world did, too. Hope turned to fear; trust turned to confusion. In 1942 she was taken to a labor camp in Michailowka, Ukraine where she would die months later from typhus. She was 18 when she died. Yet her words live on.

Selma passed her notebook to a friend before she was transferred to the labor camp. It would continue to travel to many places before finding itself with someone who wanted to publish her poems, first in its original German, then later into English. It was from this first publication in English that I read her words during a memorial service after exiting the museum. Her words live on.

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(Yad Vashem)

It’s hard to shift gears after a visit like that, but that’s what we did. We boarded our us and headed to Bethlehem. Located in Area A (Palestinian Authority), our trip there required a new guide, a Palestinian one. We picked him up and he took us to the Church of the Nativity. Tradition holds that the church is on the spot of Jesus’ birth, and one can enter the cave and touch and see where baby Jesus was both born and laid afterwards. Naturally, it was a busy place, but our guide made sure we could cut to the front of the lines…which meant that we would later do our souvenir shopping in his shop. Tourism is an important part of life in Bethlehem. Any shopping regrets could be washed away by buying more items as we waited at the check point to get back into Israeli territory. Many did just that. Check out this lovely bag Bob bought for Jennifer…

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There is so much more I could say about this day, but it’s hard to summarize so much of this in a blog. But I didn’t intend for this blog to say it all–that’s what conversations back home are for.

Who are you?

That is a key question in this land. It’s a key question most places, really. Our history, our understandings, our beliefs, our hopes, dreams and fears…they all come together to shape how we answer that question. Who am I? Who are you? Who might we be together in this place?

Our day began in Jaffa, a city with 4,000 years of history. The ancient port has been appealing to many people and groups over the years. For Jonah, this place represented an opportunity to escape God’s call. For Solomon, the port meant he had a way to transfer the cedars of Lebanon for the building of the temple. Many have conquered in Jaffa…many have been conquered in Jaffa. Our guide, Yishay, reminded us early in the day that here you have to “pick a term and pick a side.” It’s certainly true that the words we choose to use when explaining who we are matter.

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Tel Aviv means “old new.” We spent the morning wandering the streets of this old new city. The bustling city center feels like a younger sibling trying hard to keep up with it’s older brother or sister. Founded in 1909, it’s just 105 years old. “1909 is like yesterday morning,” Yishay said.

The State of Israel is even younger. Our visit to Independence Hall told us the story of how things went down in the years leading up to May 14, 1948. Our tour guide read with pride parts of their declaration and we heard the actual recording of that day’s historical announcement. What you call that day depends on who you are. You pick a term and pick a side.

A much needed falafel lunch then happened while continuing to tour the old new city.

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Then we boarded the bus, with our eyes on Jersualem. We passed by the ever changing landscape and through the West Bank. Eventually we arrived at the Mount of Olives. Here was our view:

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So many things, all in one place, that ground people and give them an answer to the question for the day. I am Christian. I am Jewish. I am Muslim. So much history and significance in one space.

Our final visit of the day was to the Garden Tomb. This site is identified with Calvary and Jesus’ burial place (though the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is, too). Our guide gave us compelling evidence, though even he claims that at the end of the day, there is no way they can claim that site as more important than another. Facts aside, it is a beautiful place to ponder the meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection. It seemed natural then to celebrate the Lord’s Supper together, which we did quietly in a corner in the garden.

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It was hard to believe that by the time we arrived at our hotel, we had only been in the country for 22 hours. I trust that each day will be a head-spin like today, but that’s not a bad thing. Especially when you wake up to a breakfast like this…

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Hoping for sleep in the “city that never sleeps”

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After many, many hours of travel (I’m too tired to count how many), our team has arrived in Tel Aviv! 18 of us spent the past 2 days traveling by car, shuttles, planes and buses to get here. Spirits have been high though and the food plentiful. Turkish Airways treats you well! 4 others met us here at the hotel tonight, so we are now all together and a group of 22.

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Our guide for the week, Eshai, is friendly and got us quickly settled in our hotel. Food awaited us (again) in our rooms and if you’re on the side of the hotel I am, you can sleep with your balcony door open and listen to the waves of the Mediterranean Sea (in between the sounds of the busy city). Not a bad stop for our long needed rest.

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Tomorrow will begin with a large breakfast buffet! Then we’ll spend the morning touring the old city of Jaffa and visit Independence Hall before heading to Jerusalem. Once there we head straight to the Mount of Olives. I know we are all eager to hit the streets tomorrow to experience so many important places. But for now, it’s time to bid this travel day farewell.

Pinch me…we’re going to Israel!

Today, St. Patty’s Day, I’m pinching myself. Not because I lack the necessary green (I was sure that I selected a scarf with green), but because in just a few hours 7 of us from Second Pres will be headed up to Dulles to begin our journey to Israel.  It feels unreal. Our little group will meet up with 14 others from Temple Emanuel for a 9 day interfaith travel trip.

In some ways, it still feels like a typical Monday. I watch the coffee brew with foggy eyes, start cranking out the emails at my computer, think about what the week will bring. But in between all that, I’m packing a bag with clothing to wear in Jerusalem and Galilee and the Dead Sea. It’s wonderfully weird to pack a bag for places I’ve heard about my whole life. I am excited to say that I know so little about what this week holds. I know where we’re generally going, but I welcome the challenge of venturing to a new place, of navigating a new culture, of living life away from the google calendar for awhile. And it is through this site that you can journey with me!

Today is a great gift and it feels like just that. Fickle winter weather or not, we’re going to Israel.  Pinch me!