By the time you read this column, I will have returned from the Middle East from the holy city, Jerusalem, where Jews, Christians and Moslems share a delicate and fragile peace. To walk the streets of this ancient, sacred place is beyond words. For eight days, I shepherded 40 pilgrims from all over the metropolitan area. They came from every walk of life and religious tradition.
When we began our journey, we were 40 strangers. When we left Tel Aviv nine days later, we were a very diverse and dynamic community of believers.
After arriving in Tel Aviv early on a Tuesday morning, we drove by bus with our guide to a small village on the Sea of Galilee. We stayed for three days in the village of Annunciation and from there to Cana where Jesus turned the water into wine.
In Tabgha, we went to the monastery, where tradition says the Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes took place. From there we went to the Mount of the Beatitudes, the site of Jesus' famous Sermon on the Mount. We were only a few hours ahead of President Bush.
On day four, we drove to Caesarea Philippi, now called the city of Banias, which is one of the main sources of the Jordan River. From there, we went to the small village of Ginnosar, where we visited the fisherman's boat found there that dated back to the time of Jesus. Then we took a boat ride in a boat modeled on a fisherman's boat from Jesus' day across the Sea of Galilee and docked in the city of Tiberius for lunch.
On day five, we began our journey to Jerusalem. In the morning we drove along the Sea of Galilee to Yardenit, the baptismal center on the Jordan River. After that visit, we went to Kursi, where tradition says the Miracle of the Demons and the Swine took place. From there we went to the Golan Heights, to the Peace Observatory, for an extraordinary view of the Sea of Galilee. From there we drove on to Jerusalem. We stayed in Jerusalem for the rest of our time, outside the old wall of the city, near the Jaffa Gate.
Day six began with a visit to the Garden Tomb, followed by an orientation about Calvary. We went into the old city through St. Stephen's gate to the pool of Bethsaida and then onto the Chapel of the Flagellation and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
On the morning of day seven, we drove to Bethlehem-that journey was probably the most difficult. In recent times, with the escalating tensions between the Israelis and the Palestinians, a wall has been built around this ancient city. You no longer have free access. You must pass through a heavily guarded checkpoint. We arrived at the first checkpoint and left our Israeli bus and boarded a Palestinian bus. Our principal guide, who was Jewish, was not allowed to accompany us to Bethlehem. A young Catholic Arab guided us through the city of Bethlehem. We visited the church of the Nativity, where tradition says Jesus was born. We also visited the famous Shepherds' Fields.
On our return from Bethlehem, security was heightened. To avoid the long line of vehicles at the principal checkpoint, we decided to walk across the checkpoint back into Israel. When we reached our buses, it was the first time we had to show our passports. I must admit, it was the only time while I was in Israel, that I felt the pressure of their conflict.
After our powerful visit to Bethlehem, we drove to Masada. We stopped at the Inn of the Good Samaritan, and then proceeded along the shores of the Dead Sea. As we drove along the Dead Sea to Masada, it was amazing to observe the desert and ruins along our road. When we arrived at Masada, we took the cable car to the top to see the famous fortress, where the Jewish zealots held off the armies of the Roman Empire, before choosing suicide over surrender.
We ended our day with a dip in the Dead Sea, and with a brief visit to Qumran, where the Dead Sea scrolls were discovered in 1947 in a cave. After that visit, we returned to Jerusalem.
Day eight was our free day. People did a wide range of things. Each pilgrim was encouraged to pursue his/her own interests. As a teacher, I had a long list of things I wanted to do. First on my list was to visit the famous Holocaust Museum- the Yad Vashem. It took me close to three hours to walk through it. Re-living that horrific period of our history through the eyes of our Jewish brothers and sisters was heart wrenching and compelling. It was profoundly disturbing to be reminded of how deaf the world was to the horrors of Hitler, his rise to power and how blind and passive the world was to the extermination of 6 million Jews. The entire experience was deeply moving.
I wanted to use this free day to walk and talk with the locals-I did that. I went to the Jerusalem mall. The cab ride was fascinating. My cab driver was an Arab Muslim who lives in East Jerusalem. It was interesting to listen to his perspective on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. When we got to this huge mall, there were security police and metal detectors to pass through at every entrance. At the entrance of each parking section, there were armed police that opened and searched the trunk of each car. On the surface, these procedures seem to bother no one. They seem to have become a part of their daily lives.
As I walked through the mall and listened to the conversations, I was amazed at how much of the chitchat was the same as if I was home. It was probably more accented by political talk because President Bush had just visited Israel.
My ride back to the hotel was in a cab driven by an Israeli. His take was radically different from my Arab cabdriver. I was fascinated by both perspectives, and very sensitive that there is so much history that shapes each perspective. We, in the West, for the most part are clueless to the real complexities involved here.
Our last day was the most intense. We began the day by visiting Gethsemane and the Church of All Nations. It overlooks the old Jewish cemetery in Jerusalem, which is right outside the wall. You can also see the beautiful gold shaped dome of the Moslem Community. It is their Mosque which is located in the Arab section of the old city. It is called the Dome of the Rock.
After visiting Gethsemane, we made our way back to the old city to the room of the Last Supper and King David's Tomb. Our last formal visit was to the famous Western Wall. It is considered one of Judaism's holiest places. It is the area closest to where the Temple of Jerusalem once stood, in which resided the Divine Presence (Shekhinah). For most Jews, the Wall is the place that expresses their desire for a return of the Divine Presence in Messianic times. It has been called the Wailing Wall since the 16th century, because many Jews came here to weep over the destruction of the Temple.
It was very moving, to see so many Jews, young and old alike, praying with their prayer books-with such reverence and respect. As a non-Jew, it was evident to me that we were on sacred and holy ground. After our powerful visit to the Wailing Wall, we revisited the Jewish section of the old city and prepared for our journey home.
As we took leave of Israel, it was apparent to each of us, although we came as strangers to this holy place, we left with a new bond of friendship that transcended our religious differences. If the cobblestones we walked and the ruins we saw could speak, what a powerful story they would tell. For most of us, our journey to the Promised Land was just a beginning...
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