Wednesday, July 25, 2007

God Bless America, and Israel Too!

I arrived home from Israel last Sunday after a loooooong journey home. Our last day in Israel and flight home lasted almost 36 hours for me, and even longer for others. I don't know if I have ever been so glad to be home. I've often been critical of Plant City and Florida in general, but I think I've decided there is no place better than home. God Bless America!

This summer has been a busy one. I left for three weeks at my cabin in the North Georgia Mountains the day after school let out. I returned home for a week before I went to Wyoming for a week. Then, I was home for a week spent primarily with Nathan before the Hoods left for Jamaica. After another week I left for two weeks in Israel. Now, I hope to spend the last three weeks before school starts at HOME. Enough of the word "week!"

Now on to Israel . . . .

Let me begin by saying how blessed I am to have been able to visit Israel in the first place. Last year we were all disappointed when we didn't get to complete our Holocaust journey, but now I believe it worked out for the best. We got to travel overseas for two summers instead of one; we were able to reunite with our colleagues without having to spend extra time getting to know each other; two shorter trips are less stressful than one long trip; we got to meet new people from the 2007 group (although 2006 still rules!); and we actually stayed in Nahariya where the the Lebanese rockets were falling last year and traveled through the part of Northern Israel that was hit the hardest in the conflict.

I will not give a day-by-day, play-by-play travelogue of our activities in Israel in this posting, but rather comment on my observations during our journey. Fellow traveler, Liz Moreno, shares a more detailed account of our trip in her blog for the Victoria Advocate. Thanks, Liz!

Israel is a nation of contrasts: the historical Holy Land and the new nation of Israel on one small plot of earth along the eastern Mediterranean. The day we arrived in Israel, the tour bus dropped us off at the Mahane Yehuda Market in Jerusalem to "find lunch." Thanks so much, Moshe! I was hoping to discover a nice Jewish deli for a stacked pastrami sandwich, but instead I found shouting vendors, hanging carcasses, buzzing flies, piles of garbage, and assorted unrecognizable smells to assault the senses. Talk about major flashbacks to childhood visits to the Abastos Market in Guadalajara, Mexico, and Pettirossi Market in Asuncion, Paraguay! When I realized I was not in New York and that there was no deli to be found, I settled for a safe lunch of Diet Coke and a pre-packaged round of soft cheese triangles.

The modern nation of Israel was not what I expected. I have heard so often about the strength, discipline, and no-nonsense zero-tolerance approach of the Israeli military. And after passing through the many stages of airport security, including a personal interview with an airline representative, I understood why EL AL has the reputation of being the safest airline in the world. I guess when I arrived I expected to find a sharp, clean, well-organized, 60-year old baby country with the national pride and strength of immigrants from around the world, but instead I discovered that Israel is still very much a developing nation. Newer buildings in Jerusalem legally must be constructed with Jerusalem limestone to match the historical city, but older buildings have fallen into disrepair, many newer buildings seem to have been abandoned half-finished, and litterbugs abound. I learned that 50% of Israel's annual budget is earmarked for defense, as well it should be, and that leaves little for urban development. It would be nice, however, to see a bit more funding for sanitation and beautification.

The history in Israel is unsurpassed. Walking in the steps of Jesus and the patriarchs of the Old Testament and visiting the places I learned about in Sunday School was moving and memorable indeed. Many of the historical sites we visited such as towns, mountains, rivers, valleys, gates, and structures were the undisputed actual locations mentioned in scripture. Other sites were more dubious. We often heard statements from our tour guide such as, "This is traditionally believed to be the Upper Room and location of the Last Supper," which meant it probably wasn't the actual location at all. The Catholic Church of the Holy Sepulchre is supposedly situated over the sites of Golgotha, where Jesus was crucified, the Stone of the Unction, where his body was prepared for burial, and the Tomb, where Jesus was buried and resurrected. These sites are only steps away from each other and all located inside the same church. Authentic? I don't think so. Protestants don't fare much better by favoring Gordon's Calvary and the Garden Tomb as the actual locations. There remains little or no proof of the actual sites of the Passion.

My biggest problem with Christianity in Israel is that they have built churches on top of virtually every historical site connected to Jesus. The first such church we visited was The Church of All Nations located in the Garden of Gethsemane and built directly over the supposed rock where Jesus prayed while his disciples slept. Although this was the first of many such churches we would visit, and I had not yet drawn my current conclusion, I must say that this was the site where I and many others were moved to tears. I was reminded of Tim Sheppard's "Could You Not Tarry With Me?"

The worst example of religious construction we visited was at Capernaeum where a Franciscan church that looks like a huge flying saucer has been built directly on top of the "traditional site" of Simon Peter's house. You can't even get a clear view of the archaeological ruins because this massive modern structure seems to be coming in for a landing! Give me a break, people! Wouldn't it be nice to actually SEE a natural historical site without having to imagine how it would look without a modern edifice swallowing it whole? Reflecting back, I am convinced that what matters most is not that we know the exact locations where Jesus died and rose again, nor that we build massive monuments at the site, but rather knowing that he did what he said. I know my Redeemer lives!

It would have been nice to write this blog on location while in Israel, but it was not to be. Online computer access was too expensive for my wallet in the hotels where we stayed, and there were virtually no internet cafes to be found. This from the country that supposedly invented or developed so much computer technology. So who really invented the internet? Israel or Al Gore? I remember having computer access everywhere for free when my family visited Paraguay (in my opinion the most underrated yet best of the Latin American countries) back in 2001. There were several free computer stations at the mall in AsunciĆ³n and even three free computers at McDonalds in EncarnaciĆ³n, way down in Southern Paraguay. I don't know. It's a mystery to me. Go figure.

Our first Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath and true Seventh Day, in Israel was an adjustment. When we arrived back at the Renaissance Hotel in Jerusalem the first Friday evening, we found it packed with orthodox Jewish families who had come to the hotel to escape work for 24-hours. I wondered why the hotel employees were working. I guess they didn't celebrate Shabbat. Several of the elevators were set on automatic because it is unlawful to press a button during Shabbat. The way it works is you hop on the elevator and hope it stops at your floor either on the way up or on the way down. The reason, as I understood it, was to not expend unnecessary energy. I wish someone had notified the children who were running everywhere on the stairs, up the elevators, and in the halls. Later I learned that it is also unlawful to tear toilet paper or flush toilets during Shabbat. Let's take a moment and focus on that lovely picture.

Now I was raised in an ultra-conservative, white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, Pentecostal, Holiness (you get the picture) home and church. That is until God changed his mind somewhere in the 70s when most of the these man-made rules and regulations faded away. Many of the rules I remember were clothesline religion and focused primarily on the women. No haircutting, no makeup, no jewelry, no pants, and such. Some women didn't shave their legs either. Nothing assaults the eyes quite like the sight of matted hairy legs in stockings. The rules that affected me the most were no TV, no movies, no dancing, no mixed bathing (which meant swimming, not actual bathing), and no swimming on Sundays, to mention a few. At the time and even now looking back I know how ridiculous those rules were. But even then, as strict as it was, I was never, I repeat never, told not to tear toilet paper or flush a toilet. I know Shabbat is a sacred time of rest for Jewish families, and I truly respect cultural diversity, but in Israel I learned that there was more to the observance than eating and lighting Sabbath candles.

I don't want to leave the impression that the Israel experience was an overwhelming challenge. It was not. The benefits far outweighed the inconveniences. Even now as I write, I envision the warm waters of the Mediterranean lapping the sandy shore as we strolled along the Nahariya boardwalk in the evening breeze. While driving through the many verdant fields and vineyards in the irrigated valleys I saw the fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecy that the desert would bloom like a rose. I feel the upper waterfall crashing over my shoulders at the Ein Gedi oasis. And, too, I see the setting sun reflected on the glowing walls of the ancient city of Jerusalem.

This trip was not a church-sponsored Christian tour of the Holy Land. It was a summer seminar for teachers in Holocaust education. The visits to the historical sites were merely an added benefit. Our goal was to see how the modern nation of Israel became a home for the Jews of the Diaspora after the horrors of the Holocaust. Our studies at Yad Vashem and the Ghetto Fighters' House were invaluable experiences for all of us as teachers. We heard informative lectures, toured museums, listened to first-hand testimonies of survivors of the Shoah, and shared with each other from our collective wealth of knowledge. Thanks to the vision of Vladka Meed, the leadership of Elaine Culbertson, the generosity of the Jewish Labor Committee, as well as many additional donors and agencies, we were given the gift of a once-in-a-lifetime educational experience to share with our students.

I, for one, am grateful and blessed.

I mentioned in my last post that I wanted to find the Corrie Ten Boom tree in the Avenue of the Righteous of the Nations at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. I did find it, and here's the proof.

In closing, I leave you these scriptures . . .

Therefore hear, O Israel, and be careful to observe it, that it may be well with you, and that you may multiply greatly as the LORD God of your fathers has promised you—‘a land flowing with milk and honey.’ Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one! You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.
Deuteronomy 6: 3-5 (NKJV)

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem! May they prosper who love you [the Holy City]! May peace be within your walls and prosperity within your palaces! For my brethren and companions' sake, I will now say, Peace be within you! For the sake of the house of the Lord our God, I will seek, inquire for, and require your good.

Psalm 122: 6-9 (AMP)

But I am speaking to you who are Gentiles. Inasmuch then as I am an apostle of Gentiles, I magnify my ministry . . . . But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, being a wild olive, were grafted in among them and became partaker with them of the rich root of the olive tree, do not be arrogant toward the branches; but if you are arrogant, remember that it is not you who supports the root, but the root supports you.
Romans 11: 13, 17, 18 (NASB)

Then he answered and spake unto me, saying, This is the word of the LORD unto Zerubbabel, saying, Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, saith the LORD of hosts.
Zechariah 4: 6 (KJV)