Nineteen people, led by Pastor Kent Johnson from Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in La Crescent began a meaningful journey of learning and discovery on a trip to the Holy Land Nov. 2. to Nov. 13.
Our very first day in Israel on a bus bound for Bethlehem, Pastor asked each person to share why they came on the trip. I explained that my previous trips to Israel were with Holocaust educators, so were Jewish-focused. I was anxious to see the Israeli-Palestinian situation for myself after reading about the crisis for so long. Several other travelers expressed the same desire. I knew that Pastor Kent’s intent was to present both sides, and he explained that his goal was not to persuade us to join either side, but rather to seek a peaceful resolution.
As thrilling and meaningful as it was to walk in the footsteps of Jesus, it was disappointing to see first-hand the struggle between the Jews and the Palestinians. We heard Palestinians describe their version of the conflict, and always I asked what was their advice was on how to settle it. No one had an answer except to continue to hope. This led me to believe no one can really figure it out as it is so complex. What I know for sure is that there are two sides to every story, and much prayer is needed.
I feel myself feeling very weak as I try to explain what I learned on this trip regarding this tragedy, and I discussed it with Bishop Arends. He agreed that the situation is complex and deep, and he advised me to say, “This is what I saw; do with it what you need.”
On this trip, we had the remarkable opportunity to walk in Jesus’ footsteps. It awakens a sense of one’s spirituality to see the places we have read about in the Bible and heard about in sermons. In a moving service by Pastor Kent, we confirmed our baptisms at the Jordan River at the site where it is believed Christ was baptized by John the Baptist. We visited Shepherds’ Field where we viewed Bethlehem as the shepherds might have on the night of Jesus’ birth, and at the Church of the Nativity we viewed the spot where Jesus was born.
In Nazareth, we visited the church of the Annunciation where the Angel Gabriel announced to the Virgin Mary that she would bear Jesus. We sailed on a boat on the Sea of Galilee as Pastor conducted a meaningful communion service and we waded in the sea. In Jerusalem, we walked from the Mount of Olives to the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus prayed before being betrayed by Judas and arrested by the Romans. We walked the Via Dolorosa which is Christendom’s most sacred route of 14 Stations of the Cross representing the path Jesus bore on his way to the crucifixion. They involve Jesus enduring suffering, insults, moments of support, and relay the intense sacrifice He undertook for human salvation.
One of the most powerful experiences to me was going to the Western or Wailing Wall where people of all faiths go to pray and put prayer requests written on slips of paper in the wall. It is the only remaining wall of the second Jewish temple that had been destroyed in 70 AD. It was after sunset so the Jewish Sabbath had begun, and Jews were flocking to this holy place. I loved seeing the male Orthodox Jews in their long, black coats and large hats. New to me were the Ashkenazi Jews who wore huge, fuzzy hats. We separated from our male tour group members as men and women are not allowed to worship together.
Roaming through the streets of the old city is something that must be experienced on a visit to Jerusalem. All four quarters, the Christian, Muslim, Jewish, and Armenian are filled with shops of all sizes, but mainly tiny ones, selling everything imaginable: spices, candy, scarves, clothes, sandals, jewelry, pottery, linens, food, and drinks and anything one can dream of. They have roofs overhead and line both sides of narrow stone streets. Vehicles and motorcycles rush by shoppers, and it is a wonder walking shoppers are not hit. This goes on for miles. The colors and smells are poignant.
I was very excited to return to Yad Veshem, the official Israeli memorial in honor of Holocaust victims, like our United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. is our official memorial. After the Western Wall, Yad Veshem is the second-most visited Israeli tourist site. Its curators do not charge admission and welcome approximately one million visitors a year. I have studied and presented there on previous visits. The memorial opened in 1957 and consists of several locations on 45 acres on a hill overlooking Jerusalem.
My favorite part, the Children’s Memorial, is hollowed out from an underground cavern. It is a haunting and yet beautiful memorial to the 1.5 million children who perished during the Holocaust.
Memorial candles, a customary Jewish tradition to remember the dead, are reflected infinitely in a dark and somber space, creating the impression of millions of stars shining in the firmament. The faces of the murdered children show in the candlelit dark as their names, ages and countries of origin can be heard in the background. As a mother, looking into the eyes of those beautiful faces, I struggled with the reality of such an unimaginable tragedy.
My other favorite site is the Memorial to the Deportees, a railroad car suspended over the cliff on the road winding down from the mountain commemorating those who were deported. The cattle car is an original German death transport train car that was given to Yad Veshem by the Polish authorities.
The things I mentioned are just a taste of sites seen on this phenomenal adventure. Before the trip, out of our group of 19 travelers, I only knew a couple. By the end our group had jelled and enjoyed each other’s company, and I felt like I had made many new friends.
Pastor Kent did a terrific job of leading the trip and planning our itinerary. I felt it was well-balanced between Holy Land sites and learning about the on-going Israeli-Palestinian crisis. I am thankful I could experience this remarkable journey.