I am back from my 10 day trip to Israel. Let me start by saying there is a lot to talk about. More than I want to write in one post so I am dividing the trip into two parts. This is Part 1.
To say it was an amazing experience seems like an understatement. My friend Wendy brought up this trip idea at a Hanukkah party last year. It sounded interesting, but I knew little about Hadassah, the organization hosting the trip. I did join Hadassah at Wendy's urging and as soon as the trip details came out, we decided to go. It was a bit of risk buying our plane tickets before the tour deadline, but we found a deal from Denver to Tel Aviv last March that was too good to pass up. One way or another, we were going to Israel. As I mentioned before, I am the serious travel planner, but this time around I planned nothing. Intense work on my dissertation all fall left me little time to think about anything fun. In the end, this turned out to be a good thing. I felt like I was just along for the ride. And it turned out the ride was fabulous!
So how much can one fit into 10 action packed days? Well, the short answer is a lot! I would say the tour and additional days spent with some friends provided a sample of Israel. There is obviously much more to see and do. I did wish we could have spent more time at the various places we did see. I would catch myself saying, "I wish we had another hour (few hours)," at almost every stop. Besides the fantastic places and interesting speakers, we traveled with a group of outstanding women. The combination made for a memorable experience.
In the end, I learned a lot about the great work of Hadassah. The women in the group and the people we met affiliated with various Hadassah projects have a serious commitment to the organization and what it does. Their enthusiasm is contagious and inspiring!
I also learned so much about Israel. There is no better way to get context to a situation than seeing it for yourself. Now things I read about Israel make more sense to me. I left with a new found appreciation of the complicated situation that exists in the Middle East. It is evident that many Israelis feel the (western) media does not accurately reflect what is happening. At the same time, they willingly admit it is not a perfect nation. In the end, it is remarkable that this country developed to where it is today in just 60 years.
My final observation is a somewhat sad one that I continue to experience as I travel. It seems no matter where I go, I have the sense that Americans know very little about the rest of world while the rest of the world knows a lot about us. Yes, I know....the U.S. is a world leader and superpower. Sure, this is a piece of it...but the larger part is that Americans in general are an ignorant, uninterested bunch. This makes me sad and angry at the same time.
Enough personal observations. Now onto some highlights from the first half of the trip:
Thanks to an incompetent gate agent in Denver who managed to cancel the remainder of our plane ticket to Israel, we had the pleasure of spending an entire day in Newark, NJ. The trip wasn't off to a very good start, but we managed to salvage the day a bit by heading into Manhattan to have lunch with my friend Wendy's father and my old college friend Jackie.
Visiting old Laramie friends (Omer and Shiri Choresh) in Tel Aviv
Our friend Omer was kind enough to take us to Svat (Safed) - the birthplace of Kabbalah and third holiest city in Israel for Jews. We had a terrific day driving up north. After walking around the very scenic Svat, we took a drive around the Sea of Galilee.
Thanks to Omer and Shiri's hospitality, Wendy and I met up with our tour group fairly rested and in a good mood. On the first day of the tour, we were treated to lunch at Dr. Shakshuka in Old Jaffa in Tel Aviv. It is the only kosher restaurant in Old Jaffa. It was an Israeli restaurant pick in Food and Wine magazine...needless to say the food was fabulous.
We also visited Independence Hall in Tel Aviv, the birthplace of the state of Israel. After leaving Tel Aviv, we drove north to Atlit Detention Camp to learn about Jews immigrating to Palestine (pre-Israel) at the end of WW II. It was fascinating to learn a bit of WW II history that took place outside of Europe. We ended the night at Meir Shfeya Youth Aliyah Village - a Hadassah affiliated residential school for kids.
We spent the first night in Haifa, the largest city in the north. It is a port city nestled up against the mountains. It is home to the world headquarters of the Bahai Faith. The gardens below and the covered up tall structure (evidently it is being redone, but is supposedly a beautiful gold dome) belong to the Bahai.
In Haifa, we heard from a couple of speakers and visited an integrated elementary school and preschool where Jewish and Arab kids attend school together. We also heard a bit about the bombing Haifa sustained in 2006 as a result of the war with Lebanon. We then headed to the Oketz Army Base where there is a special unit training dogs for military and search/rescue operations. We saw a few demos and heard about how the dogs are used. The base even has a special cemetery for dogs killed in the line of duty.
We then visited the Israeli Museum to see the Dead Seas Scrolls and an amazing model of Old Jerusalem. This was the perfect context for our first of four nights in Jerusalem. We ended the night with visit to the the Western Wall (Kotel) and a tour of the Western Wall tunnels. It was quite a sight witnessing religious Jews saying their evening prayers both at the wall and inside the tunnels.
Day 3 took us south to the Gaza Strip. We were right there, overlooking what has become a very contested place. We then proceeded to the city of Sderot, a city of 23,000 people and only one mile from the border, to visit an indoor childrens' playground and recreation center. Evidently, the non-stop bombing from rockets launched by Hamas (from Gaza) since the early 2000's has left many of the town's children in various states of psychological stress. Hence the need for such a facility. When the sirens go off, kids have 15 seconds to get to safety. Needless to say, you don't see any kids riding their bikes around town. We also got to see the rather large collection of old missiles and rockets at the local police station.
After Sderot, we headed to the Dead Sea where we visited Masada, an ancient palace perched high up on a hill overlooking the desert and sea. When the Romans were poised to invade, the Jews living there committed mass suicide. The place is pretty well preserved. In addition to the dozens of buildings at the top of the mountain, you can see the outlines of the Roman camps below.
A dip in the dead sea was the perfect almost end to a busy day. The water is thick and kind of oily. You definitely float. And don't taste the water. It is absolutely disgusting salty! Really, a drop of water on your lip is all it takes to start violently spitting. I must say my skin felt very exfoliated from the mud by the time we left...exactly what I was told!
Our evening was to end with a camel ride and dinner at a Bedouin village. Let's just say it wasn't the camel rides everyone was expecting. I thought we would be riding camels at the village under the stars. Instead we pull up to a gas station and visitor's center with a big gift shop to find a couple of guys and two camels waiting. It was the equivalent of some sort of weird pony ride you would take your kids on. Three bucks to sit on a camel, take two laps around the parking lot, and pose for a picture. I have this thing about riding large animals...I don't like it! And I was really not going to subject myself to this type of ride. The experience did however give me with a good laugh. My friend Wendy went for a ride and all I got was a few dark or blurry photos. Still, it was priceless! At least the dinner afterward was fabulous!
Stay tuned for Part 2!