This morning Yoli and I had a rare kid-free couple of hours. We thought it would be fun to to see the new film Jerusalem on the Imax screen at the St. Louis Science Center.

The film is very nicely done. Narrated by Benedict Cumberbatch, it tries to show the different facets of Jerusalem through the inhabitants. The film features three girls: one Jewish, one Christian, and one Muslim, who talk about their lives in the different quarters of the old city. The film also features beautiful visuals, and a good helping of archaeology and sightseeing to explain why different faiths care so deeply about particular places.

Watching the film with Yoli transported me back to the year 2000. As the editor of the student newspaper at UMSL, I received a flyer in the mail inviting me to apply for a seminar in Israel for college newspaper editors sponsored by the American Jewish Committee. It didn’t take me long to decide to apply.

As a Christian, I had always been interested in biblical history. But in my teens I had also become interested in the history of the modern State of Israel and exploits like the hostage rescue at Entebbe airport. I also followed the strands of the Middle East peace process in the news: the intifada, the Oslo Accords, the assassination of Rabin, the ascension of Netanyahu.

Some friends and family thought such a trip was a bad idea: the second intifada was just underway. Would I be in danger? It didn’t matter. I applied, was accepted, and prepared to travel. The overall trip would take about 10 days, with 8 of those spent in Israel. (You can see some photos I took here and here)

I had gone on many road trips with friends (or on my own), but this was my first time traveling internationally. The first stop was New York City. I remember walking the streets of New York, visiting NBC Studios and running into fellow Cardinals fans in the NBC Store. I remember getting together with the other college journalists who were going on the trip. I noticed right away I didn’t quite fit in. I was from a commuter college that published a weekly. Most of them went to big residential universities that published dailies and had journalism programs. Plus, I wasn’t a drinker. Everyone ordered something; the best I could come up with was an Irish coffee (which was terrible).

Once we got to Israel, everything went so fast. There was so much packed into those eight days. I remember a couple people complaining about the pace of the trip: there wasn’t much time to relax, to soak it all in. But I’m glad of it. We may have been sleep-deprived, but we got to see a ton and meet scores of interesting people. Some of the places we went:

  • Yad Vashem memorial
  • Kol Haneshama synagogue
  • Masada
  • Ein Gedi
  • Dead Sea
  • Numerous sites in the Old City of Jerusalem
  • Hebrew University
  • Multiple sites near the Sea of Galilee
  • Kibbutz Merom Golan
  • Golan Heights
  • The town of Baqa El-Gharbiya
  • Tel Aviv
  • Jaffa

We met lots of people, who talked about their lives, their religions, their politics. Some of the ones who have remained in my memory over the years:

  • Shwanesh Maniov, an Ethiopian Jew who immigrated to Israel as part of Operation Moses
  • Nafez Nazzal, a professor who spoke passionately about the Palestinian perspective
  • Amir Tadmor, he served as a tour guide, but he also spoke from his perspective as a participant in Israel’s Labor party, and as an advocate for peace
  • Kifah Massarwi, an Arab-Israeli woman who had feet in both worlds

I considered myself knowledgeable about Israel prior to the trip. But I learned over those eight days that the situation there was vastly more complex than I had ever realized. Just the spectrum of Jewish parties and positions is enough to confuse a person, let alone those of the Arab-Israelis, the Palestinians, and the neighboring states. I’m glad we had the opportunity to hear directly from so many different people.

I knew the trip would affect my faith, but I wasn’t sure how. I grew up in the evangelical tradition. When we began our trip in Jerusalem and visited Christian sites like the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, I felt disconnected from them. The ornate buildings that had been built on these special sites, the rituals, the incense, the veneration of rocks and tombs, it just seemed at odds with the Jesus I felt I knew from the New Testament. On Sunday morning I came across “The Garden Tomb,” a tomb that serves as a sort of alternative to the Holy Sepulchre. There was a nice service, and for whatever reason it felt right to me.

Despite the disconnect I felt, there was no denying the magnetism of place. Here was the city where Jesus walked, where prophets proclaimed their messages, where King Solomon built the temple. I saw with my own eyes Hezekiah’s Wall, mentioned right there in the Bible. I prayed at the Western Wall of the Temple Mount, and pushed a slip of paper into its cracks.

I felt it more keenly as we left Jerusalem and headed north: the Jordan River, the Sea of Galilee, the Mount of Beatitudes, Capernaum. These were quieter places with more green and less stone.

All too quickly, the trip was over. One or two of my companions was going to stay around. They hoped to visit Jordan and Egypt. I was jealous of their ability to do that, but home was calling, and there was lots of work to do at the newspaper.

In fact, there proved to be so much work that I never adequately wrote about my time in Israel. It did provide fodder for several columns that I wrote that spring.

If I had a time machine and I could do the trip over again, I would go back with a DSLR camera and take hundreds of photos. But all I had was a point-and-shoot 35mm camera, and I took a couple rolls of film. Mistake. This was not the trip to skimp on the photos!

But I did take a lot of notes. About 30 pages worth. I hadn’t really revisited my notes since college; the notes were packed away, and anyhow they were heavily historical and political. I could just subsist on memories. Now that I’m in a reflective mood 13 years later, though, I probably should read them.

Finally, since the trip, I have often noted a hypocrisy in myself. Even though I felt a sort of repulsion to the rituals and ornamentation I found in the Old City’s Christian sites, I have to confess to a sort of ritualism. Along the shores of the Sea of Galilee, I picked up a small black rock. I put it into the pocket in my backpack as a reminder of that place, and it has lived there ever since. I take it with me when I travel. I have often shown it to my kids. I have even used it as a quick prop in Bible lessons at church. I also kept a number of receipts from things I bought in Israel. Those tattered receipts with their dot-matrix-printed Hebrew characters have moved from wallet to wallet in the decade since then.

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