Thursday, May 17, 2012

Traveling through Israel for 10 unforgettable days

My wife has two birthdays. In the Gregorian calendar as commonly observed, her birthday is February 12. However, Joanna is Chinese and was born and raised in Hong Kong. Her Chinese birthday, according to the Chinese calendar, always falls on the day before the Chinese New Year - in other words, Chinese New Year's Eve.

When we were in Israel a few weeks ago, we learned that the state of Israel observes two birthdays as well. The existence of the state of Israel was officially declared on May 14, 1948 - according to the Gregorian calendar. However, in the Jewish calendar, the anniversary of Israel's statehood fell on April 26 this year, so we had the opportunity to observe - and participate in - Israel's Independence Day celebration.

A few days later, we sat in the very room, in Tel Aviv, in which David Ben-Gurion, Israel's founding prime minister, officially declared the existence of the new state. In fact, as our group - consisting of Jews and Baptists alongside each other - sat there, facing the table on which the documents were signed, we listened to a recording of the brief, simple ceremony that had taken place in that room 64 years earlier. Ben-Gurion's nameplate still rests on the table, as future Prime Minister Golda Meir's nameplate rests on the chair in which she sat that day.

Joanna and I traveled to Israel with a group from our church, Wilshire Baptist, and a Jewish congregation, Temple Emanu-El, both from Dallas. Pastor George Mason and Rabbi David Stern provided context, throughout our journey, for the places we visited. We also had two tour guides, Shari and Doron, who wove their encylopedic knowledge of the area, its history, its people, and its culture with an equally remarkable understanding of the biblical context everywhere we traveled. They narrated not only the places we stopped, but also the hills and countryside through which our buses passed.

We cut a wide swath through Israel. Beginning in the 3000-year-old city of Jerusalem, we stood on a sidewalk at 8 p.m., on the eve of Israel's Memorial Day, as sirens sounded and traffic came to a momentary halt, and - together with the people of Israel, and our friends from Temple Emanu-El - observed a moment of silence in memory of Israel's fallen. Later that week, we watched as Israelis celebrated their independence. We also went to the Western Wall - popularly known as "the wailing wall" - where we saw people having their own private moments of prayer and mourning. As did many in our group, I walked over to the Wall to have my own private moment. I heard people sobbing, and I saw others going over to comfort them.

These were reminders - both solemn and joyous - that, despite the differences between the peoples of the world, there are experiences and feelings that are common to all of us.

On the other hand, there are a few experiences that are unique. We walked through Yad Vashem, the Jewish National Memorial to the six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust. This is an atrocity that was unique in its scale and horror. It is a reminder that we must never stand silently by while the powerful misuse their authority to exploit, abuse, marginalize, and even murder the powerless.

Our trip was a journey through time - not only in terms of going back in time, but in that the historical significance of the places we visited covered thousands of years. We worshipped together in a tent up in the hills where Abraham once tended his sheep. Fast-forward to Nazareth and the Church of the Annunciation, commemorating the angel Gabriel's announcement to Mary that she would bear God's son. And to Bethlehem, Jesus' birthplace, and the Church of the Nativity.

We sang a song of blessing on the Mount of Beatitudes, traditional site of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, overlooking the Sea of Galilee. It was amazing to visualize the crowd of people gathered there to hear Jesus that day! We visited the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus - as his disciples slept - agonized over the terrible sacrifice that awaited him yet reaffirmed his desire to do the will of the Father. We also visited Golgotha and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, possible sites of Jesus' crucifixion, and the Garden Tomb, where some traditions have it that Jesus' body was laid.

One morning, some of us rode in jeeps across the Golan Heights as guides pointed out bunkers occupied by Israeli soldiers during the Six-Day War of 1967. Near the top, we got out of the jeeps and looked around at some remarkable scenery as a guide pointed in one direction, then another, saying, "over there is Syria, over there is Lebanon."

On our final morning in Israel, we picked potatoes! Leket Israel is a food bank, "rescuing" fruit and vegetables that would otherwise rot and go to waste, and redistributing it to needy people. At the end of about an hour of filling several large bins with "rescued" potatoes from a field on a farm, we were told that (and I'm relying on memory here) our efforts had made it possible for 800 families to have enough potatoes for a week's worth of meals.

I can't begin to do this trip justice in a mere blog post. Neither can I adequately describe for you the relationship between Temple Emanu-El and Wilshire Baptist Church, which only grew stronger during this trip. This was just another step in a friendship that has evolved over the past 20 years and began with the friendship of the two congregational leaders, David Stern and George Mason. For several years, the people of Temple Emanu-El have invited the people of Wilshire for an interfaith shabbat service and dinner at the Temple. Wilshire has reciprocated by inviting the members of the Temple for worship at our place. We have watched David and George, as well as other leaders of our two congregations, engage in candid and constructive dialogue. We have worshipped together, and now many of us have traveled together, eaten together, and gotten to know each other.

For me personally, this trip had a special meaning rooted in my heritage. My dad, A. Jase Jones, led and participated in many Jewish-Baptist dialogues back in the 1960s and 1970s when he was with the SBC Home Mission Board, and he and Mother spent 6 months in Israel during a sabbatical trip in 1973. Both of them have been gone several years now, but I know they would have loved this trip.

Joanna and I got to know several new friends from the Temple, and I think this was a common experience of all who went. Personally, I had the opportunity to speak one-on-one with several and even share our faith journeys with each other, and I was amazed at the similarities in our journeys, in spite of differences in where we've “landed.” We've all struggled with how to understand scripture, how to know God, and how our understanding of God and scripture meshes with our own faith traditions.

Perhaps this struggle was pictured best at Zippori, where David Stern demonstrated - by using ultimately about half of our group as actors in an impromptu drama (with a little comedy thrown in) - the layers that Jews must navigate to study scriptural texts, with the Torah at the center. As I reflected on this drama, I realized that we Christians - especially we Baptists - have similar layers of interpretation and tradition to navigate.

Well, in trying to describe our trip to Israel, I've barely touched the hem of the garment (a biblical metaphor seemed called for). There was way too much information - provided by our tour guides and our congregational leaders - to adequately process; it mainly whetted my appetite to come back home and study to help me better understand what I saw over there.

But, above and beyond all the very meaningful places we visited, what I'll remember most are the people . . . the new friendships we made . . . the friendships that grew even stronger . . . and the discussions we shared.

In a world where the norm these days seems to be shouting at each other through the faceless, impersonal world of social media, it’s nice to be reminded of the value of personal face-to-face discussion and dialogue. Discussing our differences with genuine respect and appreciation, and finding common ground even in the midst of our differences . . . it’s still possible if we’ll make the effort, and it’s refreshing to one’s soul. At least it was to mine.


  1. Thanks Bill for a good recap of the wonderful trip. I, too, find myself unable to express my feelings to friends and family. I guess it just one of those times when all one can say is "you just had to be there.....". What was great about the people is that not once did I hear anyone complain about anything or get out of sorts....except me when I kept having to navigate the many stairs of uneven height and no hand rails. Smile. If another trip is planned I shall highly recommend it to one and all.

  2. I can relate to everything you said, Ann, including all the stair steps. I was watching every step I took; unfortunately, I wasn't watching Joanna when SHE fell at Gethsemane, or else I might have been able to prevent it. But you're right - nobody complained, and everyone looked out for each other. It was a unique experience for all of us. Thanks for your comment.

  3. Thanks Bill!! This is a great summary of our 10-day trip. A memory of a life time and it was so great getting to know our friends from Temple Emanu-El better!!