By Michelle Christianson
When a group of us from St. Anthony Park Lutheran Church and Gustavus Adolphus Lutheran Church were briefed in 2019 on our upcoming trip to Israel and Jordan, none of us could have guessed that our trip wouldn’t happen until February of this year.
Each time we planned to leave, Covid struck again. I think we all were holding our breath until we actually got on the plane on Sunday, Feb. 26.
After a relatively short flight to Newark, New Jersey, and long wait in that airport, we boarded our plane to Tel Aviv. We shared the 10-hour flight with quite a few returning Orthodox Jews, who distinguished themselves by their apparel and by their prayers near the end of the flight that helped prepare us for our visit to the Holy Land.
Israel is a place where three religions meet, where ancient civilizations lie under steep hills and where political conflict is endemic. I left with a great appreciation for the varieties of devotion: Muslims called to prayer five times a day, Christians following the Via Dolorosa while stopping at each station of the Cross to kneel and pray and Jews weeping and praying at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem.
I also came away with a determination to do something about the plight of the Palestinians, even if that only means spreading the word that they are suffering under Israeli occupation. More later.
There were 35 people in our travel group, including four ordained ministers — Pastor Jill Rode, Pastor John Hierlinger, Pastor Glenn Berg-Moberg and Pastor Gretchen Rode.
“Our pilgrimage to the Holy Land was a rich and complex experience,” Pastor Jill Rode said. “It is a beautiful and holy land full of tension and beauty, grief and joy. My faith deepened by exploring powerful sites so prominent to the faiths of three major world religions.
“My conviction to use my Christian witness increased as we learned about the issues facing our Palestinian siblings,” she added.
Besides our pastoral contingent: we had two guides, George in Israel, and Sami in Jordan, and two bus drivers, Gus in Israel, and Basaam in Jordan, all of whom made the trip so interesting (and safe!).
After arriving in Tel Aviv, we boarded a bus to Caesarea (Hadera) to see a bit of the ruins of one of Herod’s palaces. After a brief get-to-know-you meeting, we had the first of our buffet dinners and a much-needed night’s sleep.
On Tuesday, we left early to travel first to Megiddo, an ancient city built on an ancient city, and so on, (representing more than 30 civilizations). It’s amazing to see something that old and to realize that you are walking where people walked thousands of years ago. Then we drove to the kibbutz Nof Ginosar, on the Sea of Galilee, where we had a boat ride and a short service with communion on the boat.
The next morning, Wednesday, we toured the kibbutz and learned about how it was established as a commune. Our guide was born there and lived most of his 70 years there.
After that, we went to Nazareth, where we visited a recreated first century village and a that had been built on top of what was said to be the synagogue that Jesus attended. We also saw the Church of the Annunciation, a beautiful 20th century church with depictions of Mary from countries all around the world. That night, Gus played his oud (lute) for us and some danced.
On Thursday, we arrived early at the site of the Sermon on the Mount. It was moving to see people from all over the world, singing and enjoying the beauty of the place overlooking the Sea of Galilee.
From there we went to the location of the feeding of the 5,000 and where Jesus was supposed to have appeared to the disciples at the edge of the Sea. From there we drove to Capernaum, another site that has had multiple churches built on it and that is said to be where much of Jesus’ ministry took place.
The next day, March 4, we left for Jordan — a new guide, new bus and new driver. After a long drive, we stopped at the Jordan River, where there are seven churches commemorating Jesus’ baptism (though sites elsewhere also claim to be where it happened).
After a service at the Lutheran church there, we took another long drive, to Mount Nebo, where Moses is said to have first seen the promised land. Again, there were many countries represented in the groups visiting there.
Our hotel at Petra was a welcome sight for weary travelers. We had a taste of what we would be seeing the next day with a moonscape-like view out the back of the hotel.
A unique site
Petra, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is like nothing any of us had seen before. On Saturday, we walked 2½ miles downhill to the temple at the end of the road, through the narrow Siq (main road into the city and a canal), past the Treasury and alongside gorgeous sandstone walls, carved by humans, wind, earthquakes and rain into tombs and intriguing formations.
Some of us climbed up into the higher elevations to see more evidence of the long gone civilizations that used that place as a center of commerce and defense for the Nabotaeans (an Arab tribe) and the Romans before being abandoned.
Did I mention that it was downhill going in? Of course, it was uphill on uneven ground and heaved Roman paving stones all the way back. My husband and I were happy to sit and have some ice cream at the top!
On Sunday, March 5, we left Jordan after a somewhat scary border crossing (Israeli soldiers with guns everywhere), stopped in Jericho and arrived outside of Jerusalem.
We viewed a breathtaking panorama of the city from the Mount of Olives and then walked the Palm Sunday route down a narrow, winding path to the Garden of Gethsemane. Our beautiful hotel, just outside the Old City, was a welcome sight.
The Old City
The next day was a very full one.
We started at the Muslim section of the Old City, at the Dome of the Rock. Beautiful mosaics cover the outside of the building, but we couldn’t go inside because none of us were Muslims.
In the Christian section, we saw St. Anne’s Church, the Holy Sepulcher and the Via Dolorosa, all filled with visiting pilgrims from many countries.
In the Jewish part of the city, we visited the Wailing Wall, which is divided into one part for men and one for women. Three faiths, one city. One explanation for the order that we did things is that we had to go through security (the only place in the Old City where we had to do that) to get to the Wailing Wall, so it was the last thing we did.
Our group then drove to Bethlehem, where we saw The Shepherd’s Church and visited a cave where shepherds kept their sheep.
Finally, we went to Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust Museum. Two hours barely scratched the surface of what we could see. They had pictures, writings, music and videos of survivors talking about their experiences — all very moving.
I ended my visit with a trip to the children’s memorial, a darkened room, with points of light all over, and a voice reciting the names, ages and nationalities of the murdered children. Beautiful and tragic.
We had a somewhat disappointing start to our next day, March 7. Though some really wanted to see the grotto at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, logistics just didn’t work in our favor and we only saw and heard about the history of the churches at that site.
Visiting a refugee camp
That afternoon was an eye-opening visit to a refugee camp in Bethlehem.
Our host, who ran a children’s sport club there, told us about life in the camp and gave us a tour. He said that Palestine is an occupied area and the Israeli government holds all the cards, controlling the water supply, forbidding any local police, raiding the area each night.
“It’s not a conflict,” he said, “because that implies equal parties. We are not equal.” Our host emphasized that the problem is not a religious one, but one with the Israeli government.
On Wednesday, we drove to the Dead Sea, stopping at Qumran, the site where the Dead Sea scrolls were found. We also visited Masada, where Herod had a huge fortress on the hill that was later used by Jewish zealots who held out against the Roman army for three years, and who finally committed suicide before the Romans could defeat them.
From there, we drove to a spa on the Dead Sea, where most of us “swam” in the dense water. Mostly, you just float like a bobber on the top of the water, and it’s nearly impossible to get your legs under you.
Last day in Israel
On Thursday, our last full day in Israel, we walked through the Old City to a Lutheran chapel, where four services are held every Sunday (English, German, Danish and Hebrew). The pastors there are two women, one of whom is married to a Palestinian and one who is the first ordained Palestinian woman in the Lutheran church.
Again we heard powerful words about the plight of the Palestinians before having a communion service. After that, we drove to the Israeli Museum where some of the Dead Sea scrolls are exhibited. We had free time that afternoon and my husband and I walked through the Jewish quarter of Jerusalem. The area is much like home, but with many more small shops and cafes (and different dress. The 19th century Eastern European suits, hats, and hair caught our attention.)
We talked with some 18-year-old American boys who were studying at a yeshiva. They were curious about where we had been and what we had seen, but were quite sure their mothers would never let them visit those places.
Our last day was travel, travel, travel and then home. Now we all have the work of unpacking all that we saw and learned on a unique trip.
Michelle Christianson lives in St. Anthony Park and serves on the Park Bugle board of directors.