It’s wonderful to travel with alumni because it gives me the opportunity to not only experience these special places with intelligent people, but also to talk through the feelings and emotions. Additionally, with the special event on Friday with alumnus Abe Dorevitch, it made more sense to write about our time in Jerusalem and Bethlehem (Thursday) and Nazareth and the Sea of Galilee (Saturday) together.
So many people plan a pilgrimage to Israel to visit some of the holiest sites on Earth for Christians, Jews and Muslims. Since I am Catholic and have been fortunate enough to spend a lot of time in Rome (including living there for a short time), I was really looking forward to this experience and seeing some of these other famous sites.
My immediate impression of Israel was very positive—everything thing seemed like a well-organized system. Their roads are smooth and well-maintained, and the countryside is unbelievably rich and full. Our guide talked to us about the different kinds of agriculture and irrigation systems they have in place to sustain the agriculture.
We began our day on Thursday at the Western Wall (considered the most holy site in the Jewish world). What a powerful experience for many of us. It was so interesting to observe the people who came to the Wall to pray. It is difficult to put into words the celebration and peace that I felt there. From the Wall, we continued our journey to Via Dolorosa—the walk that Jesus took as he carried the cross. Like all areas that attract many tourists, it was crowded and lined with many shops (which surprised several of the people in our group); however, there was a general respect for the different Stations of the Cross, and people allowed for ample time to learn about their significance. We then went to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. This is the site where Jesus was crucified, buried and rose again. We received excellent information from our guides at each place, and it was a very impressive visit. Amazingly, this was only the first half of our day!
After lunch, we headed to Bethlehem. Our Israeli guide had to leave the bus and a new guide joined us in Bethlehem. (The Palestinian Authority controls Bethlehem and Jewish Israelis are not allowed to enter.) I imagined I would feel quite differently going into Bethlehem, but after our major security check and guide change, my senses were alert in a different way. Many of us talked about politics and the things that were happening in the region—it sparked a very thoughtful conversation among alumni. I should note that at no point did we feel unsafe—we were very well taken care of and felt that the highest security measures were observed during our visit.
We had a beautiful visit to Manger Square and the Church of the Nativity (the site of Jesus’ birth). Our visit was shortened because we hit some traffic, but overall it was a very powerful day.
On Saturday we visited the Sea of Galilee and Nazareth. One of the most moving parts of the day was when we visited the Yardenit baptismal site where the River Jordan separates from the Sea of Galilee. A group of us were able to witness the many people who made a pilgrimage to be baptized there. There are two people who guide a person backward into the water to perform this short ceremony. We were able to observe a woman (who I would guess to be around 60 years old) be baptized and, as soon as she emerged from the water, she began to cry. It was clear without any of us having spoken to her that this was a lifelong dream and journey for her. They gave her time to fully experience the emotions of what she was doing and exchanged several hugs. Many people (including some in our group) clapped when she got out of the water. As with many excursions, you try and fit in as much as you can see in such a limited amount of time (and of course, there is never enough time!). This was such a touching moment and reminded many of us of the extreme significance of where we were.
These incredible few days in Israel have been a mix of emotions regarding people, politics and profound faith—simply an amazing experience we could not possibly have prepared ourselves for.