Ever since we returned from Israel a few weeks ago, everyone has been curiously asking how was our trip? As I have been processing all that transpired, I have decided to write down my personal and spiritual reflections of the journey.
We flew out of Washington-Dulles airport on Saturday, May 27, 20017, with a four hour layover in Toronto, Canada. Our direct evening flight on the Boeing 787 Dreamliner from Toronto to Tel Aviv would last for more than ten hours. Kim and I had planned to sleep on the plane, but let me say that is nearly impossible. You might as well stay awake, read, watch movies, and enjoy the spectacular endless sunset over the Arctic Circle. It is breathtaking!
We landed in Tel Aviv the next morning. From our approach to the Ben-Gurion Airport and our quick flyover the Judean Hills below Jerusalem, it was obvious that much had changed since my last brief visit for my sister’s wedding in 1996. Towering buildings, massive freeway structures, commercial and industrial developments, and rail lines covered the landscape. Israel had become a developed nation in the thirty-three years since my return to the U.S. in 1984.
We had planned our trip over a year ago, long before the election of President Trump and his recent visit to Israel the week before we arrived (which inconveniently shut down the entire city of Jerusalem), and without the realization that we would actually be in the Holy Land during Shavuot (Pentecost). Efficiently, we also missed the huge gay pride parade that engulfed the city of Tel Aviv a few days after our departure.
Walking through the jet way and into the airport, the details of this newly developed country further emerged. It was incredible. No longer did we have to walk down onto a scorching hot tarmac to enter the country. No, we were able to remain in an air conditioned tunnel that sheltered us new arrivals from the oppressive heat outside. Yes, Israel is hot! And not just the ambient air temperatures, but the combination of humidity and the incredible penetrating strength of the sun took me by surprise. Summer comes quickly to Israel, and late May was already hotter than July in Washington D.C. Wear sun screen and a hat or you will burn your skin the first day outside.
Kim and I decided to visit the country Israeli style, although most Israelis actually vacation outside of Israel since it’s considerably cheaper. Israel charges its citizens a seventeen-percent VAT tax, but exempts foreigners. That’s completely backwards I felt. Why not charge the tourists and spare the Israelis? As I quickly learned, everything in Israel is just more complicated. We met several Israelis who had lived in the United States for a short while. They marveled at how simple and inexpensive it was to live here. Still, Israel was their home, and from a distance past, it was mine also. So we avoided joining a tour group, and instead chose the freedom of renting a car and staying in small villages and boutique hotels nestled amongst the Israeli people.
Kim had never been to Israel before, and I really wanted her to experience the land and her people first hand. Sadly I feel that most tourists often remain confined to their air conditioned busses, five-star hotels, and overly sanitized tourist attractions. Instead, we drove through the cities and towns, stopping to buy food at grocery stores and small hole-in-the-wall eateries. Kim insisted I practice my Hebrew as much as possible, which was generally doable outside of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem where fewer people were bilingual.
We stayed in Tel Aviv the first night, exploring the small shops and bakeries that lined the streets of the older parts of the city. One thing that will take you by surprise is the quality of the food in Israel. Apart from New York, I have never found better. An Israeli breakfast will overwhelm your senses with its freshly baked breads and pastries, fresh fruits and vegetables, Israeli salads, stuffed grape leaves, grilled eggplant, olives, soft fresh cheeses and yogurts, humus and tahini, omelets, shakshouka, chalva, and amazingly, fresh squeezed orange juice. Israelis have a healthier diet on average than any other nation on earth, period.
But there was a disturbing side to Tel Aviv. Kim and I were shocked to see gay pride flags and banners flying everywhere, especially in public places. We didn’t see any obvious signs of drug usage like we had recently experienced in Seattle, but a quick online search revealed that Tel Aviv is plagued with opiates, especially heroin, and with a population of just over one-million people, it has more than three-hundred recognized brothels. In contrast, Nevada only has nineteen. What became even more disturbing was the information about its victims, mostly poor young women, many of whom are under aged that have been lured into the sex trade by false dreams of instant prosperity. The Jewish people need our prayers, and they especially need their Messiah.
I visited an old friend from high school who still lives in Bat Yam, just a few blocks from where we grew up together. Bat Yam is neighboring community south of Tel Aviv. I had not seen Atzmon in over thirty years, and it felt like we were still close high school buddies. I also had a chance to show Kim the apartment I grew up in. It looks pretty much the same, only the trees are much bigger.
The next day we then began our journey northward through the Israeli coastal communities of Netanya, Caesarea, Haifa, and lastly Akko. Parking a few blocks from the old seaport city of Akko, I navigated the Hebrew pay-and-park machine, only to realize soon after that I was the only car with a parking sticker. In Israel, parking meters like many other things are merely suggestions, maybe even considered a charitable donation. I guess we did our good deed for the day.
By mid-afternoon, we began our voyage inland towards the Golan Heights where we would be staying for two nights at village Matsok Orvim. Winding our way along the highway, one couldn’t help but recognize the stark contrast between the Arab and Jewish communities. The Arab villages had tall minarets in the town center, poor quality half-constructed buildings, an absence of trees and landscaping, unpaved roads, and volumes of trash and abandoned vehicles piled everywhere. In contrast, the Jewish communities were clean, had modest homes with red-tiled rooftops, and were planted with numerous trees.
Later that evening we stopped in Safed for a falafel dinner. A young Orthodox girl instantly pegged us as Americans and led us to the best spot in town, Street Food, a hole-in-the-wall eatery known by all the local young adults. Safed is an ancient spiritual center of Jewish study and mysticism. It was one of three centers (the others being Tiberius and Hebron), that flourished after the destruction of the second temple. Their small town center is perched on a hillside overlooking the Sea of Galilea and the eastern slopes of the Carmel mountains. Safed today is largely an orthodox community mixed with a small artist colony. It has many old synagogues, rabbinical schools (Yeshivas), and Jewish study centers for both men and women.
Kim and I loved Safed, and for the first time since we landed in Israel, she and I felt an immediate connection to this land and her people. We were home, and something began to change in both us. Kim said to me that evening, “You seem so completely Jewish being here in Israel.” She was right, but inside I was struggling spiritually. Yes, this felt like my home, but I could feel the oppressive spirit and spiritual veil over my Jewish brothers and sisters.
We continued driving northeast towards the Golan Heights. The sun was setting to the west as we dropped down into the Hula Valley. We then climbed steeply into the Golan Heights, journeying eastward with a cool breeze on our tail that swept over the grassy hills around us. We would spend the next day exploring the most norther parts of Israel—Nimrod’s fortress, the Banyas, and Mount Hermon. We were only a few miles from the Syrian border, but it felt incredible peaceful. We learned that since the Russians entered the war in Syria, the border with Israel had become very quiet.
The holy festival of Shavuot (Pentecost) began on our second evening in the Golan. Customary for the holiday, we stopped at a grocery store in Qiryat Shemona to pick up an assortment of soft Israeli cheeses, chumus, beet, and eggplant salads, and freshly baked breads for dinner. We had a feast that night.
The small village we were staying in had their own synagogue. About twenty men gathered inside the domed room for the holiday prayers. One woman waited outside patiently for us to finish. They were not the most talkative or social bunch, but I decided to join them none-the-less. The cantor led the prayers and the rest of us followed along at our own pace. It was strangely comfortable joining these Jewish men in prayer, but I kept wondering if the Lord might pour out His spirit on us like in the early days of Pentecost. It is customary for many Jews to stay up all night studying the Torah. They believe it is a night of open heavens and the miraculous. Sadly, nothing extraordinary happened.
From the Golan we drove south towards Tiberius. It was now the day of Pentecost, and we were making our pilgrimage up to Jerusalem. Along the way I visited the Greek Orthodox Monastery in Capernaum, as well as the Tabgahah Monastery about a mile south. In all my years living in Israel I never had a chance to visit these Christian places. Now as a believer in the land, I was excited and curious to see some of the places that Yeshua walked. I wandered through the buildings, snapping photographs of the elaborate architecture and beautifully hand painted wall murals.
I was carefully observing the myriads of Christian pilgrims—some praying, some sitting, and others just watching, but all seemingly connecting on some spiritual level with these places. I was desperately trying to connect with anything Christian, but these places left me feeling cold, like a foreigner visiting a strange and distance land. The Greek Monastery even felt dark and had a strange veil that spiritually covered it. This was not the Christianity I was expecting to see or experience in Israel.
We continued our drive south through Tiberius down towards the Dead Sea along the main interior highway that follows the Jordan River and the Jordanian border. We would be entering Palestinian territories, which made me a bit nervous, especially since we were now in the season of Ramadan. Once we crossed the formidable Israeli checkpoint we would be on our own until we could reenter again in Jerusalem. I just trusted the Lord to protect and deliver us through, and I drove as quickly as possible, even removing my kippah (skull cap).
The Sea of Galilee is nearly seven-hundred feet below sea level, and compared with the Golan Heights was oppressively hot. Israel has been experiencing a severe drought for a number of years, so the lake level was quite low. Along the shore and out on the water, thousands of Israelis were camping, swimming, water skiing, and enjoying their time off from work on this national holiday of Shavuot. Unlike the United States, Israelis work and go to school six days straight and only get Saturday off. They work about the same number of hours on average, so that gives them a shorter workday. But it’s a long week.
The few Arab villages we drove through in the Jordan valley were hot, bleak, and disheveled looking. The comparatively lush grasslands of the Golan had now given way to dry alkali clay and limestone. Piles of trash and abandoned cars lined the highway. This was not the place to stop for gas or a bathroom pit stop. We plowed through, counting the kilometers until we would reach the main east-west highway; the road that would lead us back to civilization and safety, and the road that would ultimately take us up to Jerusalem.
This was going to be the pinnacle and spiritual highlight of our trip. I was looking forward to visiting my mother and sister in Jerusalem, but I was equally excited to show Kim the capital city of our Jewish homeland and the spiritual center of the world. We had dropped to over thirteen-hundred feet below sea level (the lowest place on earth), and were now climbing continuously and steadily towards east Jerusalem which sits at over twenty-five hundred feet above. As we entered the eastern part of the city, the dry barren hills of the Judean desert gave way to limestone clad buildings that hugged the rolling hillsides, blending into the chalky white colored soil around.
It was Shavuot in Jerusalem so everything was shut down. Traffic was minimal (an unusual sight in the most congested and populous city in Israel), and people were out walking everywhere. We arrived at our boutique hotel nestled in the heart of the German colony, about a mile from the old city. The historic stone building was gorgeous, a classic and timeless piece of Jerusalem architecture with its gothic stone arch windows and quaint balconies. Israeli flags draped the outside of the building.
The hotel itself was run by Muslim Arabs (Israeli citizens), who had lived in this city for generations. They were some of the most kind and gracious people we probably met on the entire trip, and their hospitality was delivered to perfection. They bragged about not being religious yet still claimed their Muslim heritage. They needed our lower level room for a Jewish family that was staying for the holiday, so they upgraded us to a corner suite on the second floor that had a small balcony that overlooked the beautiful courtyard below. This would be our home for the next five nights.
That evening we visited my mother and sister in Kiryat Menachem, an Orthodox community about four miles west of the old city. I got a chance to see my three nephews and my adorable niece, Lea who I had never met before. My sister was still recovering from a severe leg injury, so my mother has been part-time mom for the past year.
My mother is one of the kindest people you will ever meet, and she loves to take people around Jerusalem. On Thursday, Kim and I drove back down to the Dead Sea and Masada. My mother stayed back due to the heat. Ironically, Masada is another place I never had a chance to visit. We didn’t have the money to travel or a car to get around. Unless it was part of a school field trip, I never saw it. Israel has the third highest gas prices anywhere in the world, and on this trip we were paying between $7-8 USD per gallon of gasoline.
Ironically, Israelis and the tourists that visit Israel live in separate worlds. I would occasionally bump into foreigners, but there was rarely any chance to connect with them. Theirs was a world looking in, and mine was a world looking out. On this recent trip my experience was the same, except that Kim and I were now the tourists. As much as we tried to blend in, we were continually pegged as Americans. And I could not help but notice the stark divide in Jerusalem between the various religions, but what shocked me the most was the divide between the Christians and the Jews. Were we not of the same spiritual heritage? Something was wrong.
On Friday my mother took us to Yad Vashem, Israel’s holocaust memorial. There were hundreds of young Israeli soldiers walking through in groups, part of a military indoctrination that extended through the weekend. On Sunday we encountered hundreds more that were lining up for pictures at the Kotel, the western temple mount wall. I looked at the faces of these young men and women; mere children to me that would be protecting this country from the surrounding hatred.
One of my nephews had been sick with the stomach flu, so unfortunately by late Friday morning I was sick as a dog. Confined to the hotel room, Kim wandered around the busy streets of Jerusalem, marveling at the frantic pace of thousands of Jewish families, shopping and making final preparations for the coming Sabbath. Unlike Tel Aviv, Jerusalem definitely has a religious feel about it, and most Jewish men wore Kippas. I was equally comfortable wearing one and displaying my Jewishness, a badge of identity that binds us together as one people. But sadly this same garment brought looks of unrivaled hatred when we accidently wandered one evening into the Arab quarter.
Like wolves out for blood, you could see this deep rooted hatred in their faces. Given the chance I believe they would have killed us on the spot, but the old city was saturated with thousands of Israeli military personnel; equipped with riot gear and loaded machine guns, they marched through the narrow streets in platoons of about fifteen to twenty men and women, creating a military presence that likely squelched any possibility of an Arab uprising. We stayed out of the Arab community after that, even avoiding a side trip up to the Mount of Olives. With Ramadan in full throttle, the Israeli security personnel we spoke with cautioned against going anywhere in east Jerusalem.
Kim and I had planned to spend the Shabbat evening with my mother, but instead I slept for hours at the hotel recovering from the flu. As twilight set in, I turned on a live feed of the Kotel from my notepad. The rather sparse plaza began to fill with hundreds of men and women who walked over from the nearby Jewish neighborhoods. Suddenly, joyous sounds erupted as hundreds of men joined together and began singing and dancing. Oh how I longed to be with them, but I could only participate from a distance through a ten-inch computer screen. Was this a prophetic picture of my life?
Feeling much better the following morning, Kim and I decided to walk into the old city. It was Shabbat so we knew that the Jewish quarter would be closed down. So we explored the narrow streets of the Armenian quarter, a densely packed space with dozens of trinket and souvenir shops. Interestingly, there were menorahs and other Jewish paraphernalia sitting right next to nativity scenes and crucifixes. Business was business, so it mattered not who were the patrons.
I decided to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, another place I had never seen before. I wandered around taking pictures and observing the Christian pilgrims indulging in some form of spiritual experience. They were lighting candles, kissing stones and other artifacts in the building, and waiting for hours to walk through what looked like a tomb. I felt nothing spiritual about this place, and was actually repulsed by the darkness that hovered over this building. There was no presence of Yeshua. He was not there, and neither was His spirit.
We gradually worked our way towards the Kotel. This would be Kim’s first time at the wall. We separated into our respective areas and met up an hour or so later. She described her time of prayer at the wall as remarkable and spiritually overwhelming. Kim was developing a deeper spiritual connection to Jerusalem and her Jewish lineage. I, on the other hand, was continuing to struggle with any lack of spiritual connection to anything. While I enjoyed praying with the Jewish men at the wall, wearing my tallit and stretching out my hands to touch the cool limestone, I kept wondering why there was no physical Shechina presence, no divine manifestation of the Lord. And where was Yeshua? He wasn’t at the churches I visited earlier, and now He wasn’t at the Kotel either.
No, I understood that Yeshua was sitting at the right hand of the Father. And until He returns, that is where He will remain. The Father has sent us His Holy Spirit, the Ruach Ha’Kodesh (also called the Bat Kol), which is that still small voice that speaks to us from within and provides conviction, strength, and comfort. And this is what that voice has spoken to me since I returned from my visit to Israel: I am in a narrow place, a gap between two worlds that seem impossible to connect. One is Jewish to which I am deeply connected physically, and to a degree spiritually; although our paths will never fully connect without Yeshua, nor will my brethren be complete without Him. The other is Christian, but the gentilized and paganized version of Christianity has moved so far away from its spiritual foundation that it has equally left me feeling isolated.
While I do feel a level of spiritual connection to my Christian brethren here in the United States, the dark veil that has clouded western Christianity has on many levels also shut me out. Here I remain in this narrow gap I know the Lord has called me to occupy, building bridges to both worlds with those who will dare to cross over; with my Jewish brethren who will search for their Messiah, Yeshua, and for my gentile Christian brethren who will seek their own spiritual heritage and foundation that is found only in biblical Judaism—Messianic Christianity.
We spent our entire Sunday in the old city of Jerusalem, mostly in the Jewish quarter and the Kotel. We even joined a tunnel tour of the temple wall later that evening, another place I had never seen before. We bought some beautiful Jewish items for our home, including Chanukah menorah, a mezuzah for our front door, and a ram’s horn shofar. Every item I felt the Lord hand-picked for us. Monday morning we drove back to Tel Aviv and spent the rest of the day exploring more of their bakeries and food markets.
My time in Israel on one hand was too short, but on the other I was excited to leave and head back to the simplicity and freedom that we have here in the United States. As our plane left Israel I felt the spiritual heaviness begin to lift, and upon landing back at Washington-Dulles airport I also felt the gentle breeze of the Holy Spirit sweeping across this beautiful nation. I was home, but strangely I also felt like a large part of my heart remained in Israel, especially Safed, the Golan and Jerusalem.
I pray our Lord comes quickly so that we all might return very soon to His holy city, Jerusalem. Until then I will tarry in this narrow place, a Civil Engineer and Pastor who has been called to build bridges between two distant worlds, and I will continue advancing His kingdom, “till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head—Christ—from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love (Ephesians 4:13-16).[I]
[i] All Scripture quotations are taken from the New King James Bible (NKJV) unless otherwise noted, Thomas Nelson Inc., 1982.