GBC Israel Trip Day 1 and 2 – Traveling to Jerusalem

Our long travel day started from the Grace Bible College commons, and although the bus was late and we hit some really slow traffic, we made it to Chicago in time to make the flight. Funny that a trip of 6000 miles starts with road construction in West Michigan,

imageThere are 25 in our group, five veterans of previous GBC trips to Israel. Josh and Lisa Tweist were on the 2011 trip (which started in Jordan) and Becca Zuber was a member of the 2013 trip. She is along as a chaperone. Scott Shaw (professor at GBC) is along for the third time, providing his usual help and occasional Tae Kwon Do lessons. It was good to see Jeremy Herr, a pastor in Long Island and one my my former students. Jeremy flew separate from us and we met up at the Ben Gurion airport.

The Chicago to Frankfurt flight was long, eight hours flight time. Not much to do but sleep, although the small child sitting behind me kept that from happening. We had a short layover in  Frankfurt before flying to Tel Aviv. Our drive to the Hotel Leonardo near the Damascus Gate was uneventful and we checked in with no problems. We had a great dinner, no complaints on the food from this group.

We start tomorrow at the Garden Tomb, just a short walk from the hotel. We will the head to the Jaffa Gate and walk the ramparts, visit the Western Wall and the Holy Sepluchure.

Israel Tour, Days 13-14: Back in the USA

May 15-16

Our last day in Israel was a drive to the Allenby Bridge to return to Jordan.  Things went smoothly until we arrived.  First, the Jordanian bus was an hour late, mirroring our arrival in Israel.  Second, the exit tax was higher than anticipated (I was misinformed).  Aside from a little wait in the terminal things went smoothly and we were met by Salim, the driver we had for the first four days, and , a retired guide who entertained us with vaguely inaccurate versions of the story of Moses and several nominally funny jokes.

We got back to the Jerusalem Inn by 1PM, so we walked down to a Jordanian mall not far from our hotel.  There was a McDonald’s and a few other fast food type restaurants in the food court.  I had a Sbarro style pizza, although many opted for the American-style hamburger.  It is always enlightening to go into a mall in another country.  You see things that are familiar, but still not quite right.  I was amazed at the number of trendy stores in Jordan, including several Victoria’s Secret knock-offs.  This is a window into the struggle between the young Arab who has seen the West and envies it and the traditional who has seen the West and hates it for destroying his culture.

Several of us went to the Wireless Café for coffee and free wireless.  I caught up on the last few blog posts I missed while in Jerusalem and enjoyed my last Turkish coffee.  I also enjoyed watching a couple share a hookah for the better part of an hour.  A young man and woman shared the smoke, both frequently checking their phones, but rarely talking.  Again, East meets West.

The flight back to Chicago was long and I was unable to sleep much.  We left at 10AM Amman time and arrived at 4PM Chicago time, back to Grand Rapids by 10PM.  With the time change, this made for an incredibly long day. I tried to get up fairly early and get into a normal routine on Tuesday, but that just did not happen. I plan on revising the blog posts for the whole trip (spell check on an iPad is suspect, and there are several weird word-replacements I see I need to fix), and I plan on updating the pictures to higher resolutions.  I will also move the whole trip to its own page so people can read the days in order.

All things considered, this was an excellent trip.  My first time will always be the best, but I think I enjoy traveling to Israel more each time.  My fellow-travelers were wonderful, I enjoyed their company and we all got along quite well.  I am already looking forward to January 2012 for the GBC/GGF tour and May of 2013 for the next GBC Student tour.

We Miss Feras!

Israel Tour, Day 12: Rainy Days and Demonstrations Really Get Me Down

May 14

Today is our last touring day, and started very well.  The Leonardo Hotel is a ten minute walk from the Garden Tomb, so we left about 8:40 for our appointment.  Our guide was Dutch, speaking fluent English and German to the group assembled for the tour of the Garden. His explanation was clearly Evangelical.  Whatever we think of the burial site, it is certain that Jesus is not in the Tomb.  We had a short time of sharing some things we have learned, or been challenged spiritually by during the trip.  Ryan Vegh led us in two songs, and I served Communion for the group.  We had time for people to take a few minutes in the Garden by themselves for prayer.

We met Feras at 10:30 at the hotel, and he told me there had been incident in Silwan, near the City of David.  A 17 year old boy was killed during demonstrations in the village of Silwan, although the news the next afternoon was unclear on how this happened.  (I will update this when I have more information).  We were likely in the City of David when the  incident occurred, although I have not confirmed that.  We had noticed an unusual police presence, mostly wearing riot gear, but things had been peaceful the whole day.  Feras was concerned for us, but there was no indication that the Mount of Olives would be a problem.  He talked to several drivers but there was  nothing out of the ordinary.  But the fact that they were going to bury the boy at 11 am was a cause for concern.

We drove up to the Mount of Olives, and there were a few tourist buses and everything looked normal.  It was, however, very cold and rainy with a significant breeze.  Most of our group gone back to their rooms for a coat, I did not since I did not bring even a light jacket.  We did the usual talk at the top of the Mount and took a few pictures, and then started down to Dominus Flevit, the Church of the Teardrop.  When we got to the overlook, it was starting to rain,  but that was not the big problem.  It was about eleven, and we began to see people marching out of Silwan toward the Old City, shouting and singing as they went.  This was a demonstration in honor of the boy who was killed, and their path was pretty much the way I had intended to walk to Gethsemane.  We watched from a safe distance and the group got larger, people kept joining until there were maybe two or three hundred gathered in the Arab graves along the Kidron Valley.  They settled into a spot and began to toss rocks into the road.  We talked about it, and no one wanted to walk down the hill at all.  I called Feras and he was able to meet us back at the top of the Mount of Olives in a half an hour.  Unfortunately this was the worst of the cold rain, so most of the group took refuge inside the church where they sang and prayed.

When the bus arrived, Feras got a round of applause.  We were quite glad to be out of East Jerusalem, but we had a half day left.  I suggested we go back to the Jaffa gate, find something to eat, then go down to the Holy Sepulcher. This was agreeable to everyone, so Feras dropped us there and we split up for food.  I bought a coffee (10 shekels) and then some Jerusalem bread.  This was  7 shekels at Damascus Gate two days ago, today the guy wanted 25!  I gave him a couple of dollars and told him he was charging too much, and he took the money, said it was a “special deal” for me.  I found a spot to eat my bread and drink my coffee, watching people pass by the Jaffa Gate. The sun finally came out, so it made for a nice time for me.

We walked through the Christian Quarter, which is the same sort of market as the Arab Quarter, but with much more Christian tourist shops.  We found our way to the Sepulcher, and it was (as usual) very busy and crowded.  Still, there are many things to see inside, quite a bit of art.  The place has such a historical significance it is hard to skip, but the Garden Tomb is a much more pleasant place.  I am glad I visited, but the crowds were really overwhelming.  I also need to read more on the site since I was unaware what the various chambers were.  The line to enter the actual tomb was extremely long and tightly packed, I had no desire to wade through that to see the cave.

Tomorrow we pack up and return to the Allenby Bridge for our last day in Jordan and a long flight home.

Israel Tour, Day 11: Southern Temple and the City of David

May 13

I wrote the first part of today’s blog in the Old City, near the plaza which overlooks the Western Wall.  I browsed a Jewish book store, remarkably only purchasing one book.  I could have seriously damaged my credit in the store, but I did not want to buy anything that was easily available at home.  It is still quite chilly in Jerusalem, where I am sitting there is a cold breeze, making wish I had not worn shorts this morning.  Last trip it was so hot here, I am quite surprised at the low temperatures.

Most of the group has gone into the Old City to finish their shopping, so I have stationed myself in a shaded walkway with a very nice latte.  From here I can people-watch a bit, and of course get ahead on this blog.  I am always thinking of my readers!

My goal was to spend some time in the Old City and then the city of David.  We were able to do this for the most part, although today and tomorrow is Naqba, the Palestinian day of remembrance for the loss of Jerusalem, sort of an anti-independence day.  The word means “catastrophe,” and while I have never heard of any trouble on this day, there is always a potential for problems. (Obviously this year was different!)

The police presence in the old city is remarkable, we saw several units of police equipped with riot gear at the gates of the Old City.  I chose therefore not to try and enter the Temple Mount, which is a disappointment.  Our driver Feras suggested we avoid it, and I thought it best to take his advice.

We therefore visited the Southern Wall excavations for two hours.  The museum is nice, although the film lacks production value.  I think it does a good job describing religious practice in the Second Temple period, and I was able to highlight a few things after the film which looking at the model of the archaeological park.  For me, this is one of the most remarkable sites in the Old City since the Antiquities Authority has done such a nice job excavating and restoring the Second Temple streets and buildings.  Robinson;s Arch is easy to find and there are several artist’s reconstructions around the area to help visualize the architecture of the first century.  I particularly appreciate the fact they have left man of the stones pushed off the Temple Mount as they were discovered so that we can see the extent of the destruction of the city.

The city of David was our next stop, walking back out the Dung Gate to the national park site. Five brave souls opted for Hezekiah’s Tunnel, the rest of us (the wise) went through the dry Canaanite tunnels.  The walk is narrow in places (although that might just be my problem), but the lighting is good most of the way.  At the end of the cave there is a nice park to view the Jebusite walls.  The area was so nice and peaceful we rested there for ten or fifteen minutes before walking the rather steep stairs to the visitor center.  The peace of the Garden is all the more remarkable because it is the Silwan Valley, one of the more disputed areas in Jerusalem.  It really was hard to believe that just up the hill there was a serious conflict.

Feras picked us up at the Dung Gate and brought us back to the hotel. I spent some time in the lobby of the hotel catching up on my journal, and watching a large Jewish family arrive for a Bar-mitzvah celebration. Some of the kids were running around and sliding on the marble floors, like kids do. It is refreshing to know that kids are the same in every culture.

Israel Tour, Day 10: Walking in Jerusalem

May 12

We began this morning in Jerusalem at the Jaffa Gate for a walk around the ramparts of the Old City.  I have done this walk before, but there were two big differences from the 2009 trip.  First, it was quite cool, cloudy and very windy.  It was not unpleasant, but it was sometimes difficult to keep your hat on, and our ladies were all wearing skirts for the churches.  Second, the last tour did the rampart walk on the first day, so everyone was still wild-eyed about being in Jerusalem.  This is now our tenth day together, and we have already done a great deal of walking.  The result is that we were able to get t the Damascus Gate in about an hour.  A few people bought some bread, I would have liked a few more people to try Jerusalem bread and hyssop.

We went down to the Roman Damascus gate, but a great deal of the wall was covered in scaffolding.  Still, we went up the narrow stairs and finished the rampart walk.  As a side note, the ticket taker at the Damascus gate is serious about his post.  There is a little museum there, and if you do not have a ticked, he does not want you to take photos or even look at the place.  He followed us to the stairs to make sure no one broke the rules.

On the second leg of the Rampart walk you get a good view of the Garden Tomb and Gorden’s Calvary.  I was able to answer many of the common questions people have about the two burial sites for Jesus, the Garden Tomb and the Holy Sepulcher.  The Garden Tomb is as likely a spot as the Sepulcher, but does not have the ancient witnesses.  Still, there is something deep within my evangelical, Protestant heart that prefers the Garden Tomb.  I look forward to our time of worship and communion there on Friday.

Since we made good time on the Rampart, we got to the Lion Gate just before eleven am.  We visited St. Anne’s church, a lovely Romanesque church built in honor of the virgin Mary’s mother.  When we came in to the garden, I saw the priest who greeted us in 2005.  He is just about the friendliest man in the world, taking the time to greet us and ask where we were from, etc.  He even looked and pictures of the Tweist’s children.  He told me he has been there for eleven years, always greeting the guests to St. Anne’s.  He also told me that in the first four months they had over 150,000 visitors!   It was  a bit crowded, several very large groups were in the church when we went in.  We listened to several groups sing and then we had our chance, Ryan led us in the doxology and Amazing Grace.  It was very beautiful to hear the echoing of our voices through the church.

We still had some time to look at the pool at Bethesda.  I read from John 5 and commented on the archaeology we were seeing at that moment.  There is a Roman pool, dedicated to their god of healing and a mikveh to provide ritual cleanliness for Jews.  Jesus presents himself as an alternative to both, healing the man directly.

After the pool of Bethesda we had lunch at the Pizzaria Basti, near the third station of the cross.  The meal was good and fairly priced, thirty shekels for pizza (or shwarma, falafel, or kabob).  I particularly enjoyed the Turkish coffee.

After lunch we visited the Western Wall plaza.  There was quite a crowd since there were a few bar-mitzvah parties going on, but it was great for everyone to see the traditional readings and here the young men reading the Torah.  We even had a proud father share sweets with us.

We then had an adventure in the Arab markets, several purchases were made, the cultural experience is always good. Despite what you may hear, I was never lost in the maze of shops, I merely took the scenic route.