From March 7-14 of 2014, I went on a “fact-finding” trip to Jerusalem to scout out the city for future Dr. Z Travel offerings. Jerusalem was a lot different than what I had expected. My first impression was that the city is much bigger and a lot more modern than I had thought. I was expecting a medium sized, 1970s-looking town but I found a sprawling metropolis with a curious mix of the very traditional and the very modern. I also did not expect all the hills, and there are a lot of very steep hills!
Jerusalem itself is mesmerizing. I especially enjoyed strolling through the Old City and peeking in and out of the many small shops. I bought some t-shirts in one of these shops and had an interesting conversation with the man who worked there, at the end he even tried to convince me to become Muslim. It was a great experience. The Western Wall was also quite fascinating, especially watching the people pray. I was surprised that they separate the men from the women but I guess that’s the way it is. Right smack in the middle of the Old City is the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. This most holy of Christian sites is awe-inspiring and it is one of the most powerfully spiritual places on earth, although it is in desperate need of repair. I visited the church a number of times on the trip, and even went to an Italian language mass in the chapel of the 11th Station, the site where tradition holds that Jesus was nailed to the cross. I was able to enter the Holy Sepulcher twice and spend some quality time in prayer.
The only thing I really did not like about the Old City was visiting the Temple Mount. The reason for this is the outright hostility I felt from those who “administer” the site. When going through security, one of the first things one sees is a big sign informing Israelis that it is illegal for them to enter the Temple Mount – not a great first impression. Following this, there are other signs informing visitors that they cannot display, or even bring onto the site, any non-Muslim religious symbolism. I wear a cross under my shirt and I had to take it off and hide it in my pocket. I have always believed that the way to gain respect from others is to demonstrate respect for them – I guess this does not apply on the Temple Mount. When I finally had passed through security and was walking around the Temple Mount, it was very clear that I was not welcome there. The “administrators” walked around giving everyone a very harsh look and when it came time to close the site they were quite rude in their language and gestures toward visitors. If you ever visit Jerusalem I would encourage you to visit the Temple Mount, but be prepared for the reception you will receive.
While in Jerusalem, I would highly recommend talking a walking tour of the Mount of Olives, just east of the city itself. It is fascinating to experience how visiting biblical locations such as the Kidron Valley and the Garden of Gethsemane bring the story of Jesus’ passion to life. In fact, you really get a feeling for what Jerusalem was like during the time of Christ. Another not-to miss site on the Mount of Olives is the Church of the Pater Noster (“Our Father”). This church features the Lord’s Prayer written in a myriad languages, and as you walk around you get a true sense for how the Christian faith has been enculturated around the world.
Another highlight of Jerusalem was a morning visit to Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Memorial. I had previously been to Auschwitz/Birkinau (Poland), Dachau (Munich), and the Topography of Terror (Berlin), but Yad Vashem was just as powerful as these other Holocaust sites. I was particularly struck by a circular room toward the end of the memorial that housed information on millions of Holocaust victims. Just to see the scale of the number of people who lost their lives is very powerful.
I also took a few side trips outside of Jerusalem. One morning I took a public bus Bethlehem and immediately upon getting off a taxi driver tried to solicit my business by telling me I had a “Palestinian face.” This was a comic highlight of the trip. Bethlehem also turned out to be very different from what I had been expecting, but in the exact opposite way from Jerusalem. The people of Bethlehem are obviously very poor (take a walk through the city’s main market, you’ll see) and you really get to see the stark distinction between life in Israel and life in the Palestinian territories. I was not expecting that. The poverty seemed to be accentuated in the Church of the Nativity which, like the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, was in desperate need of repair. In addition to Bethlehem, I also did a day-long guided bus tour of Galilee. Now I hate guided bus tours, but since this was my first time in Israel and I really had no idea where I was going, I decided this was my best option. I did see a lot (Nazareth, Church of the Multiplication of Loaves, Capernaum, Sea of Galilee, Jesus’ baptismal et.) but as it is with bus tours, I did not have the time to truly experience any of these sites. All the more reason to return.
Here is the itinerary:
Friday, March 7
Depart Cincinnati, fly overnight to Tel Aviv
Saturday, March 8
Arrive Tel Aviv, transfer to Jerusalem, check into hotel
Introductory walk through Jerusalem Old City
Sunday, March 9
Mass at Notre Dame Guest House
Guided tour of Jerusalem Old Town
Church of the Holy Sepulcher (Jesus’ tomb)
Monday, March 10
Yad Vashem (Holocaust museum and memorial)
Guided tour of Mount of Olives:
- Chapel of the Ascension
- Church of the Pater Noster (“Our Father”)
- Jewish Cemetery
- Church of Dominus Flevit (where Jesus cried for Jerusalem)
- Garden of Gethsemane
- Basilica of the Agony (in the Garden)/Church of All Nations
Tuesday, March 11
Day-trip to Bethlehem and Church of the Nativity
Wednesday, March 12
Day trip to Galilee:
- Nazareth – Basilica of the Annunciation
- Tabgha – Church of the Multiplication of Loaves
- Capernaum – St. Peter’s home & ancient synagogue
- Sea of Galilee
- Yardenit – Baptismal site on Jordan River
Thursday, March 13
Free day in Jerusalem (I was supposed to go to Qumran, the Dead Sea, and Masada today, but heavy rain in the desert washed out the roads)
Friday, March 14
Free day in Tel Aviv
Depart Tel Aviv (late evening)
Saturday, March 15