Sunday, August 15, 2010

Day 11 Israel

Luckily we didn't have to be on the bus until 1pm today because the night before was a late one. After grabbing lunch at a cinema complex we traveled to a tank museum and memorial. There were tons of different types of tanks and very unique memorial to those who have died in the line of fire.

Following the tank memorial we traveled to the ancient ground where David battled Goliath and reflected on our trip. Like so many of the places we have visited, this place is specifically mentioned in the Bible and bears the same name to this day. We had a banquet dinner at a restaurant in Tel Aviv with many cups of wine and many toasts to our wonderful leaders (Jeremiah, John and Melody) our bus driver, Mo, and of course our father while in Israel, Avi.

I can't speak too well about Avi. He is the ultimate wealth of knowledge. Few people know more than he does about religion, history, or life in general and he is only 45! He genuinely cared for us as people and did his best to impress upon us his knowledge about Israel but also general life advise. He is a caring father, a loving husband, and the best damn tour guide in Israel!

Security leaving Israel was very tight. They ask you all about your luggage and end with this zinger, "The reason I am asking you about your luggage is because I believe there may be a bomb on board. Do you understand?" They also search about 50% of the checked luggage. Mine was emptied out because I had to empty bottles and some mud. At check-in they also request emergency contact information in case the plane were to be attacked. Pleasant thoughts to be sure.

I arrived in the US around 5AM this morning though I had been awake since about 2:30AM US time. I actually slept on the plane from 1AM - 9AM Israel time aside from some very frightening turbulence and lightening over the Atlantic. I have been sitting in the same terminal since around 9AM. I volunteered to take a later flight at 5:40PM (my original flight was scheduled for 12:30PM) in exchange for a $400 flight voucher and a free meal. It will help pay for my ticket to Cairo in January. Still, 8 hours in the same terminal is a long time. I already miss the friends I made on the trip and I can't wait to see my family and give them my gifts. Finally though, I'm going home.

Note: I'll be posting some kind of reflection post soon as well as some more pictures though the majority of my pictures and other people's pictures of me will be on Facebook.

Day 10 Israel

Day 10 began with a visit to Independence Hall, the site of the declaration of Israeli independence in 1948. Our guide gave a passionate and genuine speech concerning Israeli independence and her desire for peace with their Arab neighbors. Largely there is a peace between people but a peace between leaders is harder to find especially when terror groups are added to the equation.

After visiting Independence Hall we went to a bullet factory from before 1948 that was hidden from the British underneath a Kibbutz laundry room for 3 years. It was very cool. Hard to imagine working a a factory in secret for 3 years!

We were given lunch and most of the afternoon to ourselves. I had the largest and tastiest tuna fish salad sandwich I have ever had (sorry mom!). I should have taken a picture. After lunch I enjoyed the arts and crafts market with some friends and we returned to our hotel for some swimming and Shabbat dinner.

Being our last night in Israel we decided to hit the town. We went to Mike's Place, a live-music jazz bar adjacent to the US Embassy. We were informed that just a few years ago a suicide-bomber blew himself up in the club in an attempt to hit the US Embassy. The majority of the victims were tourists and young people like us. Hard to imagine. It was a great night and a great way to end our time in Israel.

Note: Israelis love lemonade, but with a twist. They add mint and crushed ice. It is amazing!

Day 9 Israel

We started this day with a lecture from Colonel Bentzi Gruber on IDF ethics. Colonel Gruber is a tank commander with 20,000 men under his command. His presentation was one of the best I have ever seen but unfortunately I can't share many of the videos with others. We saw raw footage of the battlefield from Gaza 1 year ago. Videos of Israelis diverting their rockets ($125,000 each) because a terrorist enters a house; videos of terrorists using children as human shields; videos of the IDF calling people's homes and dropping leaflets hours ahead of a strike; videos of the IDF conducting an ethical war. For comparison: the IDF killed 1 civilian for every 2 terrorists in their campaign in Gaza (they know they were terrorists because Hamas has their member list online!) while the US considered 25 dead civilians acceptable collateral for 1 terrorist in our campaign in Fallujah, Iraq. As a proud American, that is simply unacceptable. Yet, Israel was the subject of an international human rights investigation while no one even mentioned the US.

We then traveled to the Sderot, a city on the Israeli-Gaza border with Colonel Gruber. This town was attacked by rockets just last week and we were going up on an over look of the area! This was scary stuff. On the bus we received specific instructions about what to do in case of attack. If the siren was heard we needed to run to the nearest bomb shelter (approx. one every 200 yards) and if we couldn't make it, fall to the ground and cover our heads. I cannot imagine living everyday of my life like this or growing up as a kid in this kind of fear. While we were there we also had lunch. During lunch someone's car alarm started to go off and everyone twitched and got tense thinking it to be a siren. Nerve-racking stuff.

We then traveled through the Negev Desert, where our air conditioning stopped working. Our bus become a sauna in the 100+ degree weather. After touring a landfill we went through an Israeli settlement in the Negev. These people have vision. They are literally making the desert bloom. Dinner was in Ber Sheeva, a fairly large city in the Negev. After arriving back in Tel-Aviv the night was spent on the beach with friends and a couple of bottles of wine!

Note: Our bus driver, Mo, who I practiced my Arabic on makes an excellent wing man. He was trying to set me up with our Israeli waitress at dinner. Also, the Mediterranean gets crazy at night in Tel Aviv. Tel Aviv is full of clubs and bars. While Jerusalem is known as the Sacred City, Tel Aviv is known as Sin City. I concur.

Below: A bomb shelter and the desert where our air conditioning stopped working.

Day 8 Israel

After an early morning lecture on the City of Jerusalem from our tour guide Avi, we headed out from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv. Along the way we stopped at an IDF base. The military apparently thought we were a birthright group (meaning we were Jewish) and were rather surprised to learn we were Americans on an educational trip. Needless to say we got to see things and people that can't be repeated or posted online, something most Jews, most Israelis, and all tourists don't get to see.

Plain and simple: we don't hear about 3/4 of the things going on in Israel. The IDF soldier talking to us literally showed us video after video of terrorists training and carrying out attacks against Israel from Gaza. Many of the attacks happened in the last 6 months! As someone plugged into these kinds of things, I was stunned I had not heard about them. One of the more frightening developments: Al-Qaeda is beginning to operate in Gaza and Hezbollah is infiltrating the US from our Southern border. Don't believe me? Ironically enough, Stratfor, the largest private intelligence firm in the world, discussed Hezbollah infiltration into the US in their most recent newsletter analysis of geopolitical intelligence.

We also got to see about 25% of the weapons confiscated from the Turkish Flotilla. We got the whole story; aka, the story not reported by most news agencies. These were not peace activists. They did not attack the IDF soldiers with sticks and metal poles. They attacked with swords, spiked clubs, and huge knives. The IDF soldiers were armed with paintball guns. These "peace activists" were carrying large sums of Euros and their personal wills with them! On top of all that, they were strung out on heroin. This is not what was reported. Three of the four ships in the flotilla decided to dock in Israel and let them search the items before going to Gaza while 1 ship decided to try and run the blockade of Israel AND Egypt. These people knew what they were doing and were prepared to be martyrs, not peace activists.

We then toured Better Place, an Israeli electric car company. We also got to test drive one of their cars. The car we drove was Renault sedan that was completely electric. They say they have deals with Renault and Nissan and are working on others. The car has a range of 100 miles and a top speed of 85 mph. When I got in I asked the employee with me if it was okay to floor it on the test track and he encouraged me to do so. As someone who drives a Firebird and a motorcycle, I was very impressed with the acceleration of this car. There was no break in acceleration either from shifting. When you floor it, it goes. They are also working to implement a system of battery switching stations; the replacement for gas stations.

After checking into our hotel in Tel Aviv (1 block from the Mediterranean) and swimming we went to dinner and had a lecture from Dr. Jonathan Rynhold, a professor and researcher at Bar-Ilan University about the political climate of Israel and the prospects for peace in a changing world.

Note: I am really looking forward to living on the Mediterranean in Egypt for 6 months. What a wonderful ocean!

Day 7 Israel

We started the day with an overview and tour of the security fence with Reserve Colonel Danny Tirtza, who designed and built the system.

Note: This guy gave this same tour and overview to Senator Obama and Senator Clinton when they visited Israel before the election. Apparently Obama claimed that this Colonel purposely built the fence right next to the Palestinians homes to annex the land in between those homes and the Jewish homes (about 100 yards). Colonel Tirtza calmly explained to the soon-to-be President Obama that the fence was built close to the Palestinian homes so that when the sensors detected a breach the IDF soldiers in the area would have time to catch the suspect before they disappeared into the populace of Jerusalem (their response time is the time it takes for the suspect to run across the 100 yards of rough ground). There are many gates and checkpoints for people to enter the City legally.

Colonel Tirtza repeatedly stated his belief that the fence was temporary and that one day it would be torn down, hopefully by him.

After touring the security fence in and around Jerusalem we then drove into the West Bank to a Jewish settlement, Gush Etzion. There is absolutely nothing controversial about this settlement as it was in existence even before the Israeli War of Independence in 1948 (the only settlement taken by the Jordanians).

After eating lunch in Gush Etzion we traveled out to a archeological dig in ancient Judea-Samaria. First off, we started excavating the inside of a demolished home. We were looking for pieces of pottery, bone, or coins (2,200-2,000 years old). The home was filled with dirt and rubbish and we were trying to get to the floor. Something like an ancient trash heap. I was able to find 4 pieces of pottery while digging which will be logged and cleaned for examination.

After the digging we went spelunking through unexcavated homes. We were underground walking through ancient homes and crawling through ancient windows. The staircases here looked just as they looked 2,200 years ago!

We finished up the night with a Kurdish (ethnic group in Iraq and Turkey) dinner provided by a family in a nearby Moshav. The husband is an avid metalworking trash artists and allowed us to peruse his collection and witness his creativity.

Note: We were short on time at one point but had a long line for the bathroom (most bathrooms are unisex; i.e., separate stalls, common hand washing area). Our tour guide, the wonderful Avi, advised the guys in line that there was no such thing as public indecency in Israel and encouraged us to take advantage of our ability to relieve ourselves pretty much anywhere. Needless to say, we took his advise and watered the Holy Land.

Below: Ancient staircase and window (we had to go through the window).

Day 6 Israel

We began the day at Yad Vashem, the Israeli memorial and museum for the Holocaust. It was a deeply moving experience that brought tears to eyes at every turn.

Following our visit to Yad Vashem we went to the Herzl Museum to learn about the Zionist movement to establish the state of Israel, a homeland for the Jewish people.

After that we were given 2 full hours in the Arab Market before returning to our hotel. It was nice to relax in the pool and hot tub at our hotel. It was interesting because the hotel sits on a Kibbutz (commune) and we had an interesting time with some young Israelis in the hot tub.

We began the night at the Tower of David for a massive and amazing light show projected on the ancient walls of the towers.

After the light show many of our tour group chose to attend an International Arts, Craft, and Music festival in the Valley of Hinnom (yes that is the fiery Gehenna Jesus speaks about).

Day 5 Israel: Part 2

After grabbing lunch in the Muslim quarter (the best humus and falafel in Jerusalem according to our guide Avi and my stomach) we continued along the Via Dolorosa to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Avi was able to explain many aspects of the Church and much of its history. On one end of the Church is a staircase up to an altar and the glass-encased rocks of Golgotha, the site of the crucifixion. On the other end of the Church sits an ancient church (yes, inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre) built over the tomb of Jesus. Historically speaking, archeological analysis seems to also prove the tomb and crucifixion are in the correct places. (Note: There is a site known as the Garden Tomb which some people believe is the tomb of Christ. Archeology has proven that to be false. If anything, it was a stable during the crusades. One of the objections to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is that it may be inside the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem which would mean Christ could not have been buried there because tombs were all outside of the City. However, recent archeological digs have uncovered tombs around the tomb of Christ in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre leading archeologists to think that the Church is indeed outside of the walls of Old Jerusalem).

After spending some time in the markets of Jerusalem (a trip in and of itself) we stopped by the Western Wall to stick our prayers in the wall and reflect on the roots of Christianity. After leaving the Western Wall we went into the City of David which sits in and around an Arab neighborhood of Jerusalem. All of the excavations are fairly new, having opened in the last few months. The most exciting part was walking through Hezekiah's tunnel, an ancient water tunnel in the City of David (almost 3,000 years old!). After emerging from the tunnel we walked along the old roads of Jerusalem up to the Temple which sit directly under the asphalt of the road above! It is highly probable that Jesus walked this very route up to the Temple.

We then grabbed dinner in the Muslim Quarter at a restaurant called Sami where we provided the footage of their new TV commercial!

The evening was spent enjoying the nightlife of Jerusalem with friends and new acquaintances we met along the way! The cab driver who took us back to our hotel could easily be pegged as a radical Muslim but I pushed him on several subjects concerning Israel, US, Iraq, and the Arab world as a whole. He had a very interesting story and point of view that is important when objectively viewing international affairs.

Note: Israelis are a fun, peace-loving people. Every person I have met on the street or in the bar has expressed the same passionate desire to simply live their lives in peace with their Arab neighbors.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Day 5 Israel

I have a little bit of time here before our Shabbat dinner tonight so I will try to catch up.

Day 5 in Israel happened to be Sunday and I had requested before the trip started to be able to attend Mass today.

Much to my surprise, 13 people decided to accompany me to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre for 6:30AM Mass. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is an extremely old church built on the site of Christ's crucifixion, tomb, and resurrection. Today the church is shared by 3 major denominations and 3 minor denominations: Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, Ethiopian Orthodox, and Coptics.

Mass was celebrated in Latin (a first for me) with around 50 lay people, 6 nuns and 7 Franciscans. What an amazing Mass. It was by far the most moving, spiritual moment in my life to worship right in front of Jesus' tomb; the very site of the Resurrection. The organ in that Church boomed and echoed around like thunderous singing as the Franciscans chanted the praises to God. The Church was shaking from the overwhelming power of the organ. It was absolutely amazing. It wasn't necessary to understand the Latin to praise God.

Following Mass we returned to the hotel and prepared for the day like everyone else. This was a big day. We began at the Mount of Olives overlooking the Old City of Jerusalem. As we descended from the Mount we pasted the Garden where Jesus wept and stopped at the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus asked God to spare him if it was His will. On the site stands the Basilica of Agony. It is a gorgeous church adorned with beautiful mosaic on the outside.

After a short bus ride we began going through security to enter the Temple Mount (the area with the big gold dome). This is a very controversial and tense place. It is where the binding of Abraham took place, which was when he offered Isaac to the Lord. This makes it the holiest site in Judaism, the 3rd holiest site in Islam (though they believe is was Ishmail not Isaac), and a holy site for Christians as well. While Israel has been in control of the area since 1967 they have not taken it from the Muslims. Prayer by Jews or Christians is strictly prohibited as are Bibles or prayer books of any kind. In the past when Christians have attempted to read the Bible at the Temple Mount the Muslims have rioted and throw stones down on people praying at the Western Wall. Honestly, this is not a joke. On the ramp up to the Mount itself there were many IDF soldiers and police officers with riot shields, M16s, night sticks, bullet proof vests, and tear gas ready to move at any moment. This site is also significant for its role in the break down of peace talks in 2000.

Our time on the Mount was brief (you are only allowed a certain amount of time because the Muslims there will get offended if you stay to long. Again, no joke. This has happened before. These rules come out of experience.) but we immediately began the Via Dolorosa. This was a bit of a surprise from our tour guide considering I am the only Catholic on the trip and the Via Dolorosa is very much a Catholic thing. No one but me knew about it. It is supposed to be the path that Jesus took to his crucifixion at Golgotha (a very large stations of the Cross). While much of this path runs through the Muslim quarter, the Catholic Church long ago bought up the land and built churches, monasteries, convents, schools, clinics, and religious centers along the route.

Almost time for dinner; to be continued....

Note: Encounter a roving, singing band of gypsies today in Tel Aviv.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Day 4 Israel

Today we woke up early to leave Jerusalem ironically. After arriving in Jerusalem yesterday we trekked across the countryside today.

We began our day at the ancient city of Massada which contains one of King Herod's most magnificent palaces. After ascending to the top of the mountain via cable car we prepared for our time at the Dead Sea.

The Dead Sea was an absolute blast! After going about knee deep you feel the water beginning to pull you up and you can start to float. The water is full of minerals and salt and makes you aware of every cut and wound on your body!

We followed our swim with some mud bathing followed by more swimming.

Once we returned to Jerusalem we toured through part of the Israel museum including the dead sea scrolls from 2,200 years ago, silver old testament inscriptions from 2,600 years ago, prayer coins to Mary, Mother of God from the 4th century and an inscription of the creed from 381AD.

We then had dinner at a very nice restaurant in the new City and retired to our hotel.

Note: The temperature reached around 113-115 out at the Dead Sea this afternoon. The Dead Sea is also the lowest place on earth!

Day 3 Israel

Okay so now I am way behind but I am trying...

We met up in the morning with retired Colonel Kobi Merom (the same man who just gave US administrations officials a tour of the Lebanese border) for an overview of Lebanon and the Lebanon-Israeli border. This was a somewhat tense overview because 3 days before we came to the border an IDF soldier was sniped dead. In fact the exact spot was around 100 yards from where we stood on an overlook. You could see the charred earth and rubble from the Israeli artillery response.

To make things more interesting, the call to pray began while we were sitting there.

Following our overview of Lebanon we traveled to the Hatzbani river for a rafting adventure. It was quite fun.

After rafting and lunch we embarked on the 3 hour ascent to the Holy City of Jerusalem.

We stopped at a scenic overlook for a blessing but hurried along to catch Shabbat at the Western Wall. Use of electrical devices was strictly prohibited but what a sight! Thousands of Jews chanting, yelling, singing, and even dancing at the Western Wall. I was able to work my way up there and say a few prayers. As Gentiles we are prohibited from placing notes in the wall on Shabbat.

We then enjoyed a wonderful Shabbat Dinner in the Jewish quarter of the Old City.

Note: Meals are served in waves in Israel. It is quite overwhelming. There is literally too much food to try! Our meals last 2 hours if we are lucky; most of the time it's more!

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Day 2 in Israel

I am running slightly behind here but hopefully I will be able to catch up after dinner in the Old City of Jerusalem tonight, though we did befriend some young Israelis who want to party with some Americans...

Regardless, on Thursday, our second day in Israel, we took a Biblical tour around the Sea of Galilee. We drove through Tiberias on our way to Capernaum, the ancient residence of Peter and Jesus as well. Apparently after the failure of the Crusades to take the Holy Land by force, the Pope order the Franciscans to secure holy sites throughout Israel and the surrounding area to preserve the sites for pilgrimage through more subtle means. The Franciscans began buying up sites like Capernaum and the area of the Sermon on the Mount. Hence, there is a monastery and a Catholic Church at Capernaum.

After observing Peter's home we ascended the hill adjacent to Capernaum where the Sermon on the Mount took place. The Church of the beatitudes stands here now with a convent and a monastery.

We then returned to our Kibbutz and swam in the Sea of Galilee. It was surreal to imagine Christ calling his Apostles here, calming the sea, and walking on water. Disclaimer: The Sea of Galilee is not a "sea." It is more like the Great Lakes but much warmer.

Following our swim we ascended into the Golan Heights near our hotel. The Golan was held by Syria until the 1967 War when Syria was bombarding Israeli towns and shooting people in the Galilee from the Heights. From a mountain in the Golan we were able to observe the Syrian-Israeli border. Interesting note: Knowledge of the border is not needed to see the border. the cultivated land is Israel; the non-cultivated land is Syria.

After the Golan we went to dinner on the Galilee and learned from an IDF reservist who wrote the Israeli infantry and paratrooper training handbook. He also appears on TV, teaches, and speaks in the US and around the world on the Middle East and the War on Terrorism.

We then returned to our Kibbutz for some much needed sleep before heading in to Jerusalem.

Note: We appear to be in the midst of a heat wave here in Israel. Temperatures are expect to break 100 with over 50% humidity. It is very hot!

Friday, August 6, 2010

Day 1 in Israel

Sorry for the delay. Our Kibbutz on the Galilee charged a little much to justify using the internet.

Now in Jerusalem, it is free.

After landing at 7:30 AM at Ben Gurion outside of Tel Aviv we were immediately met by our tour guide Avi. He promptly began cramming knowledge into our heads. We went to the ruins of Caesarea and Herod the Great's palace on the Mediterranean. We were then given the opurtunity to swim in the Mediterranean. I am really looking forward to spending 6 months living on the Mediterranean in Alexandria.

We stopped by Megiddo on our way to a Moshav (agricultural community) in the Northern part of Israel. We were hosted by one of the families at their farm for a home cooked meal. It was delicious but at this point we had been up for far too many hours. We checked into our Kibbutz on the Galilee around 10PM. Israel is 7hrs ahead of US Eastern time zone.

A few general thoughts on Israel: It is quite a feeling to realize that I am walking in the land where so much history took place. History, that was influential to the world even thousands of years later. Israel is like a mix between New Mexico and the Black Hills of South Dakota. In one moment it can be the quintessential 1st world country but also a 3rd world country. More to come.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

On the Road to Israel

Cincinnati to Newark New Jersey

First off, what a great asset CVG is to the City of Cincinnati. Having flown in and out of Dayton 2 weeks ago I can really appreciate an aesthetically pleasing airport like Cincinnati's. Sadly, I believe the most recent price rankings place CVG as the 10th most expensive airport in the US which is an improvement from 2nd but still not something to boast about.

Also, nice to see NYC once again. Fun place. Thought about going into the city tonight but thought better of it...

We then watched a documentary on the campus aspect of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Extreme cases of antisemitism were highlighted and discussed. I think we are fairly lucky at UC to have outstanding history and political science professors who keep their own beliefs out of the classroom. We are also lucky to have a fairly tolerant discourse between the pro-Israel and anti-Israel student groups. The Muslim Student Association protests many events hosted by Bearcats for Israel but they also attend many of the events and engage in meaningful discussion. It is something UC should be quite proud of. Intelligent political discourse is taking place at UC while other colleges scream and shout insults at each other.

Listened to accomplished author David Brog give one of the most succinct summaries and histories of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the 60 years of attempted peace. Essentially 5 solutions for peace that haven't worked out so far. Very smart and engaging guy.

Listened to Holocaust survivor and author Irving Roth describe his life from 1929 Czechoslovakia to 1945 Auschwitz. His story is amazing. Can't be described. Listening to him describe the ovens, the flames, the punishment, and the eminent sense of doom is truly terrifying. He claims to have seen the Messiah in April of 1945 and apparently he was dressed in a US Army uniform and said three simple words to the hundreds of Jews packed into the barracks. "You are free." Something America can certainly be proud of.

Looking forward to more camaraderie, fellowship, and learning. Lots of good people here. Catholicism is about to come to life in Israel.