March 20, 2014
This summer I had the incredible experience of traveling to Israel for the first time in my life. After 10 days on Birthright, I extended my stay with the Onward Israel Program through Combined Jewish Philanthropies and made my first trip to Israel into a two-month journey. Since I’ve been back, I’ve really been able to reflect on what a unique experience it was.
I lived in Jerusalem, near Ben Yehuda Street and the bustling shuk marketplace. I was also just a ten minute walk from the Old City of Jerusalem—home to the best-known Jewish landmark, the Western wall. But what I had never fully grasped until living in Jerusalem is just how significant this city was to religions other than Judaism. The Old City is actually divided into four parts: the Jewish quarter, the Christian quarter, the Muslim quarter and the Armenian quarter. While I previously knew about the Western Wall in the Jewish Quarter and the Dome of the Rock in the Muslim quarter, I didn’t realize how many important Christian religious sites were located within the walls of the city.
While I was in Israel, my parents came to visit for two weeks, spending some time in Tel Aviv, Akko, Rosh Hanikra and Eilat, but spending the most time with me in Jerusalem. My mother, who is a Hebrew school educator, hadn’t been to Israel for nearly 30 years and my father who is not Jewish, had never been. My parents expected to tour a lot of secular areas of Israel and of course explore some of the Jewish sites for my mother, but what I don’t think they expected was that there would be so much for my father to see as well.
The Christian Quarter of Jerusalem holds the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which is said to be where Jesus was crucified and buried, but that is not the only important Christian religious site. Throughout the city and running through all the different quarters are the fourteen Stations of the Cross, which follow Jesus’ final hours carrying the cross and other sites such as the birthplace of the Virgin Mary. My father who grew up going to Catholic school but is largely unobservant now was still able to find connections to his own religion in the Jewish homeland. My mother said she had been to Israel before, but never quite like this. On her previous trips she had focused only on the Jewish aspects—Yad Vashem, the Western Wall, Tzfat.
Now that we have all returned to the States, my parents continue to talk about the experience they had in Israel. Unfortunately, we recently had to attend a funeral, which brought us to a church for the first time since the trip to Israel. My father smiled as he looked at the pattern on the carpet: It was covered in the symbol of the Jerusalem cross, a concept he had learned about this summer. The Jerusalem cross consists of one large cross with smaller crosses in each quadrant to make a total of five crosses.
For anyone familiar with churches, you may also know that it is common to have depictions of the Stations of the Cross around the room. On numerous occasions I caught my parents looking at the images, clearly reminiscing about their visit to these places this summer. They both admitted to thinking differently about the stations now that they had actually been to these hallowed sites. Even more than the change in religious perspectives, my parents and I also went through a huge change in our regional perceptions regarding the Middle East.
When I started my journey to Israel, my mother decided to stop watching the news, as the news almost always mentions some uprising, bombing or other conflict regarding the Middle East. I admit I had no idea what to expect and the images that the media promulgates were all I had as reference. I thought that the tension would be palpable but none of this was felt in my day to day interactions while in Israel. I felt safer than being in New York City and I never felt like there was a conflict going on. It certainly wasn’t what I had been trained to believe about Israel and it was an experience I wouldn’t trade for anything.
I feel lucky to have been living in Jerusalem, a true melting pot of new and old, of different cultures and different religions. When I began that two-month journey to the Holy Land I never realized how much it would change the way I think about the region and all the religions associated with it.