Reflections On My Trip to the Holy Land
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Article reprinted with permission from The Center for Community Solutions.
By William Tarter, Jr.
We would like to invite you to visit Israel.
With those words, written on a letter from the Jewish Federation of Cleveland, a completely unexpected journey began. When I first opened the letter, I could not believe it. I was selected to attend the 2019 Thomas and Joann Adler Mission Trip to Israel. I, along with 38 esteemed leaders from the nonprofit community in Greater Cleveland, were invited to take a tour of Israel and learn more about a country that many of us had only read about in the newspapers. I was to be a part of the second class, the first class, which included the President and Executive Director of The Center for Community Solutions, John Corlett, went in 2017.
Before the trip
After our acceptance of the invitation, the Federation scheduled a series of pre-trip meetings, where we learned more about the state of Israel, as well as its relationship with the Jewish diaspora across the globe. Additionally, during the pre-trip meetings, we learned more about the logistics of the trip, the impact that the Jewish Federation has made in various communities in Israel, as well as how the organization tries to make a difference both here and abroad in the spirit of Tikkun olam (which translates to “heal the world). The meetings were staffed by various members of the Jewish Federation who encouraged us to ask hard questions, to challenge and to be open to hearing various perspectives. From the very beginning, our group was told that no question and no subject was off the table. One familiar term that we heard frequently, both here in the United States and abroad, was “It’s complicated.”
Arrival in Israel
Upon arrival (or departure) to Israeli airspace, you know that you are in a different part of the world when an announcement comes over the airplane intercom that says that there is to be no movement throughout the cabin of the aircraft when we are 30 minutes outside of our destination of Tel Aviv. From the very beginning, the tone is set, that security is of the utmost importance.
When I arrived at Tel Aviv airport, it was a busy hustle of people. I saw travelers in professional attire for work, those who were casually dressed, as well as many Orthodox Jews who were dressed in traditional apparel.
I arrived at passport control. I guess that I expected a few questions, not unlike what I experience in the United States. But in this interview, I faced 15 questions, where the officer asked about me, my family, my religion and my itinerary while in the country. These questions were designed to test me and see if any of them caught me off-guard, and if I was a perceived security threat. It was obvious then, as it is now, that security is the primary national concern. I found out later, that not all of my mission trip attendees faced that level of scrutiny upon their arrival. Profiling was very much an unexpected part of the trip, and it provided a precursor to questions that were asked throughout the trip about the relationship between national security interests and civil liberties, a debate not dissimilar to the discussion we have in the United States.
Our first two days were spent in Tel Aviv, which is a thriving metropolis with an active nightlife. We got a chance to get acclimated to the country, as well as the time zone difference. While in Tel Aviv, we visited the Yitzhak Rabin Museum, which was a profoundly moving experience. It was very powerful to see how the events of years ago continue to affect life in present day. We also visited the tiny city of Lod, which sits on the outskirts of Tel Aviv. Lod is a beautiful town whose geographic proximity to the thriving metropolis of Tel Aviv would typically be thought of as being favorable to economic growth, yet the community faces several economic challenges, including transportation access to job centers and the airport. We had a chance to listen and learn about how an education and health and human services nonprofit named Yahel is responding to the needs of the residents of Lod.
Afterward, we visited a placed called Givat Haviva, which is one of the leading organizations that provides programs which support reconciliation between Jews and Arabs through civic equality and a shared vision. It was here that we learned about some of the various experiences that individuals face depending on where they live and the challenges that remain. It was fascinating to listen to the speakers, who described the necessity to be able to speak three languages, Hebrew, Arabic and English, as a necessary way of life.
Next, our group made a stop in Capernaum, where we visited the Church of the Beatitudes. Here, my faith tradition teaches that Jesus delivered his Sermon on the Mount. Capernaum is located next to the Sea of Galilee where, as recorded in the Bible, Jesus is said to have calmed the sea.
We then went to Beit She‘an, the sister city of Cleveland, which shares a lot of similarities with Cleveland. Beit She‘an is a former manufacturing city, which is adapting its economy to meet the needs of the 21st century. We visited a library that was actually run by high school students, in the hopes of giving them real-world working experience. We stayed in a “kibbutz,” which is a communal living area, self-supported by its residents. In a way, it operates as a city within a city, and all resources are shared. Such examples of communal living go back thousands of years. Our group also visited a local school, the Idan Technology Center, which also houses a manufacturing company. Here, students are able to take classes and then go to work, applying the skills they learned in class, as well as gain valuable mentoring and work experience. We also visited the Beit She‘an National Park, where we walked and learned about life in Israel thousands of years ago, as well as saw fields where famous battles took place that were described in the Bible.
Finally, we went to Jerusalem, where we visited Hebrew University and learned about how the Jewish Federation of Cleveland continues to support various academic programs. We visited many places in Jerusalem: The Western Wall (also known as the Wailing Wall), Masada National Park, Yad Vashem (the world Holocaust museum), toured the Old City, including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, as well as visited (and floated!) in the Dead Sea. At the end of the trip, we were completely exhausted!
On a personal level, visiting the Middle East was always something that I was interested in doing at some point in my life. I could not have imagined that my first trip there would be to experience the Holy Land. My faith is something that has always meant a lot to me, and I certainly did not need to visit Israel in order to adhere to the tenants of my faith. That said, to dip one’s toes in the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus rebuked the wind and calmed the water, to see the hill where he preached to the multitudes, to touch one’s hands on Calvary, added a whole new context to my spiritual beliefs.
There were 38 other nonprofit professionals on the trip. I’d say before the trip, I knew about one-third of the group from previous interactions, one-third I’d met in passing and one-third I did not know at all. Our group, as told by our hosts, was an especially close group. We not only experienced the stories, as those who work in nonprofits on an everyday basis, we felt the impact of those stories. Due to that, our group asked A LOT of questions. No question was too brash or too bold, just so long as we were prepared that we may not like the answer. That’s one thing that I appreciated about this trip. On one hand, such an approach to asking questions and voicing opinions can be intimidating, because in many cases, our society and culture tends to be one that seeks to avoid confrontation. Whereby phrasing becomes important, as to not turn off and offend the other party. No such limitations existed here, and it allowed an opportunity to ask questions and not worry about if the other party would take offense.
Due to our relentless willingness to wrestle with things that we had seen or heard, whether the geopolitical implications of foreign policy decisions of the governments of Israeli or the United States, to the cultural differences in the treatment of civil liberties in the name of security, the 2019 Adler Mission attendees grew very close as a group. Many of us have stayed in touch since we returned to the United States. We toured Providence House and a historic Bratenahl home of one of our attendees. We have also gone to two City Club forums which featured two Adler alums. More get-togethers are planned in the future.
In conclusion, I am deeply grateful to my family, to Tom and Joann Adler, the Jewish Federation of Cleveland and The Center for Community Solutions, for the opportunity to be on this trip. I learned a lot about myself, my fellow nonprofit leaders in Cleveland, as well as the country of Israel. It was surreal to read news about Israel online, and then drive past and see the actual disputed lands and settlements. There were so many emotions on this trip: a feeling of happiness and joy to get a chance to play ultimate Frisbee with a group of guys at Hebrew University, to amazement when I experienced the incredible food, to overwhelming emotion upon visiting the Sea of Galilee and Calvary at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, to amazement at the universal health care and practically free college, to bewilderment at the current state of strife, struggle and disagreement, to grief while visiting the Yitzhak Rabin Museum and Yad Vashem. I not only learned a lot about health and human services and the state of Israel, I learned a lot about myself and how I can make a bigger difference in my community, while forming memories and lessons that will last a lifetime.