My trip to Israel was one of the most valuable trips I have ever been on. That may seem clique, but truly Israel is a unique country filled with diverse cultures, religions, and ethnicities. Honoring the humanness in others, what it means to coexistence, how to consciously take off any lenses in order to listen to another’s story, and allowing yourself to ask hard questions is just a few of the lessons that I learned while in Israel.
I went with an organization called Passages, which is a Christian organization that provides college-aged students an affordable and holistic trip to Israel. They partner with a tour agency called Authentic Israel. What sets Passages apart is their commitment to the full picture- we heard from Muslims, Jews, Christians of several denominations, Arabs, community leaders, scholars, and more.
Disclaimer: I am going to refer to events from both the Old Testament and New Testament. Whether you, as a reader, believe in the person of Jesus or the God of the Bible or not, I will be speaking in terms of historical evidence and the corresponding texts. I hope that even if you do not believe in Jesus or God, that you will read this and be inspired to visit this Holy Land. There is something special about this place, which can only be experienced when you breath in the ancient air and feel the victorious nature of this land.
Also, do not be discouraged if you are not eligible for birthright! I encourage you to go anyways, but I would encourage you to join a tour group. The land is so rich of history, and there are so many layers to it. It would have been hard to truly appreciate the sites without a tour guide.
Flying to Israel is quite the ordeal. There are only a few flights per day per airport. Also, security is very unique and quite stressful. You are interrogated individually for about 5-10 minutes before even checking your bag. They ask very specific questions and will dig if you stutter. Nonetheless, you will make it through. Just be sure to give yourself ample amount of time for the process.
We had a long layover in Boston, which you can check out here.
We flew into the Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv. From there, we went to Tel Azeka, which is a lookout point where supposedly David fought Goliath.
Day Two…Northern Israel
First stop is Jish – a city in the Upper Galilee near Mount Meron. Jish is inhabited by Maronite Catholics and Christians. There is a lovely church located in its center.
Caesarea Philipi also known as Panias or “Banias”. This is a National Park that was originally named after Greek god Pan where Philip (Herod’s son) established his empire. This is also the site where Peter confessed the identity of Christ (Matthew 16: 13-16).
Mt. Bental, Golan Heights is the former IDF post that overlooks Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon. This is a strategic plateau in terms of war, because it gives Israel the vantage point for monitoring Syrian movements. It also acts as a natural buffer against military advancements from Syria. From here, you can see the damages from the civil war in Syria in 2011.
Day Three…Jesus’ Ministry
Mount of Beatitudes marks the place where Jesus shared the Beatitudes (Matthew 5), which many are familiar with. This is located on the Northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee.
The Sea of Galilee, also known as Lake Kinneret, is the largest freshwater lake in Israel. There are many spots where you can stop and catch a cool view, including the Mount of the Beatitudes, Tabgha, and Capernaum. The Sea of Galilee is fed by underground springs and the Jordan River, which is why it is historically known as a big fishing hub. Some of Jesus’ miracles that took place here include calming the storm, calling his disciples to ministry, feeding the five thousand, and walking on water (Luke 5, Luke 8, Job 9, Matthew 14, John 6, John 18, John 21).
There are lots of activities going on at the Sea of Galilee. There are water sports, boat rides, restaurants, and holy sites.
Disclaimer: At any of the holy sites, both men and women must cover their knees and shoulders. I would recommend throwing a shawl and shirt in your bag so whenever you are about to enter a holy site, you can slip it on and off easily.
One of the spots along the Sea of Galilee is the Church of the Primacy of Saint Peter or Tabgha. This is where Jesus fed the five thousand and where Jesus encountered Peter after his resurrection (Mark 6, John 21).
Capernaum is where Jesus did most of his ministry (Matthew 4, Luke 4, Mark 2, Isaiah 9).
Magdala sits on the western side of the Sea of Galilee. This was a major port and is the site where a first-century synagogue and fishing boat was uncovered. There is also a church built here that commemorates the strong women figures of the Bible! (Matthew 4, Matthew 15).
Yardenit or the Jordan River is the place where the Israelites first crossed into the Promised Land and where the baptism of Jesus took place. It is located at the southern end of the Sea of Galilee and eventually flows into the Dead Sea. This is a place many Christians make the pilgrimage to be baptized (Mark 1, Matthew 3).
Nazareth is the “Arab capital of Israel” with a majority Arab population. It is also the childhood home of Jesus (Matthew 2).
Nazareth Village is an open-air museum and simulation of what life in Galilee looked like during the time of Jesus. There is a first century wine press and olive press along with reconstructed homes, tools, yarn, and a synagogue.
The Church of the Annunciation is where the birth of Jesus was foretold (Luke 1 and John 1).
Mount Precipice provides a visual of Mt. Carmel, Jezreel Valley where Gideon fought the battle of the 300, and Mt. Tabor which is the site of Transfiguration. This is also where Jesus was chased out of Nazareth synagogue and began his ministry elsewhere (Judges 7, 1 Samuel 28, Joshua 19, Luke 4).
Alfei Menashe is the viewpoint of Israel’s narrowest section from the West Bank settlement.
Day Five…Tel Aviv and the City of David
Independence Hall is the site of the signing of Israel’s Declaration of Independence on May 14, 1948. It is also a museum.
Tel Aviv has fun open-air markets. Major city located on Mediterranean coastline. Israel’s second-largest and most populous city. Founded in 1909 by Jews. Landing place for Jewish refugees throughout 20th century. Business and cultural center. Hub for nightlife, shopping, and fashion.
The City of David is the archaeological site of ancient Jerusalem. It is located beneath the southern city walls of Old Jerusalem (2 Samuel 5, 2 Samuel 11, Lamentations 2, 1 Kings 1, Deuteronomy 1, 2 Kings 20, John 9).
The underground tunnels of Hezekiah are a series of water tunnels and a pool of water reservoir built by King Hezekiah.
The Southern Steps is one of the entrances to the Old Temple. It is much less popular than the Western Wall and is also most likely the place where Jesus cleansed the temple and would have entered during their family’s annual pilgrimage (John 2, Luke 2).
The Western Wall, a segment of walls surrounding the area called the Temple Mount, is located in Old City of Jerusalem. This is the most sacred site recognized by Judaism and is an important site for Jewish prayer and pilgrimage, because it is considered to be closest to the former Temple’s “Holy of Holy”s where the presence of God resided. Muslims also consider this place to be very sacred, which has been a point of contention between the Muslims and Jews as to who owns the rights to govern and enforce laws there. Whether religious or not, you are welcomed to write a little prayer on a sheet of paper and place it in the cracks of the Western Wall.
Day 5…Gaza Strip
Sderot is a town located less than a mile outside of Gaza. Ever since June 2007, this town has been in a constant war zone. Rocket attacks have killed and wounded dozens. Air raid sirens and explosions have disrupted daily life and caused psychological trauma to the community, including children, such as sleeping disorders and severe anxiety. It is popular for its numerous artistic bomb shelters and is known as the “Bomb Shelter Capital of the World”.
Day 6…Masada and Dead Sea
Masada is a recognized World Heritage Site located in the Judean desert overlooking the Dead Sea. It is a plateau that can be accessed via short tram ride or hike. King Herod’s temple remains still reside on top of the plateau, and you can also witness the camps, fortifications and attack ramp that encircles the monument, which is the most complete Roman siege works surviving to the present day (Ezekial 37).
Disclaimer: Masada is very hot. In fact, Israel is very hot. It is located very close to the equator, so always ensure that you have access to cold water, sunscreen, a hat, and sunglasses.
On top of Masada, there are several interesting archaeological finds. There is also a Temple where a Rabbi sits and handwrites the Torah. Be sure to check that out- it’s the only place up there that has AC.
The Dead Sea is absolutely unbelievable. Float (it is basically impossible to drowned) and scrub yourself head to toe in mud (the minerals are great for your skin). They have facilities where you can change, shower, and grab some Dead Sea Salt scrub. They have restaurants, snack shops, and souvenir shops. I could have spent all day there.
Ben Yehuda Street in Jerusalem is a great place to check out at night. It is a lively night scene with music and locals.
Bethlehem is mentioned in the Old Testament as the chief city of King David and in the New Testament as the birthplace of Jesus.
The Church of the Nativity was built over the site known as the “Grotto of the Nativity” in 313 AD, where Jesus was thought to have been born in a manger.
Yad Vashem is a Holocaust museum and memorial. I have been to Holocaust museums in Amsterdam and the US, and this is by far the best one I have been to.
Jerusalem is a large square with four quarters- Muslim, Christian, Jewish, and Armenian. The Old City of Jerusalem is home to many key religious sites to several religions including the Dome of the Rock, al-Aqsa Mosque, Temple Mount, Western Wall, and Church of the Holy Sepulchre (John 12).
Mount of Olives is east of the Old City of Jerusalem In the Old Testament, it is the place where King David walked as he fled from his son and where King Solomon built shrines to pagan gods. In the New Testament, Jesus rode down the Mount into the city of Jerusalem on his “triumphal entry”, Jesus wept over the city from here when the people of Jerusalem refused to recognize the coming of the Messiah, The Last Supper Passover meal took place here, Jesus and his disciples went here to Gethsemane, Jesus prayed and grieved over his death here, Jesus was betrayed by Judas and arrested here, and Jesus ascended into heaven from the Mount of Olives (Luke 19, Matthew 24, John 17).
Garden of Gethsemane translates to “Oil Press” and is the garden of ancient olive trees located on the Mount of Olives facing Jerusalem. This is the place that is described in all four Gospels as the place where Jesus prayed after the Last Supper and before his arrest (Matthew 26, Mark 14, Luke 22, John 18).
Bethesda is the place where Jesus healed the man at the “healing pool” on the Sabbath. This is located along the Via Dolorosa (John 5).
Via Dolorosa is a walkway set up by the Crusaders (lots of Catholic churches) representing the journey of Jesus’ death from the Garden of Gethsemane where he was turned in to where he was buried at the Garden Tomb. This is a significant Christian pilgrimage destination.
Church of the Holy Sepulchre is located within the Christian Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem. This is where Jesus is thought to have been crucified, buried, and resurrected Matthew 28.
The Garden Tomb is a rock-cut tomb in Jerusalem found in 1867, and some Christians believe it to be the site of burial and resurrection of Jesus. This is adjacent to a rocky quarry that is thought to be Golgotha where Jesus was crucified (John 19, Matthew 27, 1 Corinthians 15, Matthew 28, Luke 22).
Whether you identify with a religion or not, I hope that this blog sparked your interest in learning more about Israel and possibly visiting some day. One of the speakers used this analogy to describe Israel…it is like a prism. Whether you want to experience its history, culture, language, food, religion, politics, landscape, or art, it is all there for you. It is up to you what you want your experience to be.
Note: If you do have the chance, take part in a Shabbat dinner. Shabbat begins Friday at sundown and lasts until Saturday evening. It is a day of rest for the Jewish people. You can go to a Shabbat dinner at a local’s house through the organization called “Shabbat of a Lifetime”.