by Barry DeLozier
In 25 years of marriage, my wife, Cathy, has rarely asked for anything significant. So, in late 2016, when she told me she wanted to travel to Israel with two Bunko girlfriends and their spouses, how could I refuse? My parents had often described their 1999 trip to the Holy Land as “life-changing.” Two weeks in Israel, plus a few days in Jordan. We signed up to participate in Friendship Journey Five and I blocked 16 days on my calendar in April 2018.
At a meet-and-greet of Christians and Jews at Birmingham’s Temple Emanu-El in spring 2017, it became obvious our trip would be different from a sightseeing vacation. Rabbi Jonathan Miller predicted seeing this special place together would magnify our views.
“Like our ancestors, our journey through life is also a spiritual one,” he said. “We start from where we are, and we go to where God wants to take us.”
Ronne and Donald Hess chaired the first four friendship journeys, but for Friendship Journey Five, they passed the baton into the capable hands of Sheryl and Jon Kimerling, and Lisa and Alan Engel. “We believe this is the most diverse, spiritual, and historic way to experience Israel,” says Sheryl. “You see the country through many lenses, in a way you cannot get from the media.”
Our travel companions came from Birmingham, Montgomery, Tuscaloosa, Washington and New York, 50 of us in various life stages with diverse careers and family configurations, many repeat travelers to Israel, and several first-timers like myself. We had an equally remarkable itinerary. Careful planning put us in Israel for Holocaust Remembrance Day, Memorial Day and Independence Day.
Transplanted South Africa native and Israeli citizen Julian Resnick served as host. To say that his brilliant insights enlivened our experience would be like saying the nation of Israel is mentioned in the Bible. Sometimes provocative, often choked with emotion, always brimming with keen observations, Resnick read poems, quoted movies and scripture, and even crooned Beatles tunes, all with a charming accent.
“For me, travel is about confronting powerful questions,” said Resnick. “Those moments when we stand outside our comfort zones, when we stand trembling in the shoes of others, when we see ourselves — as if for the first time — via the eyes of the ‘other’.”
Walking the Old City under umbrellas in a rare spring rain, we contemplated Jerusalem’s significance to three of the great world faiths, the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. All share a reverence for the Temple Mount.
“Our world is fractured, especially in our faith communities,” said Rabbi Miller. “Religion teaches absolute truth and makes a stab at the world’s most vital questions about the meaning of life and what God wants of us. So, it is hard to hear the truth of others.”
On a sunny day, our visit to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Remembrance Center, fulfilled my parents’ prophecy that our trip would be life-changing. Profoundly haunting, beautiful, symbolic and painful, every square inch of the 44-acre complex challenged me to reflect on 6 million Jewish lives lost during World War II. The Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations honors the memory of non-Jews who, at personal risk and without a monetary or evangelistic purpose, helped rescue Jews during the Holocaust.
From our base in Jerusalem, we ventured out to settlements in Gush Etzion, to Bethlehem and the Church of the Nativity, through the Judean desert to the ancient mountaintop fortress of Masada where the energetic in our group climbed rocky cliffs while the still-adventurous but less-energetic waved from a cable car. An afternoon float in the Dead Sea felt refreshing.
Rabbi Miller, assisted by an American cantorial student and a rabbinic student on the guitar, led us in a lovely Shabbat service on the southern steps of the ancient Temple, followed by a time of prayer at the Western Wall. For centuries, world leaders have tucked petitions in crevices between these stones. “Be careful what you ask for,” Rabbi Miller warned. “Prayers here have an unusually high percentage-rate of being answered.”
We left Jerusalem on a Sunday morning, stopping along the banks of the Jordan River, where Jesus was baptized. Reverend Ed Hurley, senior minister at South Highlands Presbyterian Church, led us in worship, accompanied by University of Alabama at Birmingham neuropsychologist Dan Marson on the harmonica. “Jesus taught that our faith is like a little mustard seed that grows into a vast tree which provides life-giving shelter and nourishment to all,” Reverend Hurley shared. “May that be your experience.”
We visited the Mount of the Beatitudes and walked the shoreline of the Sea of Galilee in Capernaum. From the Golan Heights, we looked into war-torn Syria.
Throughout our trip, guests provided insights on life in the Middle East. A high-ranking Israel Defense Forces official stood on a mountaintop overlooking Lebanon and briefed us on military threats in the region. American-born Israeli author Daniel Gordis lauded his adopted homeland’s many accomplishments. Israeli-Canadian journalist Matti Friedman described how disproportionate news coverage gives an inaccurate view of Israel. Our tour of the Yemin Orde Youth Village, home to more than 400 immigrant, disadvantaged and at-risk children, was narrated by a compassionate Ethiopian Jewish woman.
In Rosh Ha’Ayin, Birmingham’s sister city in Partnership Renewal for more than three decades, an architect and cultural director led us through a performing arts space under construction at the Kimerling Center. Resnick and his gracious wife Orly and their children hosted dinner at Kibbutz Tzora where we participated in the community’s memorial service. Afterward, young Israelis led small-group discussions on compulsory military service and life with Palestinian neighbors.
We observed Memorial Day and celebrated Israel’s 70th Independence Day in cosmopolitan Tel Aviv, buildings everywhere draped in blue and white flags. Drivers and pedestrians paused along highways and busy streets to stand in silence for a two-minute siren at 11 a.m. on Memorial Day. To celebrate 70 years of democracy, skies above the beaches were filled with planes and the Mediterranean was teeming with military ships.
The weather was spectacular with only one day of rain, the food delicious. We always felt safe. During one of our last suppers in Tel Aviv, world-renowned AIDS researcher and UAB physician Michael Saag took the stage to sing “Sweet Home Alabama” as others in our group danced. The mostly Israeli crowd knew the lyrics to the Lynyrd Skynyrd song, but they appeared baffled by our chant of “Roll Tide Roll.”
After bidding farewell to more than half our group, 22 of us crossed into Jordan where we spent a night in a Bedouin tent camp, rode camels across the desert (ouch), marveled at the spectacular sites of Petra, inhabited since prehistoric times, and noted the juxtaposition of new and old in the capital city of Amman.
On a bus ride through the desert, Resnick, an Israeli Jew, shared a microphone with our Jordanian tour guide Lou-aye, a Palestinian Muslim. They respectfully disagreed on politics and the future of the Middle East.
Unbeknownst to anyone on the bus, Dan Marson was in the back, learning the Jordanian national anthem. Prior to leaving Birmingham, he’d memorized Hatikvah, Israel’s national anthem. When the discussion concluded, Dan played both anthems on his harmonica. It was a stunning moment.
Karen Allen with Gil Travel Group has managed details for all five Friendship Journeys. Her familiarity with Israel and her passion for travel proved incredibly valuable. “Each Friendship Journey is special, as each one provides an opportunity for Birmingham’s community leaders to meet, interact, learn and grow together,” said Karen. “One of the most exciting parts of the trip is not what happens in Israel, but what happens back in Birmingham upon our return. It’s been thrilling to see the energetic application of the lessons learned in Israel in the local community.”
At two points along our journey we gathered in a large circle to share impressions. Both conversations were emotional. “I have traveled to many places with many groups of people,” shared Resnick. “But the Friendship Journey groups from Alabama stand out in terms of unforgettable moments, because of the interfaith element.”
While I was impressed by how beautiful, safe and hospitable Israel is, I sat looking at my new Jewish and Christian friends, feeling especially proud of Birmingham; of our community’s collective desire to learn, to understand, and to support causes around the globe. Allen is already planning Friendship Journey Six. “Along with co-founders Ronne and Donald Hess and Rabbi Miller, I have worked with some of the most intelligent and compassionate clergy, volunteer leaders and Israeli thought-leaders over the years and incorporate their insights and teachings into the Journeys that follow.”
“More important even than making our pilgrimage is the conversation and sharing within our group,” said Rabbi Miller. “We leave this miraculous country with the wonder of questions unanswered and an appreciation for the complexities we face as people of faith. These questions, better than any answers, are the most enduring and enriching part of our journey.”
Barry DeLozier is a writer and business communications consultant from Vestavia Hills, Alabama.