Having been a loan officer for most of my 40-some year banking career, no one has ever accused me of being a big risk taker. But when I announced that I would be going to the Holy Land recently, not one person I knew didn’t either question my decision or ask me to seriously rethink it, especially after recent events that have occurred in that part of the world.
They need not have worried. I was determined to go and now, having returned, I can honestly say that in my opinion it was not only one of the safest pilgrimages I have been on, but also by far the most enjoyable and meaningful.
Most of us Americans like to visit places such as Philadelphia and Boston to bask in U.S. history, which is a couple of hundred years old. When you visit the Holy Land, however, you visit cities such as Jerusalem, Nazareth, Galilee and Bethlehem, which are more than 2,000 years old, and it is impossible not to be moved and affected by this.
Furthermore, these are holy places and not just because many of the most significant events of many religious faiths have taken place in this region but because of the prayerful atmosphere that permeates this area continuously.
Whether it was the muezzin from the minaret summoning Muslims to prayer five times a day, the devout manner of the Orthodox Jews at the Western Wall or the numerous people of all faiths worshiping not only in Bethlehem, where Jesus was born, but in the Old City of Jerusalem where he died, religion is everywhere. You can’t help but feel that a sense of the holy is firmly rooted in the DNA of people living here and that they would no more think of missing prayer than missing a meal.
Climbing over rough terrain up and down many hills also showed us tourists that daily life in this part of the world never could have been easy. But riding on a boat on the Sea of Galilee gave me a priceless feeling of peacefulness.
Eating the food was most interesting. Hummus and pita bread are staples. And Peter’s fish (tilapia) is most satisfying once you get used to the eyes of the fish staring at you as you are eating it.
The beer was also very good, though we learned early on that the brand we chose to drink would reveal our political convictions. And we even found ice cream, which hit the spot on a few of the warmer days.
Swimming (or floating) in the Dead Sea, the lowest spot in the world, was also a memorable experience as the high salt content makes it nearly impossible to sink. And wading in the Jordan River was not unlike our own Cazenovia Creek in Western New York.
And if I live to be 100, I don’t think that I will ever have an experience that surpasses descending into the Tunnel of Hezekiah deep beneath the city of Jerusalem with two of my fellow travelers. This adventure consisted of wading in knee-deep water through a very deep, narrow and completely dark tunnel that was no more than a mile in length but seemed at least twice that.
The greatest miracle I experienced throughout my two-week visit, though, was that so many different people coexist in the Holy Land on a day-to-day basis facing numerous obstacles and difficulties and sharing only one thing – their strong belief in a God who is ultimately in charge. And that one thing is what above all other things makes this part of the world a very special, very safe and very holy place.