Visiting the Bible Lands in January has its perks: hotels are fairly empty, airline tickets are inexpensive, sites are less crowded, visibility across the landscape is better, and the sun overhead is less malevolent. On the other hand, visiting in Israel-Palestine in January has its disadvantages too: night comes early so the touring-day is shorter, shops and restaurants can be closed, rain and snow are real threats, and correspondingly, the travel kit must be more strategically packed.
These perks and disadvantages were met and handled by the members of our latest Fam Trip (sponsored by the Jerusalem Center for Biblical Studies). A cadre of pastor-teacher-professionals flew from New York to Tel Aviv at the start of the new year. They came from Las Vegas (Nevada), Bristol (Virginia), Kissimmee (Florida) and points between. They represented a variety of church related vocations and perspectives. What united them was a desire to see the land of Jesus with their own eyes. I watched them as they emerged into the arrivals hall of the Tel Aviv airport, roller boards in hand. There was a tiredness about their step, but a spark as well. It was the beginning of a memory-making week.
A cold rain arrived at the same time. It dogged us mightily for two days. I told the group how moisture is a rare commodity in old Judea. The sky responded by dumping bucketfuls. I taught the group how to lean back carefully into the slick surface of the Dead Sea to avoid a drop in the eyes. The sea responded by rolling, crashing, and foaming. Driven by high winds, rain stung our cheeks on the summit of King Herod's palace-fortress near Bethlehem. At Qumran, where the Dead Sea scrolls were found (preserved of course in its famous bone-dry climate) we ran from shelter to shelter between cloudbursts!
Later, an old friend and resident of Jericho told me that he had not seen it storm like this in six years! Naturally, he was quite happy. The needs of long-term residents and short-term visitors are not always the same.
We made our camp for three nights on a ridge above Bethlehem in the village of Beit Jala. This Palestinian engagement allowed us to peer through a window into Arab life (Christian and Muslim) inside the "separation barrier" as well as launch visits to the Herodian fortress, the fields of the Christmas shepherds, the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, and the so-called "Pools of Solomon." From the village of St Nicholas (see post here) we ventured into the desert (chased by the rain) to see the Jordan River, to "swim" in the Dead Sea, and visit Qumran, Jericho, and the Wadi Qelt.
The group remarkably took all of this in stride. As was told me years ago, "there is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes." We were inconvenienced, but prepared. And the good news is that we had a good meal, shower, internet access, and bed at the end of each wet day. Most importantly attitudes were positive and resilient.
For the second half of the trip we relocated to Jerusalem. There we encountered other cultures (Jewish and European). From this camp we did a day-trip to Galilee, stopping at Nazareth, Sepphoris, and Capernaum. We did a walking tour of the Old City that included the Mount of Olives, the Pool of Bethesda, the Via Dolorosa, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. We went underground beneath the ancient Canaanite walls, flashlight in hand. Several souls even braved the dark and sloshed through the thigh-deep water of Hezekiah's Tunnel. After the soaking of previous days, how can a little more water be a problem?
Final highlights included a visit to the Temple Mount, the Western Wall, and the Temple Mount excavations.
The winter sun returned before the midpoint of the trip. It warmed our bones and pushed against our soggy start.
The thirteen may have come from different starting points, but sharing new songs and old hymns, communion, prayers, and perspectives on the biblical text provided unifying experiences.
No doubt all of this (even the inclement weather!) will become a part of a cherished and repeated lore for each traveler, even as I share their story with you.
I watched the group walk into the departures terminal at the airport with their roller boards in hand. They still looked a bit tired, but there was a spark in their step. For reasons. For good reasons. For very good reasons.
La'lechet 'im elohim, my friends.
Our next Fam Trip is scheduled for January 2-9, 2019. This 8-day familiarization experience is designed for professors, pastors, and their spouses who wish to explore the possibility of bringing their own church or school group for a Holy Land tour. Priced at a deep-discount level, the trip prioritizes not only engagement with the geography/culture/history of Israel-Palestine in an intense format, it also introduces leaders to the process, potential, and pitfalls of organizing group travel. See this link for other future Bible Land Explorer trips.