Below is the last blog entry my mom wrote about our family vacation in Israel. As always, it’s a great write-up and the last two paragraphs are especially touching to me. I hope you all enjoyed my ‘guest-writer’ as much as I did.
Day 6 – Diaspora/Caesarea/Druze Villages
After a day of relaxing and following our own agenda, we were ready for another day of sightseeing on our tour bus. Only our tour bus was now a van – and our group tour went from 33 people to 11 people. And…. our tour guide also became our bus driver!
Our first stop was the Diaspora Museum. My favorite part of this museum was the sayings they had scattered throughout the museum which were thought provoking. My favorite is one that talks about the past, present and future. I tend to be one of those people who worries what lies ahead instead of living for the moment so this saying was very appropriate for me.
Before we headed to our next stop, we noticed a coffee shop – One of Lauren’s favorites, Aroma Café – and she said they had great chai teas. Needless to say, we both had one and it was DELICIOUS! I always find chai teas so relaxing. We finished our drinks and then got back in the van to head to Caesarea, the capital of Judea under the Romans. The drive there was spectacular as we drove along the coastal plains. Once we arrived, it was amazing to see the architecture and ruins of this ancient Roman port. We even saw the ruins of a Roman ampitheater where chariot races used to be held. Caesarea abuts the beautiful; blue waters and the views were spectacular.
Next stop was a Druze village and then we found our way to Haifa. Wow – what a nice city. It overlooks the Carmel Mountains, and the views there (as in many Israeli locations) were beautiful. We checked into our hotel – the Dan Carmel – and then looked at a map to decide where we wanted to eat dinner. Lauren recalled hearing good things about the German Colony which is at the base of the city so we inquired whether we should walk or take a cab. The hotel suggested a cab ride and told us approximately what the ride would cost. We got in the cab and then Lauren, speaking in her confident Hebrew, told the cab driver what we were willing to pay for the ride. He tried to argue we should pay more because there were 4 people but she argued back that this is what we were told it should cost and that was what we were willing to pay. To our amazement, the cab driver accepted her offer! Good job Lauren! We reached the German Colony and walked up and down the street to find a restaurant that suited our needs. We found it when we arrived at Fatush. It was a relaxing environment where we were able to eat outside and the food, as I found most dinners in Israel, was delicious.
After our delicious dinner, we took a cab to an area down the street from our hotel so I could stop at the ATM machine. The ATM machine was near a mall so we went in to pick up some things in the pharmacy and walk around a bit. As an observation, in order to enter the mall, your purses or bags have to be searched before they allow you to enter. This is just normal life in Israel which was not disturbing but just different then what you would experience in America. After our shopping venture we headed back to the hotel for the evening. I realized after this evening we would have only two more nights with Lauren and was feeling a little sad – but as I’m typing this I realize that I should have paid attention to the sign at the Diaspora Museum about living in the moment!
Day 7 – Haifa/Tzfat/Golan Heights
This was one of my favorite days in Israel and one of the most relaxing. We started our tour of Haifa at the highest point of Mount Carmel where we saw some breathtaking views of the Haifa Bay and Western Galilee. One of the best views was when we arrived at the Bahai Shrine to visit the Persian Gardens. Sadly when we arrived our tour guide told us we couldn’t go in since you have to make reservations months in advance. This confused me since we had made our reservations months in advance! Nonetheless, even the views from above allowed you to see how beautiful the gardens and the surrounding areas were. In fact, we could see the German Colony below where we had eaten the night before.
We stopped in Carmiel to look at some statues and then headed to Tzaft. This was one of my favorite places. There are artists that perform their craft right in their shops and you can watch while they are creating their art. The area is surrounded by beautiful mountains and the atmosphere was one of the most relaxing I felt on the entire trip. Just before we arrived in Israel, Lauren had lived in Tzaft for a few weeks participating in a seminar between Part 1 and 2 of OTZMA. She loved it there and we could see why. We found out that Tzaft is the home of Jewish mysticism, better known as Kabbalah. It was interesting hearing Israeli’s take on Madonna and her knowledge of Kabbalah. I’ll leave it at that!!! We were also fortunate enough to meet some of the people Lauren worked with while she was there and, in fact, was able to see where she lived. After shopping for some special gifts for special people, we stopped at a café to pick up some lunch. While waiting for our orders to be completed, we just relaxed and took in the almost spiritual atmosphere.
We were disappointed when we had to leave – I wish we had more time there – but as you quickly discover on a group tour you are always fighting a clock. So, we got back on the van and headed to the Golan Heights to see the former Syrian bunkers and some other locations.
It was interesting to observe and learn about the Golan Heights. This is one of the areas you read about all the time but until you see it first hand you cannot truly understand the danger Israel faces everyday in that vicinity. The Golan Heights in Israel is surrounded by Lebanon on one side and Syria on the other side. It made me realize this is similar to Massachusetts being bordered by Vermont and Connecticut. So, for example, if Vermont decided it did not like Massachusetts anymore, it could declare war on Massachusetts at any point in time. Obviously, not really, but that is what it is like in the Golan Heights. One of the saddest things is that there is so much land in this area but it cannot be developed because of the danger that surrounds the land. In fact, there are lookout towers that are manned so one can observe whether there is a threat in the area.
Our day ended at the Lavi Kibbutz guesthouse in the lower Galilee. My vision of a kibbutz was a farm with cabins to stay in. I could not have been more wrong. This kibbutz actually had a hotel, gardens, an indoor pool, a gym, and modern rooms. Lauren was excited to use the gym until she realized women could only use it until 6 pm. So, we all decided to use the pool instead but had to make sure men and women could use the pool at the same time. Needless to say, we were at an Orthodox kibbutz! We were able to use the pool together but it was not a comfortable atmosphere so Mark, Rich and I instead used the sauna while Lauren read by the pool. We headed back to our rooms, showered, and then headed to dinner. When you live on a kibbutz, if you decide not to eat in your own kitchen, you can eat your meals all together in a big dining area. As guests, we all ate together in the dining area. All the food we ate for dinner was grown on the kibbutz. I have to say the meal was delicious but I would not like to have to eat this way every night. I like my privacy and would prefer to eat with just my family so we can catch up on what occurred during our day. Still, it was another interesting learning experience in Israel and one that we enjoyed.
Day 8 – Sea of Galilee/Nazareth
While yesterday was one of my favorite days, this was one of my least favorite. First, it was the last full day we had together with Lauren and that, of course, was a little sad. Second, the itinerary for the day was not that exciting to us and almost seemed repetitive from other days. We actually considered finding our own transportation back to Tel Aviv but realized that would not be easy to do going from the kibbutz and just decided to go with the flow.
We started the day with a visit of Tiberias, then drove to Capernaum to see the ruins of the Synagogue and octagonal Church of St. Peter. You could tell that this location had originally been a Synagogue because of the decoration in the ruins of pillars.
Since this location had history for both Christians and Jews, Hileek told us this was one of the locations where he could always tell which religion someone believed in – based on the pictures they took!
On our way to Nazareth, we had a chance to stop at “sea level” and see the Golan Heights surrounded by the Sea of Galilee. Again, this was another breathtaking moment and one which pictures cannot always capture.
Before we headed to Nazareth, we had a surprise stop at a diamond factory. This was an interesting stop as we learned that 70% of the diamonds in the world are cut and polished in Israel before they reach retail outlets. While we did not buy anything, I found that to be an interesting fact.
We reached Nazareth and headed to the Church of the Annunciation. On the way, we noticed a sign that was placed by Muslims which was surprising to me.
Hileek told us that the Muslims wanted to build a mosque at this location and they were denied that right (I think because of its proximity to the church but I cannot recall exactly why). The Muslims were upset they were denied and hung up this sign. I found it interesting mostly because Israel is a democratic country with freedom of speech and, therefore, this sign could be hung up. Another thought provoking moment for me.
Anyway, we headed to the church and I was impressed by some of the art we observed there. First, the door heading into the Church has depictions of various biblical stories, including Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Second, the stained glass windows inside the church were so beautiful they almost seemed like a painting rather than a window. Last, there were various paintings from all over the world of different cultures take on Mary holding Jesus. This one was from Japan.
Our last stop of the day was to drive via Beit Shean to Beit Alpha to see the remains of the mosaic floor of an ancient synagogue depicting the zodiac. I thought this stop was a little tacky because of the “movie” they showed us (which was supposed to have taken place in ancient times and the acting was so horrendous it made you laugh). Nonetheless, the floor itself was spectacular and the detail in the floor is amazing – hard to believe it’s real.
We headed back to Tel Aviv after a long day and said our goodbyes to the people we met on this tour. Once we arrived at the Carlton, we showered and got ready for our last night with Lauren in Israel.
We met Lauren’s friend Ariel for dinner along with Ariel’s Dad, Larry. It was an interesting conversation telling Larry about our experience in Israel since it had been our first time there and he has been to Israel many, many times. Larry was nice enough to invite Lauren along with him and Ariel for the rest of the week knowing that Lauren would be a little down when we left. That gave me great comfort as I know it did Lauren. We finished a great meal and then headed back to the hotel for the evening.
Day 9 – The Last Day
We had an early breakfast as we were being picked up to head to the airport at 7:45 am. The hardest part of course was saying our good byes to Lauren. Still, I realized over these past 9 days how much Lauren has grown as a person, how proud I am of her for all she is doing to make the world a better place, and how happy I am for her that she has had such an amazing opportunity. I also know as I am writing this entry that she has already completed ½ her program and will be home in less than 5 months. Skype, emails and the phone help it not seem so far off either.
As I reflect back on this trip and have had time to digest all that we saw, I am so thankful that I had the opportunity to see this amazing country in person. There were so many emotions and experiences we faced while we were on this trip – but the best part was to learn about the history, the conflicts, and just become more educated about the region. Now when I turn on the news and see something about Israel I can relate first hand which is something I know many people do not have the chance to do. I feel fortunate and thankful that we had the opportunity to take this journey together as a family.