Connecting in Israel

“A human being is part of the whole, called by us, universe, a part limited in time and space.” Albert Einstein

The tiny country of Israel can expose any traveler to the universe of humanity from the world’s major religions and from there we learn: the universe of the spiritual and religious: the universe of the political; the universe of two groups of people fighting to retain it as their home, and the reality they are confronted with.

I have been to Israel twice in my life. Both times it was an astonishing, incredible, and even life – altering experience. Without realizing it until later, both times it tested my belief in the universe. Both times I learned it was a place that can remind us how connected we all are, no matter our belief system.  I wrote about some of this when I wrote about the sacred spaces in Israel, of which there are many. When I returned to Israel 26 years after the first time I was there, I went with the Overseas Adventure Travel trip Israel: The Holy Land and Timeless Cultures. It was truly a timeless adventure.

On this trip, the issue of connectedness loomed large for me, as it did the first time I was there, but in different ways, as we left our kibbutz lodgings for the day and went to  Safed, the home of Kabbalah study and Jewish mysticism. I love this branch of Judaism even though I am secular, so I enjoyed the short film the Rabbi showed us. At the time, I had a friend who was going to be studying there in a few weeks with some friends from Amsterdam. I told the Rabbi that later, and he knew exactly the group I was referring to. He asked for my name and the name of my friend. By the time I got settled in my kibbutz cabin at the end of our touring, I had received an email forwarded from my friend, and forwarded from her friend in Amsterdam, initiated by the Rabbi. I think the level of interconnectedness is what everyone in that email chain enjoyed.

I felt connected in churches in Israel as well. Both times I was in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher on Jerusalem I certainly did. Regardless of religious beliefs, it seemed impossible not the feel the holiness, or at least some sort of “presence.”  People of multiple faiths make sure the church is open and take turns opening it on a daily basis. But the ultimate keeper of the keys to the church is in the hands of two Muslim families, who have taken the job seriously as their family’s endeavor for hundreds of years. They view it as a sign of interfaith solidarity, tolerance, and respect. We met one of the keeper of the keys while there, and given its inter-denominational importance, I shouldn’t be surprised I felt connected there. Both times, in fact, and I was not raised in a Christian tradition. On my last day in Tel Aviv traveling in my own, I was at the modern art museum there. I once again felt connected when I saw an entire exhibit on the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the keeper of the keys.

We went to an ancient synagogue one morning where Jesus went when he was quite young, in the ancient town of  Capernaum. Dwellings had been all around the ancient synagogue, and a modern church built next to it. Below the church was the location where Jesus was to have done his healing. One of our group members was asked to read passages out of the Bible that were supposed to have taken place  exactly in the same places we were standing.

After that, we went into a newly constructed church that sits atop the place where Jesus is said to have done his healing, and we sang Amazing Grace. I find that song emotional anyway, but in that setting, having had that entire experience, the song was so powerful for me I just wept. This is Israel. A place where we can feel unexpected things at unexpected times regardless of our religious stream. A place where in many unexpected ways, we can feel so connected.

Connectedness. That’s what Israel is about for me. The first time I traveled there, I left knowing that we were really all one because of the many experiences I felt in both Christian and Jewish holy sites. That’s not what mainstream Judaism teaches, but it’s what I learned from my experiences in the many sacred spaces that is Israel.  We all learn from each other. Take away all the formal layers and differences of race, religion, education, nationality, or anything else, and we are all the same. When you take the layers off the strudel, there are still apples underneath. Somehow, I think Alert Einstein would have agreed with that.  

Ever since my first visit to Israel, I said that if Israel didn’t exist, someone would have invented it, because mankind’s desire for conflict is so strong. After this trip, I felt the same way, but for a different reason; someone would invent Israel because mankind’s desire for connectedness is so powerful.

Israel will always mean different things to different people based on their political and religious beliefs, or lack thereof. And I think, in the end, that’s what makes Israel so unique and special.

All photos Jann Segal


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