Thursday, June 18, 2009

WOW! (written on June 5)

Well it’s been about a week since I’ve gotten back, so therefore I should be able to articulate my experience. Yeah, well, the only thing I can say for sure is that I won’t forget these darn bug bites any time soon. I’m still itching…

Overall, I had an unforgettable life altering journey that has changed the way I look at the world. And that’s a lot to say about a two week trip, but I feel confident in making that statement here. If there’s anything that really struck me, and left a deep impression, it was a conversation I had with a Jewish settler. We were discussing the communication barrier between Israeli’s and Palestinians. I asked him casually “so how many Palestinians have you spoken with?” His answer didn’t necessarily surprise me, “I speak to the ones that work in my neighborhood”. And I retaliated, “Well I mean outside of your neighborhood. Have you taken the time to speak to Palestinians in the territories?” And the answer of the day was, “Why should I”. And he had a good point. Why should he? Here is a man who has a beautiful home, beautiful family situated in a well built, safe neighborhood with gardens and swimming pools galore. Why should he?

I remember feeling so discouraged and disappointed at that moment. It was then that I realized when a group has power; they get to decide the rules. Furthermore, people who are close-minded only add to the conflict because they are unwilling to open up their heart and minds to another perspective. It was very disheartening to experience.

On the other hand, we met with many groups on the Palestinian and Israeli sides that are trying and succeeding in making a difference. They foster hope into the community and it is beautiful to see. I personally don’t know the answer to the conflict, and I don’t know how it will all play out, but I do have hope in mankind.

And just to wrap things up I have to give a shout out to the group. What an amazing group of people we had on this trip. Whoever is reading this blog, you should check back with the group in ten years because already we will have accomplished great things. I love you all and I’m blessed to have shared this experience with you.

Take care.

Love the one and only,


Friday, June 5, 2009

Reflections and Revelations....

So we've now been back home for a good five days...

...more than enough to fall quietly back in to our old routines and our ways of everyday life. It seems crazy to think that just a week ago we were all walking around Masada and playing around in the Dead Sea. But it WAS only a week ago that we were in the "Holy Land." It WAS only a week ago that we were still together, that as a group we got to meet with the most interesting, fascinating people every day. It WAS only a week ago that we were having one of the most intense, wonderful, incredible, draining, hardest experience of our lives.

It makes me sad to know that I'm not waking up to the morning call to prayer anymore, that mango juice is no longer in abundance, and that I'm not surrounded by 15 of the brightest, best, and most vivacious people I've ever had the pleasure of traveling with. Now it seems that all I have left is the memories...which are many and great of course, and I get to relive them all each time someone asks about my trip...each time someone wants to see a few pictures I get to go back in time a week or so and remember....

We met with some amazing people and organizations and heard more narratives and opinions than anyone's mind had room enough to hold-

But that kind of experience, it changes changed us. I feel like our trip might as well have lasted two years rather than two weeks. I feel so much....older? Thats not exactly the right word but...I know I'm not the same girl I was when I left. I now, as I'm sure we all do, feel a much heavier weight being carried right between my shoulder blades...the weight of the knowledge we gained while in Israel/Palestine...and what exactly to do with it now that our trip and our experiences are memories.....

I knew I would struggle with this a little...and I will most likely continue struggling with it for some time to come. HOW am I supposed to transfer this knowledge, those sights, those am I supposed to transfer them in to something tangible for everyone back here to see and feel and accept? It seems almost an impossible task....

But for now I guess I will continue the path of reflection that I'm on...and thank all of our supporters again and again for making a HUGE difference in the lives of many people....

I can't wait to see everyone again at the Shareholders Dinner on the 14th!


Friday, May 29, 2009


I'm going to try to keep this short because I want to get back to the hooka session on our hotel patio. There are a lot of really intersting and thought provoking messages that we're hearing everyday from everyone we talk to. Everyone seems very genuine, and hospitiable- it's been a great and enlightening ten or so days. I'm not going to talk about any of these people. Instead I'm going to share a few things I've overheard and small things I've noticed and felt, a mix of conversation bits and symbols that have stood out.
-Visiting the wall, something Nikki has already written about. With the dead animals I didn't feel like I was choking but I didn't want to breath. A short walk away from this were kids playing ball and they ran to introduce themselvs to us.
-A video of a bus that had been the target of a suicide bomb, pre-clean up. Someone in the video said something in Hebrew and our speaker translated for us, "I can see bodies but I can't see faces."
-In the Holocost museum, standing in the childrens memorial. A tour guide tells his group, "if it weren't for the state of Israel, there wouldn't be a Jewish people."
-Again in the Holocost museum, a man says to his friend, "it's bad enough that this happened once, how can this be happening again?" as a group of Israeli citizens and soldiers stood by.
-Behind the temple mount (the wall that protected the second temple, built around 520 BCE) is the site where Jews believe the third temple will be rebuilt and the Judgement will come. This same spot is also the site of the al-Aqsa mosque, the third holiest site in Islam.
-Soldiers and policemen with large guns, all over and in the most unexpected places (The beach?).
-A refugee "camp" with stone buildings and a generation of family history. Walking through the narrow alleys it was easy to get lost in the squalor and grafitti, and to miss the wild rose bushes growing from behind walls.

In a land with a rich history of symbolism I think it's important to notice small details and to try and understand their meanings.


Thursday, May 28, 2009

Bethlehem, Jerusalem and outskirts

Jerusalem in the early morning, facing towards Gethsemane.

Entrance to the Old City through the Damascus gates at 4:15am

The tomb where Jesus was laid to rest

This man had 17 children and a donkey that kissed.

The Dome of the Rock over Jerusalem

At the falafal stands, everything is pickled, sometimes in odd colors.

The garden at the Jerusalem hotel... by far the nicest accommodations I've ever had.

Children at the playground near a home stay. They schooled us in soccer!

The group right outside the church/cave on the farm.

One of Dahir's dogs watches over the farm.

Sunset on the farm over Bethlehem

Mom-horse was hogging all the food.

Olive trees stand over much of Dahir's land.

Here's the guy with the gentle soul! Dahir was so kind to us.

A painting on the wall

A fence that will soon become a wall, further separating one people from another.

Organ in the Lutheran church where our group attended a Sunday service.

The site of Jesus' birth... WOW.

Another album cover

Everybody's favorite little girl (I'm not talking about Kelli).

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

After spending a night with a Jewish Israeli family, discussing about their lives here in Israel and about the conflict, this morning we met up with Niel Laszarus who is assumed to be a Jewish Israeli centrist to further discuss about the conflict and give his point of view. Since the first day we have been here in Israel, we have been meeting up with Palestinians and hearing their side of the conflict. We saw how they have been oppressed by the state of Israel with the walls that divide them and cage them in and we have heard their sad stories of how their lands were taken from them and their houses destroyed. There is no doubt that the Palestinians are being oppressed. But last night and today, the Jewish family that I stayed with and Niel showed me their side of the story. The Jews, too, also suffer from this conflict. The Jews have been oppressed for such a long time in history from the Holocaust to this recent day where they feel they are not accepted in other countries due to their religion. Thus, these people desired for a country of their own where no one can oppress them again. They argued that the reason why they built the wall and why relations between the Jews and Palestinians are not going so well was because the Jews fear that the Palestinians would attempt to bomb them or shoot at them if they were given the chance.

After hearing both sides of the story from the Palestinians and Israelis, I have realized how deep and complex this conflict is and am just lost and confused of what to do with the information I have obtained and where I stand in this conflict. I am an outsider and I will never be able to understand what these two sides have been through and are going through. I only hope that my presence here and offering a listening ear helps console them and ease both sides pain. Even after all of what we have done, I feel I still have so much to learn about the conflict and the people.


"The heart is a muscle the size of your fist. Keep loving. Keep fighting."

Shalom, dear family and friends!

Each day continues to be full of growth and experiences enough for a lifetime. I think it's safe to say that we are exhausted every night, but our eyes are a little more open.

After staying with Palestinian families for a night in Bethlehem, we had the opportunity to stay with Israeli families in a settlement in the West Bank. This settlement, called Efrat, is just outside of Jerusalem, and is home to about 14,000 (mostly orthodox) Jews. Many of them emmigrated to the Settlement from America or Europe during the turmoil of the 1960s and early 70s, in hopes of finding a peaceful community with shared values and beliefs.

The settlement is fairly modern, with swimming pools, tennis courts, schools, community centers, supermarkets, neighborhood organizations, and, as my host sister said, "a synagogue on every corner". It is a vibrant city where most everyone knows their neighbors. I was amazed at the beautiful, meticulous landscaping which contrasted with the rugged terrain just outside of the settlement gates.

We had the chance to stay with different families, with diverse backgrounds and political views. The family I stayed with included Artie and Anna, both Tai Chi teachers and writers, and their three daughters, who are aged 23, 20, and 17. Artie and Anna moved to the settlement after having a "spiritual revelation" that encouraged them to seek community within the State of Israel. It was important for them to live in Israel, even though they hail from Nebraska and Ottowa, respectively, because of the historical connection to the land. We were all struck by how tightly-knit the community was, how there was a place for everyone, and how each member supported each other in celebration and mourning.

Nikki, Kadie, and I had such wonderful conversation over pizza and ice cream, talking about all topics of life in Israel. We covered every topic, including:
1. Israelis dont have 100% faith in President Obama. They are holding their breaths to see what good he will do for Israel.
2. The most current and pressing fear for Israelis is Iran's nuclear threat.
3. Hitchiking is the most common way for Israeli youth to get around.
4. All Israelis must go into National Service at age 18. This may include joining the army (2 years for girls, 3 years for boys), or doing Service projects for a year. My host sisters had done volunteer work at alzheimer's clinics and daycares for their Service years. Orthodox Jews may be exempted from national service.
5. It is common for Israeli youth to take a year to travel after their National Service. Many of them have fantastic stories of travel and adventure, trying to understand what they want to do with the rest of their lives, professinally, before going to university.
6. There is a proper Tai Chi way of giving birth. Who knew?!

Later that evening, we listened to a presentation by the founder and director of Palestine Media Watch, and organization that researches what Palestinians are saying about Israel through media and educational outlets, including news, childrens programming, music videos and school curricula. His findings were indeed eye-opening. Even though much of the data came from extremist Hamas-run channels and from the Palestinian Authority, it was sad to see the impact that media has to influence thinking. In particular, I was thinking about the thoughts of youth who grow up to demonize "the other" because of the messages that media feeds them.

We had lively debate and discussion with our hosts, who were gracious enough to field our thousands of questions. The Israeli families with whom we stayed were so kind to us and I feel like I have so many more questions to ask.

This morning, as we were waiting to load up our bus to drive to Jerusalem, I had a brief but profound conversation with Ariel, another host brother. Ariel is just about my age and just returned from backpacking North America after his military service. He said, "I hope that you all will come back again, and that next time we can get beyond all the political discussion. I hope that we can drink a beer together and jam to music in the garden. This way, we will better be able to understand each other."

Right on, Ariel.

(Posted by Cath)

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Heaven or Hell?

It's difficult to imagine a more holy - or a more hellish - place than the West Bank of Palestine. Our group got more than a full share of both faces of this muddled region today.

We started things off on a "heavenly" note; our visit to Christmas Evangelical Lutheran Church in Bethlehem was a beautiful experience for everyone, I think. It struck an extra chord with me personally: the hymns, the litergy, the organ, the German influence, the stain-glass windows, the "coffee and fellowship to follow" ... nearly everything about the church connected me to my Lutheran roots. I might as well have been sitting at my home church in New Berlin, WI for all I could tell (though, the Arabic cued me into the fact that this wasn't quite what I had grown up with). At any rate, I felt a deep sense of solidarity with the members of the congregation. In a city where everything feels a bit foreign and unfamiliar, it reminded me that there didn't have to be layers upon layers of cultural and political barriers between us. It reminded me that, in the end, we're all just people, members of the same human family, seeking after love and grace and new beginnings and a sense of belonging as we try to make sense of a world gone seriously mad.

Our heavenly experiences continued, as we moved on to visit some of the holiest sites of the city: the alleged birthplace of Jesus, the ancient churches heralding this site, the fields and caves of the shepherds who sought after the Christchild, and the winding streets of the Old City, where Mary and Joseph might have wandered with their newborn son. It was a remarkable experience to journey to the same places that millions of people over thousands of years have flocked to in order to come to grasp this man's place and time in history.

However, with just a few winding turns on the hilly roads of Bethlehem, we soon met our hell, coming face to face with one of the most isolating structures think I have ever seen. The Wall. For those of who you don't know, the nation of Israel is currently constructing a 40 foot high concrete wall separating Palestinan land from Israeli land. Some call it a security fence, some say it marks out borders, but whatever the theory behind the wall is, the reality is that it is segregating two people groups from each other, making any understanding, communication, or peaceful resolution difficult indeed.

On one side of the wall lies illegal Israeli settlements. These are newly constructed communities with all the important stuff: parks, swimming pools (in a desert?), and strip malls. On the other side of the part of the wall that we visited lies a Palestinian refugee camp. However, this enormous barrier isn't that nice and neat, separating only the two warring parties. Sometimes, the wall runs right through Palestinian villages. What if your family is on one side of the wall, and you are on the other? That means you won't visit them. Or what if you need to cross through the other side to get to another town? That means you won't go - or at least not without incredible blockades of visas, permits, checkpoints, etc. etc. etc. Not only does this strangle the economy of the Palestinian villages that this wall runs through, but it cuts off people's freedom of movement and limits community and family relationships.

So, we got up close and personal to this wall today. We had hired a guide, Isa, to take us through the holy sites, but upon request, he took us to the wall himself. When we stepped out of our bus, we landed in the closest I have ever come to hell. Along this huge, obtrusive barrier are mounds of rubble, piles of garbage, even decaying animal carcasses, shocked from the electric fence. The site was a wasteland, and enough to bring many to tears.

Isa, who told us he doesn't discuss politics with the groups that he leads, relayed to us how he has been affected by this wall. For him, this wall is the true tragedy of the conflict. For many Palestinians, their struggle is not even over the land anymore. So many have raised the white flag on that issue. What is important to them now is their access to basic human necessities, their right to movement, and their right to dignity. Overcome by emotion, this grown man wept in front of a group of total strangers as he spoke about the future. Because of this barrier, children will never be able to know who lives on "the other side." Israeli childern will not learn Arabic; Arab children will not learn Hebrew. On both sides, the Other will simply be known as the Enemy. This segregation will never lead to understanding, but only to increased fear and mistrust. How can children be raised to love each other if they never have the opportunity to interact with each other?

The experience was jarring. I hadn't known how much this barrier had affected people's daily lives until I witnessed it for myself, and it was an image I won't be forgetting soon.

Our emotional exhaustion was only exasperated when met with a man from the church named Daher, who owns a vast amount of farmland outside Bethlehem's city limits. Israeli soldiers have attempted to take this land from him on countless occasions, despite the fact that it has been in his family for generations. He is now surrounded by illegal Israeli settlements (on Palestinian land) on all sides, and has to go to court once a month to fight for the right to keep living on his own property. Even with that, he is not allowed to build anything else on the land. As soon as he does, soldiers come and rip it down, right down to the very fences he built to keep his animals in.

In the midst of this further reminder of hell on earth, this man holds heaven in his heart. He was one of the most hopeful and joy-filled people I have ever met. He has turned his farm into a camp type place called "Tent of the Nations." He welcomes all people who wish to relax in God's own country to his land. His only rule? No guns. (He said that once 10 armed soliders came to his property. He welcomed them in for tea, if only they would set their guns down.) From this ancient land, hundreds of students and volunteers haved camped out, held campfires, sang songs, and pray - the chapel is a cave, in case you were wondering. We gathered there and raised up prayers of peace for this land.

As I watched the sun set over the moutainous terrain, I gleaned a new appreciation for why they call this the Holy Land. It was one of the most spectacular places I have ever set foot on. I could almost hear God whispering in my ear as I recalled the thousands of people who have journeyed to this land in search of a home, seeking out the closest thing to heaven on earth. No matter what happens down below, the sun still rises out here. It rises over the evil and the just, to give everyone another chance at reconciliation. We might witness hell again tomorow, yet we continue to hope. So here's to another day - may there always be a little slice of heaven in it.



Saturday, May 23, 2009

Bar'am and Bethlehem

Our typical breakfast... here served at the International Center in Bethlehem... mmmm!

One of many churches in Bethlehem

Barbed wire is quite abundant here.

The International Center and Chirstmas Lutheran Church

Ruins of houses are now covered by fields in Bar'am.

Remi and Cath share a lunch break.

Our gracious guides; George Shalabi and "Mr. Tommy".
Mr. Tommy, a Maronite Christian, was forcibly removed his home in Bar'am when he was 21 years old. He now works to relate the true story.

Ancient Synagog at Bar'am, now a national park.
Today, this morning, we packed our stuff and left Mar Elias School for Bethlehem. On our way to Bethlehem, we stopped by Bar'am National Park. We picked up "Mr. Tommy" who used to grow up in what is now Bar'am National Park to speak to us about the place. Bar'am used to be a Maronite Christian village before 1948 but during the War of Independence, the villagers were evacuated and the site is now under the management of the Israel Nature and National Parks Protection Authority. Right before the entrance to the park we stopped to read a post about the site. Mr. Tommy pointed out to us how the post about the site mentioned nothing about the people who used to live there before the Israeli government came in and claimed it theirs. On the post you can see the word "Israel" scratched off. Mr. Tommy showed us around the national park, which contained a synagogue and a church. He told us about how he used to play around the area when he was a child and showed us documentations claiming that the land used to belong to his family. After walking around the park, he took us to a nearby cemetary where his family was buried. It was such a beautiful cemetary! One of our student mentioned to the group later, how it was funny how the people cannot return to the land until they die.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Pictures of MEEI, Nazareth and Galilee

This is the sunrise Jeff was talking about.

This is the first cloud I had seen thus far.

Pre-sunrise, 5:15am.

A waterfall feeds into the Sea of Galilee.

Group members reflecting on the sea before some dove in.

These amazing purple trees dot the landscape, this one was near the Church of the Beatitudes.

The Sea of Galilee from the view of the Church of the Beatitudes... my favorite place so far.

Nazareth... quite a bit different from what we read about in the Bible.

This is the cover for their new album.

Perhaps where Jesus lived as a boy?

Church built on top of the home of Mary and Joseph.

Table at the Church of Annunciation

Open-air market in Nazareth

Rehearsing for a play

High-schoolers at MEEI

We had great 1:1 discussions after talking with the whole class.

Inviting smiles filled the classroom.

Andy discusses issues with some of the guys.

Maggie discusses issues with some of the gals.

Group members prepare for an uninhibited conversation with high-schoolers at MEEI.

(Photos by Kelli Minor)