From the beginning to the end of our first journey over the big pond, our conversations filled with awe, our eyes filled with wonder, our noses perked with unfamiliar smells and our smiles spoke what words couldn’t do justice to. At the end of this trip Zee and I couldn’t have asked for anything more.
I remember when Zee told me she would be part of a group of teachers and community members traveling to the Holy Land. Before this opportunity, which would soon also include her better half, a trip to Jerusalem had never been more than a fleeting dream. We left the United States and traveled some 13 hours and over 9,000 miles away, with the majority being in the air over a vast black void. Never before had we felt such heat, dryness and history that appeared to be frozen or better yet, fossilized. Even now, being home for the last few months, there is just so much to write about and so much more to process. We often jokingly say, “Our suitcases are unpacked, but our minds remain as if bursting suitcases full of the experience yet to be taken out and examined individually.”
I am not sure if you, the reader, have had an opportunity to travel to the Holy Land as Zee and myself had, who until that opportunity had only teased ourselves with such an idea. Whether or not, it is our hope that you may grasp by further reading, the awe-inspiring wonders that still remain cajoled in our hearts and minds. To be sure, Israel is old, raw and modern all at the same moment. It is as if the old ways of life such as that of Bedouin communities go about living out their existence (within a stone-throwing distance of the highways we were traveling) and that of towering skyscrapers and condominiums only a short drive from each other’s opposite worlds.
This was truly an educational trip that challenged how we would view the Holocaust, the atrocities that were discovered and the positive aftermath that would become the creation of Israel and the Jewish homeland. Listening to Holocaust survivors tell their stories left us all sitting in disbelief, some even weeping in sadness at what it took to endure and survive day to day. Now, Zee uses these same living stories to teach the Holocaust to her students. For me, it was once again a reminder that evil people were allowed to create a world of horrific experiences for these survivors because the people who could have been seen as good decided to look the other way.
On the plane ride back to America, after asking Zee what were some of her most predominant experiences from Israel, I remember seeing an almost glazed looked enter her eyes as if seeing her experiences for the first time. Moments later she attempted the best answer she could provide. For Zee, it was the similarities between all the religious groups interspersed within Jerusalem. Through her eyes Zee noticed although most of the religions appeared distinctively from the outer appearance such as head and body coverings, doctrinally they held similarities. Furthermore, Zee reflected that the food diets of both Jews and Muslims were more similar than dissimilar in that they refused to have pork as part of their diets but did eat such things as fish, beef and vegetables that made up normal portions of their meals.
Another aspect from Zee’s experience was the brutality of fighting that surrounds such a small land. When our group went to a mountain on the Israeli and Syrian border and while looking down into a Syrian valley we could hear the “crack, crack, crack” sounds of automatic machine gun fire along with the echoing sounds of exploding bombs. Zee would state, having heard the true sounds of war and the thought of people fighting and dying, news reports back home would forever hold a different meaning. But the most deeply thought about and heartfelt response Zee provided was when she stated that she was able to walk upon the very same paths as Jesus and looked upon the very hills, plains and waters Jesus had seen. As stated earlier, Israel is a land fossilized in time. It is as if the entire country is a museum that was preserved over hundreds of years and is now able to be walked through and seen from its houses to eating utensils to art.
Having recently returned from Israel, I do not believe many people only go there for its historical value, though that alone is worth multiple trips and even then probably only scratching the surface of what physical value it truly holds. But feeling much like Zee, there is a religious value that cannot be overlooked, and that was a key part of the experience. In my opinion, it was the experience of seeing all those various cultures that would claim Israel as an integral part of their religious identity. I now have a better appreciation of why one religion will fight to the death to be able to keep their religious ideology safe from change and will fight with the same fervor to convert and destroy every other religious belief. All one would have to do is go to an archeological site and see the various concurring armies that have come to stake their right to its lands.
Israel’s mixed ancient cultures and museum-like landscape makes it an amazing country. Zee and I would go back today given the chance to visit Caesarea, Nazareth, Bethsaida, Bet Alfa, the Dead Sea, Bethlehem, the Tower of David, the Garden of Gethsemane, the Western Wall Tunnels and yes, to sit as a student in the halls of Yad Vashem.
We, like so many others before us and those who are sure to arrive after us, now also claim Israel as part of who we are. We are that part of Israel that holds the portion of walled space that is Jerusalem in spirit, heart and soul.
Zeeland and Will Walsh participated in the Holocaust Study Institute trip to Israel, which had support from the New York-based Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany. Zeeland Walsh is an English Reading Specialist at Milwaukee Marshall High School. Will Walsh is an adjunct instructor at the Milwaukee Police Academy, teaching leadership in police organizations, professional communications, defense and arrest tactics and more.
* * *
About this story
Will Walsh, with help from his wife Zeeland, writes today about their Holocaust Study Institute trip to Israel. Traveling in June, the group comprised of 21 participants, among them history, English and arts teachers from Wisconsin. They joined Richard Lux, founding director of the Lux Center for Catholic-Jewish Studies at Sacred Heart Theological Seminary and Shay Pilnik, executive director of the Nathan and Esther Pelz Holocaust Education Resource Center of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation. The trip was the highlight of a 14-week course entitled “Holocaust Study Institute.” The trip to Israel included sites sacred to both Christians and Jews and a three day seminar at Yad Vashem.