Jerusalem. The Western Wall. Masada. Tel Aviv. The Sea of Galilee. The Dead Sea and many other historic sites — these are the places that typically leave the greatest impression on first-time Jewish visitors to Israel.
However, that wasn’t necessarily the case for four members of Congregation Shalom, who joined 28 other members for a trip to Israel from April 23 to May 1. (Ten people stayed on for a few days to visit Petra in Jordan.) The trip was organized by ARZA World, a travel company that serves the Reform Jewish movement in North America.
So, what was it that stole the limelight from Israel’s most historic and beautiful places?
“Even more than the spectacular visuals of the country was the energy and vitality of the young people,” said Ben Stern of Glendale, who went on the trip with his wife, Ethel. It was the first time either visited the country.
Ethel echoed his sentiments.
“The commitment (the young Israelis) have was something we didn’t expect,” she said. “We thought we’d see the sites, the ruins, but actually interacting with the people added a whole other layer on top of this.”
The Sterns weren’t the only ones who were struck by the vitality of Israeli life.
“We went to many interesting restaurants and they were all very crowded with (Israelis) eating and dining out,” said Floyd Laber, of Mequon, who went on the trip with his partner, Chris Paler. “Ben Yehuda Street (in Jerusalem) was really a lot of fun.”
Seeing the sights
Of course, most visitors to Israel are wowed by its many historic and holy sites and the breathtaking beauty of the land. Like millions of Jews before her, Ethel was enthralled by Jerusalem.
“When you’re standing at the Kotel, you realize you’re standing on the same ground and touching the same stones that our ancestors touched thousands of years ago,” she said.
Added Ben: “When [you see] Jerusalem for the first time, as a Jew, that was somewhat breathtaking.”
Chris, who had been to Israel once before in 1992, said she was amazed at how much Tel Aviv and Jerusalem had grown.
“Both cities are so bustling now.”
She was also struck by the dramatic drive from the Dead Sea — the lowest place on Earth — up through the Judean Mountains to Jerusalem, which lies atop the ridge of the Judean mountain range.
“The elevation of Jerusalem is amazing,” she said.
Floyd, like the others, said the most emotional part of the trip was visiting Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem.
“Chris and I were both speechless,” he said.
Everybody interviewed for this story said they felt completely safe during their stay. They also agreed on another thing: If you haven’t visited Israel yet, you should.
“For some of us older Jews who for some reason or another had never been to Israel before,” said Ben, “we felt like we’d gone on a trip of a lifetime.”
“The trip was fabulous,” said Chris. “We highly recommend it for anybody who has ever thought about going to Israel — do it now while you can.”