by Kelvin Belfon
In the middle of March, I took my first pilgrimage to the nation of Israel.
Let me preface everything I’m about to say with this disclosure. I grew up hearing and reading Bible stories all my life. I even completed a Master’s degree that required a general knowledge of the Middle East. So, to actually get boots on the ground made the idea of going on this trip pretty epic.
While in Israel, I visited a number of historical and archeological sites. To name a few, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Sea of Galilee, The Mount of Olives, Masada, and Megiddo. I ate lots of authentic falafel and hummus and had a good time buying souvenirs at the markets.
One of the things that also made this trip pretty special was that I was leading a group of over 100 people along with my colleague, Micah. We’ve organized and gone on international trips in the past. But the size of our group and level of responsibility opened up new horizons for my leadership gift. It took months in planning meetings, Skype calls, emails, flight and hotel arrangements. In the end, it was all worth the tireless hours of preparation.
We had an amazing group of individuals on the trip. We learned new things, laughed, and sometimes shed tears of joy. The ten days were life changing.
I learned a lot on my tour of the Holy Land. However, here are 5 insights that stood out to me as we knocked about the city and countryside of Israel.
5 insights from Israel
Turn your desert into an oasis. In Israel, more than 50% of the terrain is desert. Because of this climate, a shortage in water supply makes farming very challenging. Yet the Israelis have somehow managed to transform their non-arable soil into a lush, green fertile oasis. Today Israel produces 95% of its own food, exporting many diverse crops to the rest of the world.
In the countryside I saw valleys covered with dates, mangoes, oranges and banana trees. There were fields of corn, cucumbers, tomatoes, and grapes. The sense of hopefulness that nourishes this enterprise was pretty well summarized by one of our tour guides who said, “The desert areas will bloom again!”
Such a statement led me to ponder the truth that directly follows from it. No matter how bleak things seem, we can actually overcome limitations, areas of barrenness, unproductivity and a sense of uselessness in our lives. Despite the setbacks of our past, we can become fruitful again. That’s something to be hopeful about.
Stop, rest and reflect. Everything shuts down for the celebration of Shabbat from 6pm Friday till 6pm on Saturday in Israel. It’s a time where Jews cease from their work and remember God. It’s also a time for getting together with friends and family and to rest and personally reflect.
Whether you are religious or not, do you stop, rest and take time to reflect?
The notion of Sabbath has really challenged me to slow down from my busy schedule and allow time for recovery. Self-care is so important if one plans on being around for a long time. But also let’s take time to be present and spend quality time with our family and friends.
Remember, productivity happens not only in the things we do, but more importantly, as a result of the things we choose to leave undone.
When possible get a better deal. Inside the Old City of Jerusalem the 500-year-old streets are always bustling with people from everywhere. There are also history sites, such as the Via Dolorosa and Pool of Bethesda. You can explore international cuisine or shop for colorful textiles, Middle Eastern arts and crafts, and souvenirs of all sorts on every side of the streets.
The whole experience was invigorating!
Like other countries I’ve visited, I quickly had to shift from a western mindset and sharpen my negotiating skills while shopping. Visitors can pay more than full price for stuff if they don’t know how to handle themselves in these kinds of markets.
The first thing you have to know is that almost everything is negotiable in Israel. Merchants take no offense if shoppers are looking for bargain deals. In fact, they welcome haggling.
But let’s take our Middle Eastern haggling skills back to the US for a moment to talk about ways that it does apply. Why not ask for a price break on an item you find in a store that seems less than perfect? Why not call your car or home insurance company about a better rate? How about calling the credit card company to inquire about a lower interest rate or a courtesy debt reduction?
It never hurts to ask.
Be persistent. Never give up! Like them or not, Jewish people are resilient. As far back into antiquities as we may go, Jews have been captured, enslaved, persecuted, and murdered en masse by the Egyptians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Persians, Byzantines, Arabs, British, French, Spanish-Portuguese Crusaders, Mamelukes, Turks, and Germans. There’s even a fast day, Tisha B’av, that commemorates the various histories of destruction and hardships.
Yet each time the Jews have experienced setbacks, they find a way to start over. They’ve rebuilt…again and again, some 30 plus times! They just don’t give up, no matter the obstacles.
We are all facing our own set of challenges – a bankruptcy, limited finances, business failure, marriage break up, death of a loved one or a debilitating illness. An answer, solution or resolution might seem so far out there from where you are now.
But now is not the time to quite. Keep trying… again. Be persistent in trying until you can thrive again.
Hate is strong but love is even stronger. Adolf Hitler declared, “No one need be surprised if among our people the personification of the devil, as the symbol of all evil, assumes the living shape of the Jew.” This anti-semitic rhetoric ushered in a season of death for millions of men, women and children.
The time I spent at Yad Vashemu, The World Holocaust Remembrance Center, was emotional for me. I wept, especially after seeing the images of the innocent children who were massacred. The face of evil is real and it shows no sympathy.
In contrast to this sad walk through history, on the last day in Jerusalem, our group visited the Friend of Zion Museum. There, I was reminded of the good in ordinary men and women who have made a difference by sticking their necks out to save Jews. Such kind of heroes still exist around us. These are our parents, friends, spiritual leaders, teachers, first responders, members of the military, and…YOU.
The Friend of Zion Museum taught me how important it is to speak up for the voiceless in our local communities and around the world. It is no use to dwell in hopelessness when the possibilities lie before us to take action on behalf of the underrepresented.
It’s true…love conquers all!