Magazines 2019 Nov - Dec Experiencing Israel, by someone who grew up there

Experiencing Israel, by someone who grew up there

12 November 2019 By Gal Hana

The Sea of Galilee is mentioned in the of Gospel accounts of the life of Jesus, but as a child I knew it better as a place where you could run on the promenade and skip stones on the water.

By Gal Hana, Consul for Canada, Israel Ministry of Tourism

The Sea of Galilee is mentioned in the of Gospel accounts of the life of Jesus, but as a child I knew it better as a place where you could run on the promenade and skip stones on the water. I used to spend my summer break with my grandparents near the shore in a place called Kinneret. I enjoyed many excellent lunches in the restaurants there.

When we walked from the Kibbutz where they lived to the shore, we passed by the Yardenit baptismal site. There were often lots of pilgrims being baptised and praying. I’d stop to watch – they were often passionate prayers, the kind of thing you can’t look away from.

One specific Wednesday morning, it was hot and humid around 9:00 a.m., and we took bicycles to the beach. When we passed the Yardenit I saw someone different than the usual prayers. He was a young American, standing off to the side. I was a teenager interested in parties, beach and fun, and I was curious why someone near my age would choose Israel and pray here. Wouldn’t he rather be in France, the UK or some other more fun destination?

His name was Joshua, he said. He agreed with me that there are many attractive destinations for tourism, but he said, “The kind of meaningful experience like I just had, well, there’s only one place in the world to get it.”

I couldn’t understand that when I was young, but today as a husband and a father I understand better. I know how meaningful experiences are valuable, the ones you take with you for the rest of your life, the ones that shape your character. That was what he felt at the Sea of Galilee.

Growing up in Tiberias, another city not far along the shore, was quite a unique experience. It’s one of the most iconic cities in the world, with a history going back more than 2,000 years. To experience living in a historic site is beyond words – how can you describe walking the same routes as the ones you read about in the Bible? How do you tell someone about swimming in the Sea of Galilee when they’ve heard so much about it before you start talking?

The best part of living in the Galilee region is that everything is relatively close. From the Sea of Galilee to Nazareth it is less than 1.5 hours. Today living in Toronto, it is almost the time I commute. Nazareth has its own culture, flavours, spices and cuisine. It’s located in the lower Galilee, in a valley surrounded by mountains that embrace several of the most important Christian sites in the world.

What I like most in Nazareth is the amazing food. Right on the main street next to the Basilica of the Annunciation you can find the best knaffe in Israel – a melting cheese with a thin layer of pastry and covered with butter and sugar water. As children our game was to see who could get the longest stretched cheese.

When I think back today to those summers at the beach, in Tiberias or visiting other places in the Galilee, I realize the opportunity I had to grow up in such a unique and special country.

For Canadians that experience is very much within reach. Today’s reality is a long way from that of my grandparents, who often planned their annual international vacation for over a year, consulting with as many agents and friends they could, reading articles and doing other research. The cost was expensive, the information was hard to get, and the sense of security and uncertainty in travel were high.

Today, when all the information and services you need are a click away, travel is dramatically easier and more efficient.

Israel holds the most significant faith experiences out there – while walking in the streets of the holy city of Jerusalem you can feel the history underneath your feet, you can touch stones and buildings thousands of years old. Its innumerable historic sites and archeological wonders, its magical walkways and magnificent views are guaranteed to leave a lasting impression, like the young man Joshua I met at Yardenit so long ago.

The last time I took my family to Jerusalem was February 2019. With the great Israeli weather we wore just light coats as we walked in the streets during a festival of lights. The opportunity to explore the old city, surrounded by an ancient wall that has been rebuilt throughout history, with seven gates allowing access to historical and holy sites, was amazing. We took in a dazzling variety of different colours, lights, and aromas in the streets of spices, coffees and foods.

Imagine walking down the Way of the Cross and visiting the many ornate local churches, including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, paying your respects at the Garden Tomb, whispering a prayer at the Western Wall, taking a tour of the underground Kotel Tunnels or stepping into the very busy Arab marketplace. The ancient structures are sensational, forming within you lasting connections to a bygone era.

The small size of Israel – it’s about the size of Lake Ontario – allows you to visit in many places on one trip. You can see the green meadows of the Galilee in the north and walk in the Negev Desert in the south up to Masada with less than four hours travel time in between.

To experience the hospitality of the different communities who live in the cities that you read about in the Bible, to see how those places look like and feel them for yourself, is something that is hard to depict but easier to get to than ever before. Don’t just read about the holy sites, come to explore them on your own.

Top picture: The Sea of Galilee. The Kibbutz is in the left. Photo by Itamar Grinberg. Bottom picture: Prayers at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, during the holy light ceremony on Holy Saturday. Photo by Dafna Tal.

Browse a Faith Today supplement from 2013 about visiting Israel, which includes video and practical how-to articles.

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