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Our journey to the Holy Lands was more than we ever imagined. This trip of a lifetime felt like an eternity as we encountered such a wide mixture of environments and diversity of people. We left with a deep sense of humility, gratitude, and hope. Pro-Israel, pro-Palestine, it begins with sitting down at the table and enjoying a meal together. We pray that many more conversations around the table will occur as a result of what God is restoring in this special land.

The first stop was in Tel Aviv, a very metropolitan and secular city. We were able to enjoy time at the beach, basking in the beautiful Mediterranean sea, and then took a stroll with the group down to Old Jaffa for a seafood dinner watching the sunset over the port.

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Some of our conversations with the locals were enlightening, and we began to understand some of the views of the next generation in Israel. Being in such an antiquated and gorgeous port brought back nostalgia as I could smell that familiar fish scent my Dad used to wear coming home from work. Beginning the trip with a sense relaxation was good for Adrian and I as we were able to transition our minds and hearts from the fast pace of home.

On the return trip we also ended up spending a half-day in Tel Aviv because our flights were changed, and this beat 12 hours in the airport. The contrast between this city and Jerusalem is stark, while the distance between them is not more than an hour. We found the best schwarma and falafel pitas of our lives and enjoyed a leisurely stroll along a quaint pedestrian walkway.

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The first full day brought us to our first Biblical Site, which was Jacob’s Well inside of a Greek Orthodox Church. This is one of the sites that is considered by archaeologists to be most authentic, because, well, you can’t really move a well. The history dating this back to Jacob’s time is convincing. Adrian and I drank water from the well, and it was very cold and refreshing. Interestingly, it was 3 years ago to the day that we hit water when drilling a well in Nicaragua, which began our journey as Ecclesia members.

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Passing through a checkpoint into Area A of the West Bank, we entered Nablus. There are 4 areas in Israel, and ‘Area A’ has the most regulations regarding Palestinian and Israeli movement. Here, very few people are allowed in or out. As tourists, we were able to pass through after a soldier checked our bus and passports. They were all overjoyed to welcome us to their great city. I was impressed by the displays of hospitality, diversity of foods in the markets, and impressive quality of engineering in their buildings and streets.

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We stopped at a local soap factory which uses local olive trees to produce all-natural soap products and support local families. The women in our group wore head coverings out of respect, and we learned just how hot the desert sun can feel!

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A stroll through the market was met with kind smiles and offers to taste many food delicacies. The juicy dates were my favorite, and we got to see how a local treat, kanefah, is made. In hindsight, I should have purchased some saffron and other spices straight from the source. The sensory experience was unique and wonderful.

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Later, we enjoyed lunch with a women’s center that utilizes fresh foods to empower the local economy. Much of the water reservoirs and access to certain forms of agriculture are significantly restricted. This women’s center aims to help local farmers and also the women who may have lost their husbands or children. We had lunch with an Imam and talked about peace.  We hope for more of these conversations around the table.

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Later, we went to Mount Gerazim and visited with a local Samaritan high priest. He explained to us some of their rituals and beliefs, and then we took pictures together while he referred to me as ‘ginger’ girl because of my hair.  I was endeared 🙂

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An overlook of Nablus afforded us with breath-taking views of the entire country-side. We were able to see the small quarters of the refugee camps with a military watch tower behind us. Everyone had a great time, and the group was becoming great friends.

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11825077_10152885705901213_4057111828829186627_n*photo from Tania (thanks!)

Finally, as if you didn’t think the day could possible be over, we enjoyed a multi-course dinner at a local winery atop Mount Gerazim. We learned more about the Jewish lifestyle and met some very nice volunteer workers and the owner who ensured we had superb wine and food.

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Har Bracha - Cyndi and Team

Day 2 continued us through the West Bank town of Jenin, typically not included in a tourist itinerary, where we visited the Church of Saint George where Jesus healed the 10 lepers. In thinking about healings and the antiquity of the church (the 3rd oldest church in the world), I realized some things and ended up finding a really great friend in the process.

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Next, we visited an olive oil factory that specializes in fair trade practices for the local Palestinian farmers. The oils and spices were absolutely delicious (and now sold in the states at Whole Foods!).

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Our final stop before heading out was lunch at a very special winery. This winery, called Tulip, employees special-needs adults and provides them a living community with dignity and fellowship. We learned about how the winery, after several years of trying, finally earned Kosher status, showing regulators that the adult workers were more than capable of maintaining the stringent guidelines for producing kosher wine. I had such a great time and really appreciated all the hard work my mom did throughout the years by teaching special-needs children in school.

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That evening we went to Nazareth, pretty worn out, so we had the option of going on an official tour or just visiting sites at our own leisure. Adrian and I opted to walk around town ourselves and visit the local souk (market), Church of the Annunciation, and spend some quiet time at Mary’s Well. Adrian teased me as I went and filled up a huge container of water and started guzzling it down – without realizing it, this was holy water from the well that people come from all over the world to take just a small sample and venerate.  It was really refreshing!

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And Adrian missed work so much that he explained to me all about how water engineering pumps and valves work.

The next morning we went to Cana and had our wedding vows renewed in the church where tradition says is the location Jesus turned water to wine at the wedding festival. It was a touching moment that I will cherish, and we were glad to be able to be there for our new friends as well. I was reminded how truly special marriage is, and that taking delight in every single moment together makes for a full life.

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Continuing on to the Mount of the Beatitudes, we listened to the famous sermon Jesus preached in the same location that His followers would have heard it. Afterward, we had a seafood lunch and got to play in the sea a bit before embarking on a boat ride across the waters. Not too much had changed in the surrounding view and climatology since Jesus’ time, so this was particularly special. Plus, I just really like boats. I think God planned this moment for us to just enjoy His goodness a long time ago.

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We left the Sea of Galilee and drove through the Jordan Valley toward Jericho. I was particularly fascinated by this drive because I had recently been reading about some political conflict here regarding allocation of agricultural land and water rights. We could almost touch Jordan to our left, but that wouldn’t have been the best idea since the land across the fence line was ridden with mines. This valley provided much of the fresh agriculture we enjoyed in Israel, and farming has been done here since the very first civilizations.

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Upon reaching Jericho, most of the group was ready to relax in the pool and enjoy company. We had a fabulous meal consisting of a local dish I had really been wanting to try – moussaka – and everyone had the chance to ‘try the hookah’ afterward. The next day, we toured Tel Jericho from the Old Testament, and then got to enjoy a quick tourist moment on a camel.

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Next, which was absolutely fascinating, we got to tour the Qumran site where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found.  I really loved being in the place where we found irrefutable evidence that the Scriptures had not been significantly altered over thousands of years. Also, as a water resources engineer, I was particularly amazed at the massive reservoirs, precise drainage canals, and measurements of stormwater flow from nearby valleys. Our tour guide, Shafik, is literally a genius and had intensely studied history and archaeology for many years at renowned universities. He was able to answer any question we had in detail, and he explained it all in a way that only strengthened our core beliefs.

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Next, those that wished had the chance to either be baptized or re-baptized in the location that Jesus is said to have been immersed by John the Baptist. This site was only recently open to Christian pilgrims and has a strong historical evidence that it was indeed the location (well, technically just on the other side in Jordan). Adrian became friends with an Israeli soldier as they discussed camel-baks and bullets.

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Next, we got to float in the Dead Sea! Through no muscle effort of your own, your body really does just float there. It was really fun, but eventually our skin started to sting, and it was time to go.

406 407 11181893_10102612145935776_2880722225411635747_o * Photo from Rachel (GoPro)

Leaving Jericho, we passed one of the many key statues in Palestinian towns. The key represents the symbol of freedom for those who left their homes. Many people wear their key around their necks for hope of the future. Adrian says the key symbolized, for him, God’s redeeming grace in this land. It is a reminder that there is hope for all involved, and that this place is home to all of us.

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Finally, we make it to Jerusalem, such a special city and the heart of it all.  Since the heat was particularly stressing in the middle of the day, we did most of our excursions in the mornings and evenings with a break in the afternoons.  Adrian and I would take these moments to go exploring, and we found some really great markets and architecture along the way.

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These are old city walls that had slits in them for people to shoot arrows at a wide angle with less susceptibility of being hit in return.

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On the first evening, we took a night stroll through the Old City to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built in 326 AD when Christianity was first legal through Constantine.  This was definitely our favorite church and holy site of the entire trip.  With less crowds and the illuminated light, the atmosphere was exceptionally spiritual.  Just the magnitude of the arches, history, and millions of worshipers who had been here before brought tears of worship.  The rock of Golgotha, the place where Jesus was crucified, was awe-inspiring.  There is also a first-century tomb that spoke volumes.  There are actually two places in the vicinity that are regarded as possible locations of the Calvary, but regardless of the exact coordinate where it took place, there is something deeply significant and special about this church.

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The church closed, and we stopped at the Western Wall on the way back.  This wall is one of the outer walls of Solomon’s 2nd Temple and is especially venerated by Jews. The men and women pray in separate sections of the wall, and our side was very crowded this night.  I was able to make it up to the wall for a moment and say a few prayers.  The slips of paper left in the cracks are never destroyed since they have the name God on them.  Instead, they are collected and buried on the Mount of Olives twice a year.

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The following morning we got up early and walked the Via Dolorosa, which has 14 Stations of the Cross that tradition says is where Jesus walked to His death carrying the Cross.  Going early in the morning was a good idea because otherwise the streets are filled with vendors, and contemplating Scripture would have been difficult.  We read about how Jesus was condemned, fell for the first time, met his grieving mother, had Simon help carry the Cross, tears wiped away by Veronica, fell for the second time, spoke to the daughters of Jerusalem, fell a third time, striped of garments, nailed to the Cross, and eventually buried and risen again.

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We went again to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, this time in the morning, just as they were about to conduct the opening mass.  After some very strong street coffee, we enjoyed partaking in a Latin service by some monks who sang so very beautifully.  The tomb doors were treated with special care as the elders/priests got everything ready and bathed it in prayer.  At the end, we were offered communion in a way that was extremely humbling.

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During the afternoon break, Adrian and I ventured out to the Jewish market Machane Yehuda and got to sample some real treats.  Since it was a Thursday, everyone was getting supplies for the following day’s Shabbat meal.  We had read about a special treat called Khachapuri, a cheese and egg-filled bread bowl originating from Georgia.  Coupled with authentic Stella Artois and enjoying the breeze on an alleyway patio, life was good.  We had also read about some authentic Belgian waffles nearby, so we tried some of those with gelato and chocolate sauce.  We figured the long walk compensated for the amount of food consumed 🙂

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In the evening we got to visit the Pools of Bethesda, where Jesus healed the paralytic.  This pool was written about in the Gospel of John as having 5 sides and was long debated as to its historical accuracy since nothing like that had previously existed.  When uncovered in the 19th century, the geometry in the gospel account was confirmed.  Also used as a fresh-water cistern, we were enamored by the structural stability through thousands of years.

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The other site that is said to be a possible location of the Calvary was very interesting and special.  The archaeological evidence for this site matching accounts in the Bible is strong.  We saw the Place of the Skull, Golgotha, visited the empty tomb dating back to Jesus’ time, and celebrated communion together as a group.  We also sang old hymns in a near-by church with excellent acoustics, and I kept getting chills.

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That night we had a most special dinner with our tour hosts from Breaking Bread Journeys.  Our hotel, which is run by The Vatican, has the best view of the Old City on their rooftop patio dining.  A full six course meal with special wine tastings and lots of laughter made our hearts just so full.

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On the final full day before traveling home, we visited the Mount of Olives, which I was very excited about because I had been learning about the parallels between King David and Jesus on this location.  There were a lot of gravesites in the Kidron Valley, believed to be where the resurrection of the dead will occur at the return of the Messiah.  The Golden Gate pictured here, where Jesus entered in on the donkey, was walled up by the Ottoman Turks to prevent the Messiah’s return.

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At the base of the mount was the Garden of Gethsemane where some beautiful olive trees stood that are likely offshoots of the same ones where Jesus prayed and was betrayed.

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We also went to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum, and listened to guided stories about the events.  This was very moving and made me remember the concentration camp we once visited.

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On to Bethlehem, a short drive from Jerusalem, we got to see the Church of the Nativity, symbolic of the place of the manger, and enjoy a delicious meal.

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On the last evening, we took one last stroll before the special Shabbat dinner.  Since this was in someone’s home, we did not take any photos, but it was a memorable experience as we learned the special meaning of the Jewish sabbath, prayers, and hymns.

Later that night Adrian and some others received tattoos from a local Coptic Christian who had been performing the mark of the pilgrim in his family for over 600 years.  This tattoo has multiple meanings for us, and Adrian described it best:

“I decided to combine it with a key which is to remember the Palestinian people, many of whom wear a key to the house/land they lost decades ago and a hope to someday return. The whole design is meant to symbolize a hope for peace and a trust that God is in the process of restoring his creation (a big thing I was reminded of while in the holy lands)! ”

This trip was definitely unforgettable, and we are so honored to have been able to experience first-hand what this land we have all learned about since childhood really looks and feels like.  We are grateful to have met many beautiful people from different backgrounds and will continue to keep this place and its inhabitants in our prayers!

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