When people travel they often see the polished scenes of a country’s culture. As an avid traveller, I’m interested in going everywhere and so when I was invited to Israel with the Bnai Zion Foundation, I jumped at the chance. I knew there would be old architecture, olive trees, delicious hummus and shawarma. Of course there would be the religious aspect of the trip as the old city of Jerusalem serves as the crossroads of three major religions; Judaism, Catholicism and Islam.
I had no idea what else was in store for me as I landed in Tel Aviv.
I have visited countries that have their share of troubles, but I have never visited a country where the tensions were so raw. I decided that I had to make a conscious effort to travel with my eyes wide open to this cultural experience. I was going to a country where words associated with it fall more in the category of rockets and war than delicious treats, such as Rugalach.
I determined that I would travel Israel with eyes wide open. This involved three different components –being open, having empathy and thinking critically about this cultural immersion.
This may be obvious, but having the willingness to see things from other perspectives and welcoming the differences is paramount for learning about a culture. An easy one (for most people) is food. Wandering through the Mahane Yehuda Market with a new friend, who, even though he is American, knows the market like a local. He guided me to the hidden gems like this humble Iraqi restaurant. We tasted asoup that is combination of, what reminded me of Asian style dumplings in Eastern European Borscht. It made me smile; being a person with several ethnic backgrounds, I have a deep appreciation for the fusion of flavours.
Another day, another friend mentioned that her place of worship was the Tomb of Rachel. The popular Kotel (or the Western Wall), frequented by many, does not compare with the symbolism of Rachel’s Tomb – fertility. She told me that when she would visit the Tomb she would take an afternoon and sit and read the entire book of Psalms. My friend shared more about the site’s ties to Kabbalah. The red ribbon worn by Madonna is connected to the ribbon tied around Rachel’s Tomb.
Walking though the Jewish Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem, I saw people selling the red ribbon bracelets for those who could not visit the Tomb. My friend’s willingness to teach me about the traditions showed her sense of pride and honour for culture. Being so early in the morning, we were lucky to walk in the small stone building and right up to the black and gold decorated tomb. Normally, it would be so full of people that you could only get a glimpse of the Tomb. Yet, on this morning there were only a few people around. Sitting in the pews, I could feel a sense of reverence and respect that was palpable and I was grateful to my friend for introducing me Rachel’s Tomb.
I also visited the Ahava Village for Children and Youth, which was started in Berlin as a soup kitchen in 1914. The Ahava Village is a safe haven for children, aged 6-18, who have been removed from their homes due to violence, neglect etc. Not a fit for Israel’s foster system, these children are given a chance to heal from their past experiences in a supportive environment. At the Ahava, a young boy gave a tear-jerking performance singing in Israeli. Did I understand what he was singing? No. Did I feel the emotion in his voice – you bet I did. It is important to remember that not everyone shares the same experience as you, but feelings of loss and love are a common language that surpass borders and generations.
During the days spent travelling around Israel, it was hard not to come up with more with questions than I had answers. I marvelled at the construction of an underground Emergency Room at the Bnai Zion Medical Center in Haifa. Haifa is in close proximity to the Syrian and Lebanese border, directly in the line of fire. In 2006, a Hezbollah rocket landed feet from the medical center. Working on a Burns, Plastics and Trauma unit as a Registered nurse for 7 years in Canada, I thankfully have never had to take care of patients during a mass casualty/disaster/bomb threat, treating patients whilst being aware of the threat to my own life. I can only imagine the courage and strength required to take care of patients in those scenarios.
When travelling to a new country, it can be hard not to get wrapped up with prior expectations or even optics that are displayed by the media. Sometimes we do not want to travel to certain places because of the potential or current unrest. Yet, it’s good to remember that even the “safest” place maybe threatened by people-led or natural disaster.
Being able to listen to all points of view and being able formulate your opinion can be a challenge, and like me – you might end up with more questions than answers. And that’s ok. Sitting with the Israeli Speaker of the House, Yuli Edelstein and Middle Eastern political commentator Neil Lazaros at the Knesset, just before the Israeli election, made one thing perfectly clear: Israel is complex.
And while the politics and culture are complex, a visit to the Barkan Industrial Park, in the West Bank revealed that there are opportunities where both Israelis and Palestinians can work hand-in-hand. This has been done successfully at these factories for more than two decades where employees enjoy equal wages and fair succession planning while maintaining a family environment. They thrive on a common goal, and not just survive their current conflict.
My trip to Israel left me with a whirlwind of thoughts and emotions. The trip was multifaceted, and I was able to experience it with eyes wide open. Through being open, having empathy and critically thinking – I arrived back home feeling full of passion for a people with a rich history and vibrant culture.