Monday, March 4, 2013

Charlotte's interfaith tourists arrive in Israel

Etta James was on the intercom, belting out "At Last," when the spiritual tourists boarded the plane at Charlotte-Douglas International Airport late Sunday afternoon.

It was a fitting sendoff for members of Temple Beth El and Myers Park Baptist, who were finally embarking on the first leg of the interfaith trip to Israel that they'd planned for many months -- and a first for Charlotte houses of worship.

The group switched planes in Philadelphia, and then -- 10 hours, 27 minutes and 5,884 miles later -- they landed in Tel Aviv. The local time was 3 p.m., though the travelers' body clocks said 8 a.m. (the time back in Charlotte).

The trip will last until early next week, with stops at sites sacred to Jews (Masada, the Western Wall) and Christians (Nazareth, the Via Dolorosa).

On Monday, the main attraction was Jaffa, possibly the world's oldest port. Legend has it that it was named for Japhet, one of Noah's sons. And it was from Jaffa where the prophet Jonah set off on a boat before being swallowed by a great fish.

Rabbi Judy Schindler of Temple Beth El drew a connection between Jonah's mission from God and the Charlotte interfaith group's "nine-day mission of self-discovery."

Outgoing Myers Park Baptist Pastor Steve Shoemaker, who is co-leading the trip with Schindler, found some levity in Jonah's sea story: He said the big fish saved the prophet's life by spitting him out and proving once again that "you can't keep a good man down."

(Jaffa is also where this group photo was taken, with St. Peter's Catholic Church and the Mediterranean Sea in the background).

By nightfall Monday, the group was 45 strong -- some had left for Israel before Sunday. -- and was breaking  pita bread together at a Tel Aviv restaurant founded by a famed Israeli paratrooper. As they traded their stories and hopes for the trip, they also shared the red grape -- "wine gladdens the soul," the bottles read -- and plates of hummus, tabouli, eggplant, pickles, olives and more, much more.

Personal stories

Like many on the tour bus, Al and Margie Levenson are making their first trip to Israel -- still called the Holy Land by many pilgrims. And the couple, who attend Temple Beth El, spoke for many when they said the fact that it was an interfaith tour is what finally sold them.

"We had talked about going, and did some research," she said. "Then when this came up, we said 'Wow!'"

By Monday night, after the four-table banquet, the Levensons were visiting with Margie's cousins -- Israelis she'd never met until now and a link to grandfathers who'd emigrated long ago from Russia, one to Israel, the other to the U.S. 

"I feel like we're where we belong," Al said.

Though there are no Muslims on the trip, Bill Gupton -- raised a Baptist and married to a Jew -- said he packed a Koran to read during the trip.

"We were afraid it would get snagged in (Israeli) customs," said wife Nancy Yudell, who has attended Temple Beth El since kindergarten.

(Gupton, who likes to study different religions, has also read "a couple of different versions" of the Bible.)

Dr. Ophelia Garmon-Brown,  a medical doctor and ordained Baptist minister, said she's interested in learning more about Jesus -- including his Judaism -- in this land where he walked 2,000 years go.

"How did he live the first 30 years of his life and how did that shape him?" said Garmon-Brown, who attends Myers Park Baptist. "Some of the Bible stories I read about -- when I read about them again, I'll go, 'Oh yeah!'"

A hint of the tensions

 But there were reminders on the way to Israel about just how tense a place it can be amid the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

As the group boarded the Tel Aviv-bound plane in Philadelphia, a U.S. agent stopped Garmon-Brown's 29-year-old nephew, Oliver Thomas, for some questioning.

Thomas is assistant director of admissions and recruitment at Wake Forest University's divinity school and an ordained minister like his aunt. And on that flight to Tel Aviv, he read Homer's "Odyssey."

But as an African American with olive-colored skin -- one of his great-grandfathers was white -- "he looks Middle Eastern," said Garmon-Brown, whose "heart started jumping" when somebody mentioned that her nephew had been stopped on the way to boarding.

The agent let others pass, but asked to see Thomas' passport and quizzed him on everything from how much currency he had on him to whether it was his first time in Israel -- it is -- and whether he was going with a group.

"My first thought was: 'Why does he want to see my passport?'" Thomas said. "Then I thought: 'Oh, I know what this is. He's profiling.'"

Tuesday's itinerary includes Nazareth, where Jesus grew up, and Canna, where the Bible said he performed his first miracle, as well as Zippori, where Rabbi Yehuda "Nassi" compiled the Mishna.

-- Tim Funk


Anonymous said...

Tim, please get the details correct - jet lag notwithstanding.

Jonah was NOT swallowed by a WHALE. both versions of the Scriptures call it a great FISH...

Joe said...

I find this event an embarrassment to the substantial non jewish controlled sector of America. The israelis laugh their arses off every time sayanim bring over another dead brained group of American goy.

Anonymous said...

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.”
–-Mark Twain

May your world-view and inner knowing be broadened by this pilgrimage. Return to share the wonders you have seen in the people you have met.

traveling mercies,

Anonymous said...

I've got to tell you. This just isn't very interesting.

Anonymous said...

I love reading about the very land where Jesus walked.

Mritunjay Singh said...

If you are looking worldwide tours Petra tour is best place in world .You can enjoy your tour to Petra when you make the right plan to visit it with your friends and families. Make sure you book your journey in advance to avoid last minute rush.
Petra tours