I was fortunate to be awarded a faculty fellowship to Israel during December 2017 – January 2018. It was an amazing experience. One of my main takeaways: Israel is complicated.
My travel began in Sioux Falls, South Dakota on Tuesday, December 26. I flew through Minneapolis to JFK to Tel Aviv. After dinner and introductions, we spent the night in Tel Aviv on Thursday, December 28.
Our first activities began on Friday, December 29. We were greeted that morning by Rabbi Leor Sinai and then headed to the Rabin Center, Sarona, Carmel Market, and Old Jaffa. We experienced Shabbat dinner and spent the night in Tel Aviv.
Saturday, December 30 began in Caesarea and the town of Fureidis. There we met Ibtisam Mahammed, an activist who was awarded the Dalai Lama’s Unsung Heroes of Compassion Award for facilitating dialogue between Jewish and Arab women. Lunch was at Nura’s kitchen, a restaurant run by a Druze woman who hires only women (and produces the best food I ate in Israel!). We then visited Capernaum, a village on the shore of the Sea of Galilee featuring one of the oldest synagogues in the world, a house considered to be that of Peter, and where Jesus taught after leaving Nazareth. That evening was spent in Tiberias.
We spent New Year’s Eve in the Golan Heights, checking out some military tanks on the way there. Then to the Golan Heights with Syria in the background. The UN has troops there keeping an eye on the border. Then to Tel-Hai College and an ice cream shop jointly owned by Arab and Jewish business partners. We took a tour of the Galilee Medical Center, which has a bombproof basement level and primarily treats trauma. We spent the evening in Akko and Haifa.
January 1 was a long, tough day. We started in Haifa and visited the Baha’i Gardens during a cold, steady rain. Then to the Technion for a discussion of their Engineers Without Borders group. We toured the Hecht Museum at University of Haifa and then traveled to the Central District to tour a wastewater treatment facility. Then to the Interdisciplinary Center, a private college in Herzliya. We spotted a double rainbow and orange tree outside one of their buildings – an auspicious start to the year, indeed. Then to a study-abroad high school, where I visited the bomb shelter/music room. We finished the day at a cooking class, where we prepared and feasted on Israeli foods: hummus, tahina, falafel, salads, kebabs, and lafah.
Tuesday, January 2 began at Tel Aviv University, including a tour of the botanical gardens since I didn’t have any academic meetings there. Then to a Bedouin village in the Negev desert to learn about how women have started businesses while still working within their traditional social structure and about challenges of medical care found in their community. Then to the Advanced Technologies Park in the Negev, a deliberate attempt to establish this area as the center for new technological research and innovation. We toured their Center for Digital Innovation. Finally, we visited the Beer-Sheva soccer team and stadium. Guests at dinner in Beer-Sheva included the Israeli ambassador to Ethiopia and members of Women Wage Peace, an organization comprising both Israeli and Palestinian members.
January 3 began in Beer-Sheva where we visited Ben Gurion University. There I visited with their chamber music instructors to learn about their program. Lunch detour was at a Lebanese restaurant in Abu Ghosh. Then on to the Knesset, Israel’s Parliament, to meet with some of their members. They pulled me aside for extra security at the entrance, which was an interesting 15 minutes or so. They were voting while we were there, so it was a hectic visit, and emotions were high. Then off to the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, where we attended a well-prepared student recital with classical and popular styles represented.
Thursday, January 4 was another very long day. We started in Jerusalem. I was pretty exhausted by this point. We had an early meeting with an Palestinian journalist who gave his perspective. We visited Hebrew University, considered the top university in the country, to see their multicultural/diversity center. We made another visit to Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance to learn about their music education curriculum. Then to the military cemetery and Yad Vashem, the Holocaust research institute and museum. We met with 86-year-old Berthe Badehi, a Holocaust survivor who told us her story. Our usual talkative and inquisitive group was speechless when she was done. Because it was supposed to rain the next day, we made a late visit to the City of David to see tunnels, archaeological sites, and finally the Western Wall.
Friday, January 5 was indeed a rainy day and quite cold in Jerusalem. As I learned, however, you never complain when it rains in Israel. We visited several Stations of the Cross and finally reached the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This site is where Jesus was crucified and where he is said to have been buried and resurrected. After ten days of delicious Israeli food, I finally caved and found pizza for lunch. Murals in Old City Jerusalem were interesting. We did a little bit of soaked shopping in the Old City Bazaar. Shabbat dinner guests included an Orthodox rabbi/Knesset member, LGBTQ activists, and an IDF Lone Soldier.
Saturday, January 6 – It was still raining when we left Jerusalem. It was sunny in the Judean Desert and at the Sea Level marker, which lies between Jerusalem and the Dead Sea. We made a brief stop at the Jordan River. We attempted to visit Masada National Park but the recent rains has flooded the road. We made a pit stop to wait until they had cleared the road where our driver made Turkish coffee and we cobbled together some snacks. The road never cleared, so we took the (extremely!) long way around to the Dead Sea, missing Masada. The Dead Sea was unusually choppy but I can confirm that one does pop up like a cork in it. This was a joyful experience. We finally made it to our stop for the evening, Kibbutz Ketura, where we ate the supper we had picked up along the way.
Sunday, January 7 began at Kibbutz Ketura. We visited the attached Arava Institute of Environmental Studies. We toured the kibbutz and their solar village. Then to the Vidor Center, which is an agricultural R&D center in the desert. Next was Kibbutz Nirim, a community approximately 4 miles from Gaza. Our guide there was a teacher who became a kind of a freelance journalist during particularly volatile times on the border. Finally we visited Sderot, a town less than a mile from Gaza. We heard from residents while touring an indoor, bombproof playground for the town’s children.
Monday, January 8 was a typical jam-packed day but it was also our last in Israel. We were all completely exhausted by this point. We woke up in Ashkelon, eight miles from Gaza. We had an early morning session about water and sustainability, and then a trip to Sapir College. This college is beautiful with bomb shelters everywhere. To secure the existing buildings, they built bombproof exterior structures to wrap around them. We met with their music department, which focuses on music composition for film and video games. Our next visit was to SodaStream, where Palestinians and Israelis work together. We heard about the process by which the Palestinians travel to the SodaStream campus every day. We traveled to the Neot Kedumim Biblical Forest, where we each planted a tree. Back in the Tel Aviv area, we visited the Peres Peace Center to learn about their social programs. Our last academic event was a sign language workshop in Jaffa, where we learned that sign language is different in every country. After some questions from our group, this became an unexpectedly emotionally-charged event. Finally, back to Tel Aviv where we started the trip. We had a celebratory dinner at a private home, arranged through the EatWith app. Finally, off to the airport for our midnight flight back to the east coast. I arrived home the evening of January 9. TLV-JFK-MSP-FSD.