When Tucsonan Nora Navarro-Hernandez, who is not Jewish, visited the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem for the first time, she had a real awakening. She was there for Shabbat.
“I thought it was going to be quiet and really solemn,” she says. “I didn’t think there was going to be a lot of dancing. I thought, ‘No, it’s a very religious thing. It’s not going to be like that.’ The energy was incredible. I saw celebrating and jumping and clapping and singing. A lot of music … a lot of celebration. It’s still prayerful, but it’s like a celebration. It was beautiful.”
More important is the way visiting Israel changed her spiritually.
“I feel that for me it helped me just become more in touch with that part of me,” Navarro-Hernandez says. “I think I’ve always been pretty spiritual but you cannot avoid it there. You’re there, you’re present and you’re almost forced to see it and to see it in other people’s faces and to see it in people’s reactions and to really be amazed by how they’re touched and how you’re a part of that.”
Navarro-Hernandez and 43 other Christians and Jews went on a 10-day journey to Israel in February with the Weintraub Israel Center’s Israel Experience – Boarding Pass Trip to Israel, the center’s first organized tour to Israel. The center itself is a joint project of the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona and the Tucson Jewish Community Center. Under the organizing hands of Oshrat Barel, director of the center and an Israeli native, and WIC co-chairs Steve Weintraub and Jeff Artzi, the tour was meant to fulfill the mission statement of the center: to build a living bridge between Israel and Tucson.
“You can bring Israel to here but there is nothing like taking people from here to Israel, then you don’t need to explain or to tell them what they need to think about Israel. You just need to take them there. Now, whatever you will feel or think towards Israel, it’s all up to you,” Barel says, but a trip helps move people beyond the scenario where they “just see Israel by the headlines and that’s it and [now] they are experts about Israel.”
Barel says the days were filled with learning opportunities from the first day of the tour in Tel Aviv, which featured an Israeli journalist’s talk on current events and the state of Israeli political affairs today, followed by a walking tour of Neve Tzedek, one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods. The afternoon was spent either at an art museum with a guest artist or hearing about how Hebrew evolved as told through graffiti. The days that followed kept everyone busy. There were trips to museums, an Ethiopian village, archeological sites, the Sea of Galilee, a kibbutz, the Golan Heights, the Syrian border, a boutique winery, a stay with a host family, and all that Jerusalem offers, including visits to Christian holy sites.
Barel said that although she had been around those places, being with others helped her see them anew. “As an Israeli Jew, I saw [these places] many, many times but never had any special connection, especially the Christian sites,” she says. “For instance, the baptism that we did, I had been there a thousand times. [Nearby is] a restaurant during the day and a bar during the night and I never paid attention that it’s a site that’s holy for the majority of the world.”
For the tour participants, even those who had visited Israel before, it is clear those 10 days were profound.
Ray Carroll, one of Pima County’s supervisors, chose to be baptized in the Jordan River.
“(The trip) was life enhancing,” Carroll says. “I’m very interested in religious cultures and philosophies … I’m on the parish council at Tucson St. Augustin Cathedral downtown. It really enhances your perspective on the readings, both Old and New Testament, when you can actually now know exactly where and what they’re talking about in biblical geography. I got so much out of not just the trip but all the study I did in preparation for the trip.
“I’ve been baptized before,” he says. “I’m a Roman Catholic, but I wanted to experience what a lot of pilgrims do and I had my friend, [Tucsonan John Winchester], perform the baptism for us and it was really wonderful. It deepened my appreciation for the sojourn and how they made special arrangements even though there were just a few of us interested in getting baptized.
“I’d go back tomorrow,” Carroll added. “I could spend months there just exploring. I felt entirely safe and I felt entirely comfortable and I felt the great spirit of the future of Israel every day.”
Jim Whitehill, a Tucson attorney who is Jewish, had been to Israel twice before but this was the first time with his wife, Jane Rodda.
“People have often said that when you travel to Israel with somebody who hasn’t been there before, you see it through their eyes, and I absolutely would concur with that,” he says. “The tastes of Israel that I’ve had in previous travels there were tastes. This trip offered the chance to have more interaction with Israelis and that was an extremely positive experience.”
What really stays with Whitehill, however, is their experience with their host family.
“Our family lived in Moshav Netiv Ha’asara, which is the last community in Israel before you end up in the Gaza Strip,” Whitehill says. “When they took us to their home in the evening, they said to us, ‘If we don’t take this right turn you will end up in Gaza. See those lights over there? That’s Gaza.’ They helped us understand what it’s like to be living in Israel with bombs bursting around your house and tunnels being dug into your community.”
There were light moments, too.
“They warned us; they said that there was going to be a lot of food,” Carlos Hernandez says. He is the CEO of Jewish Family & Children’s Service and the husband of Navarro-Hernandez. “You will stuff yourself during a meal and then realize that that wasn’t the actual meal yet. They warned us about that and they were so right. A lot of food kept coming out. I lived in Spain and it was very similar to Spain where it was a lot of tapas, a lot of small dishes that everybody shared. The good thing about the food is that it was healthy. A lot of fruits and vegetables, lots of olives, hummus, a lot of pita breads, salads, lots of nuts and nut-based dishes. We actually came back and started trying to buy some of the ingredients to make some of that stuff at home.”
Although he has visited Israel before, WIC co-chair Artzi was moved by all he saw there.
“It was a special trip for me because I grew up visiting Israel many, many times in my life,” Artzi says. “I have been there more than 15 times and the last trip was in 1988. I have a lot of family history roots there so going back to visit the country my family is from and seeing some things that I recognized pretty well and a bunch of areas that I had never been to before, or going to places that I had been to but had changed so much in the last 27 or 28 years, was very emotional and significant for me.”
As with most of the participants, this will not be Artzi’s last trip to the country of his family’s origin.
“We [at the WIC] are talking about doing this every 18 to 24 months,” Artzi says. “We already have interest for the next trip.”