Our journey to Israel (Stefano and Giusy Carestiato, Venice, Italy) We had been thinking for a while about a journey to Israel that allowed us to explore the cultural and spiritual bonds between the western world and Israel. Eventually, we were able to organize a journey on Jesus’s footprints during our Christmas holidays, having at the same time the possibility to meet some old Servas friends again. Once landed in Tel Aviv, we rented a car and set out immediately for Avtalyon, a small village on the Galilee hills where Iris and Sharon’s family live; we had met them fourteen years ago when they were visiting Italy and we could host them in our house; at that time they were waiting for their first child Zohar, in the meantime they had had one more child, Tohar; so, after fouteen years, they all welcomed us in their beautiful house overlooking the valley and the amazing view of the Tiberias lake.
Besides making us try all the delicacies of the organic agriculture of a nearby village, Iris and Sharon introduced us to the natural beauties of their region; Galilee is in the northern part of Israel and its landscape is very similar to the one we can find in Tuscany. In those first four days we visited Haifa with its Baha’i gardens, Nazareth with its monuments linked to Jesus’s youth and to his family, Kafr-Kana where the miracle at the wedding had taken place and the great archeological Roman site of Tzipori; then we went on a trip around the Tiberias lake with its quiet and evocative villages of Cafarnao, the Mount of Beatitudes, with the eight famous sentences taken from the New Testament, among which the one we prefer is “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God”; we also visited the places where St. Peter and his fellows fishermen had lived and worked before starting their adventure with Jesus. What struck us the most was the peaceful, calm, small, pebbled tree-shaded beaches and their atmosphere, probably the same atmosphere that accompanied Jesus at the beginning of his preaching.
Iris and Sharon had also prepared a surprise for the night of the Eve before the last day of the year, a party at the club of their village, where we could dance together with their neighbours and with a group of friends from Slovakia that had joined us. The following morning we visited all together the Golan Heights, Iris and Sharon took us to an ancient, wild and magic place dating back to over 5000 years ago called Gilgal Rephrahim, or the Giants’ Wheel, because of the series of gigantic stone circles which you can see only from the sky. Nobody knows why and how it was built, was it an astonomic observatory as Stonehenge? The mystery remains. We had a rest on the ancient stones, breathing the wild wind and feeling the energy of the place. After greeting our friends, we left for the Dead Sea, driving along the River Jordan. In three hours we arrived in a completely different climate and landscape; we were in a geological depression 400 metres below sea level in the rift between the African and Arab plates. We tried the experience of floating like a baloon in the hypersaline waters of the Dead Sea which have been used for centuries for their healing properties.
During our stay, we visited the natural reserve of Ein Gedi with its waterfalls and we also climbed the Snake Path to get to Masada, where, among the fascinating ruins of the ancient city, the last which surrendered to the Roman Empire, we could admire and honour the sunrise and first dawn of the New Year. It was really a moving experience.
The following stop was for us the most meaningful, Jerusalem, where other Servas friends, Ilana and Eran, were waiting for us in their cosy, warm apartment. Besides the good meals they prepared for us, we also had long extremely interesting talks about Jewish history, the Holy Land as well as about the relationship with their Palestinian neighbours; we could understand a lot about the history of Israel and some of its important Israeli protagonists. Thanks to the exchanges of ideas with our hosts, the experience in Jerusalem was more intense and instructive; Ilana also accompanied us to visit the church of Visitation in Ain Karem, where, according to the tradition, John the Baptist was born and where Saint Mary had visited her cousin Elizabeth when they were both pregnant.
Despite the unexpected freezing cold, we really enjoyed the visit to Jerusalem, an amazing old city soaked with the past and full of sacred places for three monotheistic religions: Christians, Jews and Muslims. You can really feel the history at every step. We visited the western Wall, which is what remains of the old Temple of Solomon, a sacred place where the Jews gather together to pray, especially in the late afternoon; we then walked on the spacious terrace where the two mosques, Al Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock, are erected on the place where Abraham was to sacrifice his son Isaac, and we could admire the wonderful Muslim architecture and the colourful decorations of the building, covered with this incredible golden dome which is one of the most popular symbols of Jerusalem; after that, we visited the Saint Sepulchre and the Mount of Olives, still immersed in an atmosphere of harmony and peace, despite the tourists. We devoted one whole day to visit Jesus’s birthplace, charming Bethlehem, and another one to the visit of the Holocaust museum Yad Vashem, an unmissable site dedicated to the Shoah, where the roots of antisemitism are explored and explained and where you can understand how topical this issue is still nowadays. There we were particularly moved by The Garden of Righteous among the Nations, where about 20.000 trees remember all the Non Jews who risked their lives in order to help and save the Jews persecuted by the Nazis; another strong meaningful experience was the visit to the Children Memorial in remembrance of the children killed during the reign of the Nazi Party. The main room of the Memorial is completely mirrored and reflects the light of five candles. The reflection of these lights produces the illusion of space, and symbolizes the approximately 1.5 million children and young people who were murdered during the Holocaust. As we moved through the room in the sparse light of the candles, the names of the young victims with their age and place of death were recited by a tape recording:” ...Eugene Sandor, 12 years old, Jugoslavia… Maritza Mermelstein, 8 years old, Cecoslovacchia…”. Nothing like a list of names succeeds in giving the idea of the individuals and the whole group at the same time.
After all these enriching, moving days, we left for out last stop in Tel Aviv, where we were guests at Claudia and Shlomi’s. Once again, we could appreciate the warm generous hospitality of our Servas friends, who, besides providing useful tips and advice for our visits, made us feel part of their cheerful large family at the Shabbat dinner of Friday night. Although Jerusalem and Tel Aviv are only an hour by car far away, they couln’t be more different: Jerusalem is still linked to its important past, while Tel Aviv is a modern city. The impression is to pass from one continent to the other, where clock strike different hours and you clearly feel in the 21st century; Tel Aviv is a modern, cosmopolitan city, with lots of cafes, restaurants and galleries and above all a beautiful long beach and promenade; everywhere you can see lively people walking or going on their ebike or skateboard, or simply doing sports on the beach; although there is a “historic distric”, the neighborhood of Neve Zedek, which was the original Tel Aviv, the “White City” area has beautiful, mostly renovated buildings designed in the Bauhaus style by architects who came here in the 20’s. Nearby Jaffa has a really historical section, the medieval old city. However in general Tel Aviv has a laid back, more Mediterranean, relaxed atmosphere. We were happy to finish our first journey to Israel there. Israel is a colourful country full of natural and cultural attractions, amazing beaches and crystal waters, not only you can find an incredible variety of climate and landscapes, but what is striking is its multifaceted society, full of people belonging to different religious, cultural and ethnic communities. It is a multicultural country also full of contrasts and paradoxes, where the different people feel a strong sense of belonging to their family, their community and their beautiful land. As a consequence, however, some misunderstandings and conflicts may arise, as the different groups do not agree on important issues. It is actually a very challenging situation which, to us, can seem also a great opportunity to explore new possibilities for the future. Our Servas experience makes us think that it is possible to work together for a society where differences are respected and welcomed. We feel extremely grateful to “Servas International” for giving us the opportunity to organize a journey where we could meet and live together with different open-minded, welcoming Servas families, this is undoubtedly the most precious wealth we took home. Living with different families in their homes, sharing food, time and ideas, allowed us to experience the country at a much deeper level, making the journey more rewarding and unforgettable; therefore we are incredibly grateful to our Servas friends: Iris, Sharon and their two children Zohar and Tohar, Ilana and Eran, Claudia and Shlomi for their generosity and heartfelt hospitality. We are looking forward to meeting them again in Venice and strengthening the bonds of this great worldwide Servas friends network. SEE YOU AGAIN!