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Israel 2016

9/1/16 Day 1 “The Day of our Awakening.”

Most of us met at JFK in New York City and made the 9.5 hour flight to Tel Aviv, Israel. One lady flew in from New Zealand, another from Great Britain, and a couple came from Australia. Pat Bock and Charity Cook were our group leaders, and Dr. Tom Jones was our inspirational pastor.

Over the next ten days, Pat would become an expert on counting heads up to 25, and herding us through crowds, tunnels, and desert rock. Charity would develop expert wrist action with a proficient flutter by using a paper “Jerusalem” fan as she tried to keep any one near her cool.

The flight was made culturally colorful because of the many orthodox Jewish families flying with us: men in their traditional black hats, side curls, and tassels, chanting their prayers in groups, while young mothers, dressed in long skirts and head coverings managed young children throughout the long night flight.

9/2/16 Day 2 “The Day We Meet Zion.”

Jane Ben Ari, our inspired tour guide, introduced us to Israel as we made our way from Tel Aviv to Caesarea on the Mediterranean, and then towards our hotel (the Leonardo Club) for four nights in Tiberius on the Sea of Galilee.

Israel, a small country about the size of Lake Erie, has been a dry and thirsty land, completely dependent on the Almighty’s blessing of rain in season. Jane’s depth of knowledge — scripturally, archaeologically and historically — helped us see Zion as God’s Promise Land, and the center of the world, where East meets West. Jane introduced us to the theme of Israel as God’s Land and the formation of Zionism with its founder Theodore Hertzel. Throughout the trip we learned about the shifting uses of the name “Zion”.

Michael Utterback, a long-time friend of Tom’s and servant to the Jewish people, spoke to us while we gathered in the dry heat of the theater at Herod’s Caesarea palace. He pointed out this Roman city is where the original church truly started. Peter was sent by the Holy Spirit to use him to witness to the Gentile, Cornelius. The early church exploded from that point. It was also here that Paul gave his testimony to the Roman leader, Festus (almost converting him).

After a one hour drive over the desert hills, we arrived at our second archaeological dig, Magdala, on the Sea of Galilee. There the group came together in a prayer chapel and committed this trip to the Lord. Some received impartations as Holy Spirit directed. We were to return the next afternoon to spend more time at the excavation.

9/3/16 Day 3 “The Day Around the Sea of Galilee”

Daniel Carmel, captain of the Faith Boat with his crew, took us onto the lake early that morning, so we could experience the Galilee. Each of us were spiritually stirred as we sang praises to our Lord, and looked to the hills surrounding us.

For the rest of the day we moved up the coast, stopping at [Kibbutz] Ginosar [believed to be site of the town Gennesaret in Jesus day, editor’s note] to see the remains of an ancient fishing boat, meet the man who discovered it, Yuvi, and then move onto the beach at Tabgha, where Jesus performed the miracle of the 153 fish.

(Jane taught us that using the Hebrew alphabet, 153 stands for “I Am The Lord.”). We drove up the Mount of the Beatitudes, and over to Capernaum. Jane graciously shared her testimony of being healed from a cerebral hemorrhage in 2014.

The third Tel that we saw was Capernaum, the “hometown” of Jesus once he started his ministry. Jane pointed out an area in the ruins of a wealthy man’s house that had the markings of Jesus’s personal chamber. At both the Capernaum and the Magdala site, we saw evidence of the community synagogues. Tom shared an inspirational message about Jesus healing a man with the withered hand.

A treat of the day was eating a lunch of St. Peter’s Fish, head, scales and all, at a restaurant on the Sea of Galilee.

9/4/16 Day 4 “The Day of Judging and Clashing”

The Tel Dan Nature Reserve introduced us to the head waters of the Jordan River, flowing from the northern border of Israel. There we saw the ruins of a city gate where the “judges” of that ancient city would sit and make decisions.

As we walked through the ruins of this city of Dan, we came upon a “High Place”. Then we hiked to a ridge that overlooked Mt. Herman on our left, Jordan and Syria on our right. Jane pointed out the military action of the 6-day war in 1967 and the Yom Kippur War in 1973. Jane emphasized the importance of knowing the boundaries of a nation and holding them against invaders.

We visited the Hermon Stream Nature Reserve, and Caesarea Philippi, learning about the Hermon spring at the foot of Mt. Hermon, the ancient city of Paneas (Banias) with its pagan rituals (ten times worse than Las Vegas), and the origin of the phrase “Gates of Hell” (a spring of water coming from a cave, thought to be the entrance to the underworld.)

Our bus climbed higher into the northeastern territory of Israel and we had lunch at a Druze restaurant, surrounded by their village, vineyards, and a lake. We moved upward onto the Golan Heights, to Mount Bental 1,165 meters above sea level, and overlooked the Syrian border. The valley below us was the location of the bloodiest tank battle during the Yom Kippur War of 1973. Thirty-nine Israel tanks came against 700 enemy tanks and against all odds won. Yossi (our bus driver) shared about his military experiences as a 17-year- old serving in the Israeli Army.

A cohort of Israeli soldiers were visiting that small rim of land at the same time, so we were free to take photographs with them, express gratitude for them protecting this promise land, and chat while having cups of “real coffee”.

Once we returned to Tiberius, hot and dry ourselves (just like the desert surrounding us), twelve of us traipsed from the hotel to a rocky beach and swam in the warm water of the Galilee before dinner.

9/5/16 Day 5 “The Day of Vistas”

We drove from the lower Galilee (1,600’ above sea level) to the upper Galilee (about 3,500’ above sea level) and made our way towards the Jezreel (Yizrael) Valley. We did not go into the holy shrine built over Jesus’ house in Nazareth (occupied by Israeli Muslims). The bus made its way up Mt. Precipice, which overlooked Nazareth on its east and the Jezreel Valley on its west. In this hilltop woodland area, Jesus may well have played as a child. Jane reminded us that Jesus’ occupation was most likely that of a mason, as the building materials in this land were rock and limestone, and not wood, due to the scarcity of it.

Tom shared a meditation about Jesus’ teaching in the synagogue in Nazareth at the onset of his ministry. Mike reflected on Isaiah 61:1-3, the passage Jesus read in his hometown. He urged us to “not stop at the comma,” but to consider that we might be players in the Second Book of Acts. He suggested that the decision to divide the Bible into the Old Testament and the New Testament was an anti-Semitic action, and that God’s people are the Jews, and we (Gentiles) are - by God’s grace - grafted into the Jewish people. We are all one; His Story is all one.

Moving further northwest, we traveled to a monastery perched on the top of Mt. Carmel, and had an eagle’s eye view of the valley of Jezreel Valley, formerly a malaria swamp but cultivated to become the bread basket of Israel. Jane had a way of helping us envision Elijah just as the rains came as an answer to prayer after three and a half years of drought. He outran Ahab’s chariot as they made their way to Mt. Gilboa and the wicked queen, Jezebel. Tom shared from 1 Kings 17, encouraging us to remember a victory is not about the volume of your voice but the quality of your faith.

We explored the Tel of Megiddo, which is a 7,000 year old city, destroyed and rebuilt, and may be the future site of the battle of Armageddon. The prophetess Deborah routed the Canaanites here by the Kishon River.

The day ended back down by the Sea of Galilee, where the Jordan runs out of the lake and on down towards the Dead Sea. At the traditional baptismal site of Yardenit, 18 people in our group rededicated themselves to Jesus Christ by water baptism, and one young man was baptized by immersion for the first time.

9/6/16 Day 6 “The Day of the Desert”

We checked out of our hotel and headed south into the desert, tracking the route of the Jordan. The landscape is limestone and beige rocky mounds, with a strip of greenery on the banks of the skinny Jordan River.

We explored the Tel of Bet She’an, an early Canaanite city (one of the Decapolis), the only one on the west side of the Jordan. When we moved on to Qumran and the site where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered, Jane told the exciting story of God’s perfect timing: religious Essenes hid the temple scrolls on the eve of the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D. and then restored them at the perfect time, on the very hour when Israel was voted in as a state by the United Nations on 11/29/48.

Most of the group spent the afternoon floating in the Dead Sea, or plopping mud on our skin, or burning the soles of our feet on the scorching hot sand. The gift shop there piqued everybody’s interest with a variety of trinkets and beauty products. We headed from there to our hotel (Crowne Plaza) in Jerusalem where we stayed for four nights.

9/7/16 Day 7 “The Day of Tears”

Our bus dropped us off at the Mt. of Olives, where we walked down a paved road parallel to the road Jesus took on Palm Sunday, and had an inspirational private hour in the Garden of Gethsemane. Tom shared about the meaning of Gethsemane, “the place of the olive press”, and the agony Jesus went through.

We walked through Old Jerusalem and spent personal time on the rough, uneven steps of the temple. Words shared by Jane, and also Mike, added deeper significance to the fact we were walking where Jesus had walked and taught.

In the afternoon we went to the Holocaust Museum, Yad V’Shem (the Hand of God). Because she recognized that spending time memorializing the genocide of the Jewish people can be heart-breaking and overwhelming, Jane suggested one might focus on the heroic acts of the Gentiles who gave up their security to serve the Jewish people.

After dinner, 12 people went (by taxis) to a House of Prayer (Succat Hallel) and participated in worship with people from Israel. We sang, read scripture and prayed for the peace of Israel.

9/8/16 Day 8 “The Day of Tunnels and Waters”

We learned about the formation of the City of David because of the clever “take-over” of the water source by Joab, and how that water source of the Gihon Spring was protected throughout history. Jane told us about restructuring of the walls Hezekiah built in order to safeguard, and we walked many steps in moist underground tunnels in order to learn these lessons (and even put our toes into the Gihon Spring.)

While we were in that area of Jerusalem, we visited what is called the “House of Caiaphas”. In this domicile of a wealthy Jewish family, there is a cistern or storage room that might have been used to retain Jesus immediately following his arrest.

We walked on to the ruins of the Pool of Siloam and then the double Pool of Bethesda, where the Catholic church of St. Anne’s had been built. Our group has some excellent voices, and it was a privilege to sing together in a church where the acoustics were designed for chants. Tom shared an inspirational message about the relational aspects needed in praying for people to be healed.

Finally, we had a chance to pray on the “wailing” western wall, leave a prayer request in a stone crack, and then walk through the tunnel that runs along the west wall of the temple. Some people of Jerusalem choose to enter the tunnel and pray in a special place, getting them as close to the Holy of Holies as possible.

9/9/16 Day 9 “The Day of the Oases”

Jane took two thirds of the group back into the desert to Massada and En Gedi — both places are places of hidden refuge and protection. The other third of the group sought refuge in Jerusalem by relaxing in their hotel room, or shopping on Ben Yehuda Street, their own personal oasis.

The following was written by Jay Balanay because he participated in the excursion to the desert and I didn’t:

Masada was the place over the Dead Sea in which we rode a tram up the mountain top. The place was a winter vacation spot for Herod overlooking the Dead Sea. It was store house, and we were able to see the amazing water system and cistern that bought water into the city and store it, where they said “we will never thirst anymore”. We saw En Gedi which was where David hid from Saul.

We left as a group in the late afternoon and drove one hour to Ashdod, to a church of Russian refugee Jews, called Beit Hallel. Here Tom preached at two services, and invited our team to participate in ministering to the congregation. We saw the Lord heal headaches, arthritis, and crippled limbs to name a few of the conditions.

9/10/16 Day 10 “The Day where we experienced ‘It is finished.’”

The day started with us looking at a massive model of the city of Jerusalem at the Israel Museum, which gave us a good review of the steps we had walked, the valleys that formed this special place, and the path Jesus took on the last day of his life. Then the bus dropped us off in the heart of Jerusalem, and we spent time in the Christian Quarter, where the crusader room that might well have been where Jesus served the Last Supper. We saw the area of David’s tomb. We walked through the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the historic site of Jesus’s crucifixion, and noted how six different Christian denominations lived in animosity towards one another, while “owning” separate parts of this memorable landmark.

We walked the Via Dolorosa in reverse, moving down the hill towards the Fortress of Antonia. Tom shared a message about the sacrifice Jesus made for us, and we had a short time to meditate in the very place our Lord was scourged.

We were held up in traffic after we reentered the bus, because the authorities were searching cars for bombs. The bus made its way slowly through back streets to the Garden Tomb, a site purchased in 1894 by the British Garden Tomb Association for the purpose of memorializing Jesus’s death, burial and resurrection.

This geographical spot, just outside the city walls at the time of Jesus, was noticed by the English General Gordon as he overlooked Jerusalem from Fort Antonia. He observed a rocky cliff with the markings of a skull, adjacent to a rock quarry. This spot was at the intersection of the Road to Damascus and the Road to the Mediterranean and therefore a likely place of crucifixions. Nearby was a garden that contained the tomb of a wealthy man as well as the remains of a wine press. With Tom leading a meditation, we took communion together as our last memorable experience as a group.

We drove back into the desert and had a group dinner at an Armenian restaurant. Jane, in her necessary role as our mother hen, escorted us to the Ben Gurion Airport, where we all said, “Sadly, this extraordinary experience is finished.” The Americans took a midnight flight to JFK.

As I conclude this trip journal, I am at a loss for words. With every experience we went through, each of us had special times with the Lord. Our hearts and minds were touched, never to be the same again. I only wish we could share some of those spiritual revelations and emotional encounters with each other. Let’s keep in touch.

Submitted with gratitude for how each one of you touched my life on this trip. Shalom.