It is 6:50 pm on our first full day in Israel. I'm drinking Turkish coffee in my room so as not to fall asleep before our 7 pm dinner. Waking up at 2:30 am is not great preparation for a full day of touring around the Sea of Galilee. I've been asked many times today by members of the group how many times I've been to Israel. I suppose that is something I should know off the top of my head. But I don't. If you count the types of Holy Land tours that I am on right now, I think the answer is eight and I think the total number of trips here is 11. But what began my deep appreciation and love for this land was an exchange I participated in my senior year of high school.
In November of 1986, I was one of three students from the Milwaukee Public Schools who joined a 56 student delegation from all over the US that participated in the Young Ambassador Student Exchange sponsored by the America-Israel Friendship League and the Greater Council of City Schools. Because of that incredible program, I spent November of my senior year in Israel, living with host families in Tel Aviv, Haifa, and Jerusalem. What I learned about the history, geography, culture, religions, and politics of Israel in that month surpassed anything I could do in classroom in two year's time. The relationships I formed with Israelis and Americans from across the country changed the way I understood the world and my place in it. It caused me to study Hebrew in college which led me to focus on the Hebrew Bible. My work in Hebrew and Old Testament gave me the opportunity to be a teaching assistant for Hassell Bullock, my teacher and mentor at Wheaton, who encouraged me to apply to graduate school at his alma mater, Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. That led to my eventual teaching at CHCA and my desire to give my students the experience of travel as part of their education. In 1999 I was able to take 17 CHCA students on the same month long exchange to Israel that I experienced. And soon JTerm gave students the opportunity to travel around the world each year. And most summers, I bring a group of students and their families to this special place.
So why do I keep coming back? One reason would be that as a Hebrew Bible scholar, the subjects and topics that I love the most are rooted deeply in this place. Another reason is that over the years, I have become passionate about the modern day conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, both in what it means for the people living here and the broader geopolitical effects it has on the world (and I'll talk more about that in another post). But finally, and maybe most importantly, every time I come to this place, I am not only reminded of my own journey that shifted in this land, but I am filled with excitement to share it with students, families, and friends year after year. The awe of the place is hard to describe. But watching others experience it for the first time gives me that indescribable feeling every teacher knows, when a student catches the passion you have for a subject and you know something is being created inside of them because of it. As a teacher, all I can do is bring my students to a place or a topic or an issue. I can share it with them, prod them, hopefully inspire them to dig deeper into the matter. And then it happens. They are hooked. They make new connections, constructing new ways of thinking and understanding. And then we engage. I share what I have come to understand. And then I learn more by hearing what they now see and what strikes them as unusual or unique. And my love and appreciation for this land grow. And when the trip is over, I can't wait to share it again the next year.