In March 2023, an intrepid group of Student and Teacher Ambassadors visited our friends in Ilut, Israel. Below is the blog activity from their trip.
Day 1 in Israel
Today was an amazing day meeting our hosting school and families. The students and teachers met us at the airport and we rode in a large bus about 2 hours back north to Ilut. On the bus ride the kids quickly got to know each other and sing, talk and even play a few games.
Once at school, we had a small ceremony where Principal Tofeek welcomed us and Doug Fodeman presented the wooden plaque to Ilut Junior High School. There was food too! After about an hour everyone went to their host families. Tomorrow is our first hiking day!
Our Day 2 Hike in Israel
On our second day in Israel we did a 3 miles hike into a deep channel in the limestone to where there were 2 waterfalls. It was hot! And beautiful!
Camping at Park Yardin on Monday Night
Yesterday we had an amazing hike in the north of Israel and camped at a Beduin Camp called “Park Yardin.” It was a Bedouin style camp with all the girls in one tent and all the boys in another. The teachers had our own rooms!
Here are pictures from last night’s dinner and games at the camp, this morning’s breakfast –traditional family style– followed by our day at the park. Ice skating, bowling, pizza and trampolines! It was a fun day! I’m sure everyone will sleep well tonight!
Tuesday at the Indoor Theme Park
We had so much rain today that we can to cancel our planned hike. Instead, we all went to a theme park in the very North of Israel not far from the Lebanon border. It was so much fun! Trampolines, ice skating, pizza and bowling!
Our Host Families are Wonderful!
The families hosting our students and teachers are incredibly gracious and giving. A LOT of attention is centered around the amazing meals they offer us. We are building wonderful friendships with them, across language barriers too!
Day 4: A visit to Nazareth
We spent the day in Nazareth today, a very holy city in the Galilee region of Israel. The morning began with a visit to the Ministry of Education where we learned about a program that is required of all schools in the north to create a delegation of students and teachers who commit to building bridges across the many different peoples and religions of Israel. This, we’re told, is valuable and important work! Following this we went into downtown Nazareth and visited a WONDERFUL spice marketplace that was in a 250 year old building and run by the same family for 100 years! This was followed a visit to two important churches and a The White Mosque in Nazareth. One church was the Church of the Annunciation that commemorates the place where the angel Gabriel visited Mary and delivered the invitation for her to bear God’s Son.
At the end of the afternoon, we had lunch in a shawarma restaurant. At one table, the kids got hysterical over some joke someone told. Don’t be fooled by the stunned look on one student’s face! The table was laughing hysterically for a while!
Day 5 – Classes at Ilut School
This morning we joined Ilut students for school at 8:00 am. We spent time in an art class where all of the students and teachers created a collage from stones, sea shells, wooden sticks and other materials. After this was a Hebrew class that included student group work in which the students were asked how they could make their world or themselves better. Their responses were written in Hebrew, Arabic and English. Later in the morning our students conducted a class to about 30 Ilut students and a group of teachers. The class was called “American Teen Culture” and reflected their thoughts and ideas about things popular with teens in America. Topics included food, phrases, Thanksgiving (including the Macy’s Day parade), “a day in the life” including a typical school day and a review of popular music artists.
After school, our students returned to their host families. We heard that many of our students met at a swimming pool later in the afternoon!
Last night, some students baked together, others played chess, board games and video games together!
Day 6 – A Visit to Arabba School
On Friday, March 17, both Ilut and Brookwood students visited a school for the gifted and talented students in the town of Arabba. It is a newly built school, without any wall decorations yet because it is so new. Principal Labeeb and student leaders Mohammed and Julia welcomed us in the morning. This was followed by a ceremonial flower planting to represent the blossoming relationship between all our schools. This was followed by visits to several of their classes where teachers explained what they teach and students demonstrated projects. This included robotics class, flying lessons, and cinematography class combined with a drama class. In the flying class, Terry and Eleanor flew planes! In the Communications class the teacher talked about how important eye contact is when engaging with people. They practice this by playing a staring game to see if students will maintain eye contact, without laughing, for at least a minute. Our participants, Shreve and Quinlan, both succeeded in this game! Also, the art teacher painted traditional henna on a few of the girls hands and arms.
We finished the visit with a 20 minute concert of traditional Arab music from a group of teachers and a student. It was wonderful!
Day 7 – A Day Spent with Host Families
Yesterday was a day when Brookwood teachers and students spent time with their hosting families. Kids, and adults, did all kinds of activities including horseback riding, ice skating, bowling, hiking, visiting the old city of Akko, baking and having wonderful meals. Here are a few photos from the kids. One ADORABLE movie was posted to our shared drive of a boy having a lot of fun with his younger “brother.”
Day 8 – Exploring parts of Haifa
The Brookwood students had the day to ourselves to explore parts of Haifa. But one of our Ilut friends joined us along with his dad, who acted as our guide. The most impressive thing we saw was the Bahai Gardens. They were beautiful! We wanted to explore the Nis Mas Market place but discovered that it is closed on Sunday, even though their Sunday is like our Monday! We ended up going to the Sketch Cafe in the Sonny Ofer Stadium. It was a fun morning.
End of our trip….
Yesterday and today mark the end of our trip to Israel. It has been a remarkably rewarding and exhausting trip. Yesterday, we visited the Old City of Jerusalem and then checked in at our hostel at Matzada, followed by a visit to a marketplace at the Dead Sea. This morning we hiked the Ein Gedi path to see beautiful waterfalls, and saw several Hyrax along the way! On our way out and back to Ilut, we saw a herd of Nubian Ibex! Then it was a long bus ride home.
Jerusalem, the Complex Center of the Universe for Three Major Religions
On Monday, March 20, twelve students from Ilut, Israel and eight students from Brookwood, along with a group of teachers from both schools and an Israeli Guide and a Guard, began a two and one-half hour bus drive from Ilut, a small town in the north of Israel, to Jerusalem, the center of the universe for three major religions. Upon our arrival, we pulled up to the entrance for underground parking at a new below-ground shopping mall, across the street from the ancient Jaffa Gate of the Old City. Walking through the 1000 year old gate, near the Tower of David, and into the Old City was emotional for me as it brought back memories from visits both seven years ago and 45 years ago as a young man. The entrance area beyond the Gate was already getting crowded at our mid-morning arrival. As we walked in, I glanced to my left and remembered climbing the old stairs up to the ramparts of the ancient wall of the city with my wife seven years earlier. My mind was suddenly flooded with incredible memories of the view from atop the old ramparts.
Our group continued to make our way through the very narrow stone streets lined by the Arab Shuuk or Marketplace, sloping downward into the heart of the Old City. Our first stop deep within the Old City was in front of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This ancient Christian Church was believed to have been first built in the 4th Century and now sits in the Christian Quarter of the Old City. It contains sites within it that are considered most holy to Christians. They are the actual sites where Jesus was crucified, buried and then rose from the dead. As we arrived at the entrance to the Church mid-morning, we could already see how very crowded it was as large groups of people gathered, entered and exited the Church. In sharp contrast to the throngs of people coming and going through the entrance and filling the courtyard, there silently stood the “immovable ladder” above the entrance. It stood like a sentinel, barely noticed by anyone and yet, held such significance reflecting the inability of people to agree on anything in this complex and historic city. Again, memories of this holy plaza flooded my thoughts and I was emotionally filled by the incredible significance of this church for so many millions of people around the world. To be here again, with students seeing this place for the first time and teaching them a little bit of its significance has humbling.
After stopping at the spot where it is believed that the body of Jesus Christ was laid, washed and prepared for burial, we continued around the corner to the right and soon found ourselves descending a long set of stone steps underground to a beautiful alter area for congregants to pray. We were all in awe of the beauty, ancient construction, symbolism and meaning of this holy place. Without even asking, it was clear that everyone was quiet and respectful. After a few minutes we ascended again to the main level and returned to the main entrance of the Church after seeing a tremendously long line to visit the actual cave where the body of Jesus Christ had been buried and resurrected. We next headed back to the Kotel (known also as the Western Wall and “Wailing Wall”) security check point.
When we arrived at this security checkpoint, Mahmood and Saeed spoke to the guards in Hebrew to see if we could enter this holy and revered place. But we were turned away and told that we could not enter from this location at this time. (Perhaps there were already too many people visiting the Wall?) That did not deter us and Mahmood led us again around the streets of the Old City to another entrance by the Western Wall excavations along Batai Mahasse Street. This location was also the entrance for the long ramp leading up to the Temple Mount to reach Al Aqsa Mosque. After some minutes of confusion about entering here, our group literally cut into a line of tourist groups following Mahmood’s lead and entered another one of the most holy places in the world. But this time, we continued up the ramp to visit the Temple Mount. As we did so, the security guards at the base of the ramp made it exceptionally clear that only Muslims were allowed to enter the Mosque itself and the Dome of the Rock. If we were not of the Muslim faith, we could only explore the Temple Mount itself. (Fortunately, Khadijah did find an opportunity to enter Al Aqsa Mosque and take a photo to show us later.) We all slowly walked a circle around the Temple Mount, marveling over the beautiful architecture and significance of this place. We also walked to the opposite side of the Mount to peer across the valley below us and see the Russian Orthodox Church called the “Church of Mary Magdalene” located on the holy hill called the Mount of Olives. Many famous historical figures are buried on this hillside, including Mehanchem Begin, former Prime Minister of Israel. We could also see the Tomb of the Prophets in the distance.
After exiting the Temple Mount, we made our way through the Shuuk again to the security checkpoint at the entrance to the plaza in front of the Western Wall. Once again, Mahmood spoke to the security guards in Hebrew, asking if we could please make our way into this holy area. This time we were granted entrance! As we entered this exceptionally holy place we reminded our group of American and Ilut students how critically important it was for them to be respectful and to honor the significance of this area. This is the same message we gave them when we entered this holy city at Jaffa gate and again as entered the Temple Mount.
Evan told us how important it was for him to pay his respects at the Western Wall and went on ahead to do so. I invited our three Brookwood boys to join me on the men’s side of the Wall, while Emily invited our girls to join her on the women’s side. The remaining Ilut group stayed on the upper plaza about a hundred feet from the Western Wall. As Terry, Quinlan and William walked down with me, we were instructed by another guard to select a yamulka from a public dispensary to put on our heads out of respect for this holy place. Wearing a white yamulka, we all approached the wall and I shared with the boys a little bit about the incredible significance of this holy place and the ancient stones directly in front of us. I pointed out the many thousands of tiny scraps of paper that were tucked into the crevices between the ancient stones and their significance to Jews who had put them there, including me seven years earlier. These small scraps of papers contained blessings and well-wishes. (I learned that these scraps are collected twice a year and buried on the Mount of Olives.) It is estimated that the first Temple in Jerusalem was built about one thousand years before the birth of Christ. Many of the foundational stones directly in front of us were part of this first construction!
I asked the boys to wait a moment while I approached the Wall to place my hand upon it and recite a prayer. Around us were also a number of Orthodox Jews who prayed in a special manner, rocking back and forth in a cadence matching their silent prayer recitals. I stood at the Wall and recited the first line of a prayer called the Shema. A few minutes later we returned to the upper plaza area to rejoin our group. After our girls returned with Emily from the women’s side of the Western Wall, our entire mixed group exited the Kotel and made our way back through the Arab Shuuk toward Jaffa Gate.
Our return path was now terribly crowded with people and tour groups from all over the world. We heard multiple languages spoken by people we passed. There were so many distractions along the way and it was so difficult to stay together as one large group, especially as the path before us twisted and turned in different directions. Twice during our return to Jaffa Gate our students became separated and distracted by the vendors along the way. We kept trying to move them along but it was frustrating at times and also because we were all so tired and hungry. Finally, Mahmood gathered everyone next to a falafel stand and asked the students to start placing orders with the vendor. The Ilut teachers paid for lunch for all of us! We hung out there, along this busy, narrow street in the Old City for about 30 minutes, eating falafel, pita and all the fixings. (Here is a link to a sample pita/falafel stand in the Old City, very similar to the one we visited, but without all the cats hanging out!)
Finally, we made our way back to Jaffa Gate and decided to give all of our students 30 minutes to explore the shops in this area of the Old City because the merchandise they offered here seemed to be better quality than what we saw closer to the Kotel. We told everyone that they could explore the Shuuk as long as they stayed in groups AND never turned left or right off of the main street we had just walked back up from our lunch spot. No visits to side streets were allowed! The Old City was a massive maze, created that way on purpose to make it harder for invaders to charge into and take over the city. It would be so easy to lose your way once you left that main street. And for some perspective, don’t think of a “street” in the Old City like a street at home! A street in the Old City was paved by ancient “Jerusalem stone” and is only about 15’ wide!
Finally, we gathered again, counted all of our students and headed back through Jaffa Gate and back to the bus to begin our travel to the Matzada Hostel at the Dead Sea. We were all exhausted, mentally and physically. This very special city really did feel like the center of the Universe for so many people. At times, we all felt filled with confusion, joy, respect, tension, and wonderment in this one-of-kind place. The throngs of people we passed, shoulder to shoulder, spoke many languages and looked like they represented the entire world.
Later, on the bus as left Jerusalem behind us and heading for the Dead Sea, it almost felt like an enormous weight was lifted from our shoulders. This author also felt that the invisible tension and pressure that we all felt in this contested and revered city somehow reflected the very complexity of its thousands of years of history. Several in our group expressed an appreciation for this visit, but also a desire never to return. I can’t blame them for that sentiment but I am exceptionally grateful to have had the opportunity to visit this amazingly complex and historic city again.