Thursday, March 12, 2009

Day Eight - In Jerusalem

Liberty University's Israel Tour 2009 as Experienced by One Student
Monday, March 16, 2009
(Click here for today's photos.)

As my alarm goes off, I realize that fatigue is really starting to set in. The nights have been short trying to get an Internet connection going to upload some photos and send some e-mails, and it is beginning to become noticeable in my tiredness this morning and the dark circles I see in my reflection in the mirror, which are starting to grow under my eyes. Need sleep. Of course, that is just wishful thinking as another packed day is ahead of us, and how could I possibly sleep when I am in Jerusalem, the city of the King!

The excavations at the Western WallThis morning, our first stop is the Temple Mount. This is only my third visit to the Temple Mount, so I am very excited. This most hotly contested piece of real estate on this globe has an amazing history. There is so much to be known about the conflicts arising around this special place. Today, it is under the control of the Waqf. Seemingly simple actions like doing maintenance work causes huge disruptions in the relationship between Jews and Muslims. We enter the Western Wall area, but stay to our right to go up onto the Temple Mount via a wooden walkway. There was another walkway here until a few years ago, but it threatened to collapse. When the Jewish authorities began building a replacement ramp, they came upon ancient ruins. The building of the ramp was halted and excavations were begun by the Israel Antiquties Authority - again causing a huge conflict with the Muslims protesting this activity so close to the Temple Mount. After passing through a stringent security check (no Bibles, no obviously religious items, etc.), we can see the excavations to our right as we go up the ramp. The very busy Western Wall plaza is to our left. Today is Monday - Bar Mitzvah day at the Western Wall. We will be seeing this later. I love being here for Bar Mitzvahs. It is a truly special sight to anyone who has a love for the Jewish people.

Tzvika Mizrahi in front of the Dome of the RockOn the Temple Mount, Tzvika shares some of its history with us and explains that we are standing with our backs to the Al Aqsa Mosque, which is actually also quite old (dating back to 705 CE, but destroyed several times and rebuilt in its present form in 1035 CE) and which is a true mosque, while the more prominently known Dome of the Rock is really a shrine commemorating the night ride of Muhammed. It is, however, very old, originally built in 691 CE. Inbetween the two buildings is the El-Kas Fountain where Muslim worshipers wash their feet before entering the mosque. We have some time to walk around the grounds, so I take Dr. Yates, Erin and a few others down to the backside of the Eastern Gate. Every time I stand there, I can just imagine this gate opening up to let the King of Kings walk through. We join the rest of the group who are snapping photos of the truly beautiful Dome of the Rock. I love this structure, and I love this place. Even though these are Muslim structures standing here now, I always have a sense of peace when I walk on the Temple Mount. It is, first and foremost, God's address on earth. This is where He chose to dwell with His people Israel once they conquered the Promised Land. I believe that part of the reason why we are here and why God has called us to Jerualem is what Isaiah speaks about:
On your walls, O Jerusalem, I have set watchmen;
all the day and all the night they shall never be silent.
You who put the LORD in remembrance, take no rest, and give him no rest
until he establishes Jerusalem and makes it a praise in the earth.

And it starts here, on the Temple Mount. We are the ones who are called in this generation to "Pray for the peace of Jerusalem", as Psalm 122:6 challenges us.

Like me, Dr. Yates wonders about the Dome of the Tablets...We continue on around the plateau on which Solomon built the First Temple, Zerubabbel the Second Temple and which was then greatly expanded under Herod. We reach a small cupola, where the bedrock of Mount Moriah is visible. It is called the Dome of the Tablets, or Dome of the Spirits. Dr. Asher Kaufman studied the location and proposed that this is where the Holy of Holies actually stood. It is in direct line with the Eastern Gate. There are opposing views on this, of course. I want to believe Dr. Kaufman is right. Dr. Yates plays it safe and takes off his shoes to have his photo taken - he may just be standing on holy ground...! It is an awe-inspiring thought to think that we may be standing where yet another Temple will stand one day. Ezekiel's layout and measurements of the Temple he saw in a vision (Ezekiel 40-48) do not align with those of the prior two. How amazing that we are living in days where this could be fulfilled rather quickly.

Leaving the Temple Mount, we exit through a gate leading us through the Muslim Quarter, and we head towards the Western Wall. Since Dr. Yates, Erin and I had already visited the wall last night, we can use our time there to just observe the bar mitzvahs going on. Bar Mitzvah at the Western WallWhat a joy to view these celebrations. While the moms stay outside the main area, which is restricted to men, they joyfully anticipate the emergence of their son with the male relatives and friends walking with him from the area of Wilson's Arch. The boys for the first time wear the tefillin, or phylacteries, and their tallit, or prayer shawl. They are carrying Torah scrolls, from which they will read. There is lots of joyful singing and clapping going on, and the moms throw candy and let out their high-pitched joyful noise, which I don't even know how to describe in words. It sounds Arabic in its tonality to me, and I believe it must be a leftover from Diaspora days. With some wonderful photos and short video clips recorded on my camera, I join the rest of the group and say goodbye to the Western Wall. On the way back to the bus, we run into a group waiting to get onto the plaza. They are playing drums and blowing shofars in joyful anticipation of one young man's bar mitzvah today.

Pool of BethesdaOur bus picks us up and we head over to the Lion's Gate or St. Stephen's Gate. According to tradition, this is where Stephen suffered martyrdom, as described in Acts 7, after an amazing apology of his faith. We are here to see the Pool of Bethesda and St. Anne's Church. The Pool of Bethesda is known to us from the Gospel of John, which describes the healing of a crippled man by Jesus here. I remember the first time I came here, I could not believe how deep these pools must have been. We continue on to St. Anne's Church, which is on the same grounds. This church, which is a 12th century crusader church, is striking because of its unadorned simplicity and has the most astounding acoustics, which we get to fully appreciate as Teresa sings "Amazing Grace" for us. Beautiful. Simply beautiful. The church was built for Gregorian chants and every voice becomes a beautiful instrument in its cavernous interior. As everybody starts walking out, I look for Dr. Yates and Erin, but they are already gone. Instead I grab Joanne and take her to the downstairs of this church with me. Down some stone steps there is a crypt below the church. An altar dedicated to Mary is down here, and the ancient rock is part of the shrine. From what I learned before, during the Muslim occupation of Israel, for a payment, Christian pilgrims were permitted to celebrate mass in the grotto.

Entrance to Children's Memorial at Yad VashemWe are getting back on the bus for lunch at Kibbutz Ramat Rachel. After lunch, Tzvika takes us to a hillside close by overlooking Bethlehem as we will not be able to go into the city on this trip. Since it rained yesterday, our shoes are nice and muddy by the time we get back to the bus from crossing a rather soggy field to get a view of the city. We are on our way for our final stop of the day: Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum. I first visited Yad Vashem in 2006 when I was here with my German girlfriend Sabine. It was late in the day, and we had to rush through the exhibit a bit, but I distinctly remember the sinking feeling we both had walking through and seeing the pain and agony and ultimately death our countrymen had caused six million Jewish people. We were afraid to speak to each other for fear that someone might figure out we were German. Today, we start at the Children's Memorial. I have not seen this part yet, and what a sad place to visit it is. It is so simple and yet so profound. Walking along a completely dark path, its only illumination comes from five burning candles, which are replicated thousands of times by mirrors at all angles imaginable. As you walk through, a list of names and ages of children murdered in the Holocaust is read. I have come to Yad Vashem with the distinct wish to find the right person to address regarding photos my mother still has of her best friend growing up, Ruth Levy, who was taken away with her parents and killed in Lodz, Poland. I had found her name in the Yad Vashem database, but I want to make sure that her image and that of her parents is attached to her file. I want her to be remembered. If there is nothing else I can change about what happened, I can change this. I can make sure her name is known. A Jewish man, David Berger, in his last letter from Vilna in 1941 wrote: "...I should like someone to remember that there once lived a person named David Berger." I would like someone to remember there was a young girl named Ruth Levy, only a few days older than my mom, and that she had parents named Samuel and Hedwig Levy. Well, she lived, and yes, she died, and soon her photo will be there for all to remember her by.

At Yad VashemExiting out of the Children's Memorial, I see how moved some others are. We make our way through the alley of the "Righteous Among the Nations", where trees are planted for Gentiles who tried to help the Jews during the Holocaust. Corrie ten Boom, who lived and wrote "The Hiding Place", has a tree here, as do many others who are not as well-known. There is still the main exhibition hall to see, and again it is very difficult for me to walk through. One person even comments to me how hard it must be for me, as a German, to walk through here. I feel like saying "No sh.., Sherlock." Talk about the obvious. I am happy that I can translate some signs and photographs along the way to make what is displayed have an even stronger impact. On the way out, I find the right person to talk to about getting Ruth' and her parents' photos submitted, and I clutch the envelope to submit the photos in as we walk out. The exit of Yad Vashem's exhibition hall is truly a relief after the darkness of death. Walking out into light and seeing the beautiful hills ahead allows me to take a breath and to walk back into life. This last part of the day has not been an easy one emotionally, and everyone on the bus is a bit more subdued on the way back to the hotel.

Since it is still fairly early in the day, I make the suggestion that we head over to Ben Yehuda Street to get our last minute shopping in. Dr. Percer regrettably is not feeling well, so we leave him to rest as Dr. Yates, Erin, Lisa Percer and I get in a taxi to head to the top of Ben Yehuda. We spend a great time just looking at shops and picking out kippahs featuring sports teams' logos and getting t-shirts and sweatshirts to commemorate our trip. Since according to our map, it really isn't that far back to the hotel, we walk back. Dinner is wonderful as always. My friends, the Daas family, is coming to the hotel tonight, at least the plan is to meet at 8 pm. 8 pm brings a text message that they are delayed, and it will be 9 pm. No problem. By the time they finally get there, it is around 10 pm. I am sincerely tired, but I also do not care, since I am overjoyed to see my friends. Mosher, his wife Iptesam and their sons Mahmoud and Muhammed, plus a cousin, Taleb, whom I have met before, come into the lobby of the hotel with beaming smiles. I love this family. Mosher was my bus driver the very first group tour I took to Israel, and we have been friends ever since. I have been to their beautiful home in Tira, and they are just really special to me. The Daas family are Muslim Arabs, and through them, I have learned a lot about Arab hospitality. We spend a wonderful two hours or so together before they head back towards Tira. Regrettably, I don't get to see their two older daughters. Hiba, the oldest, studies at a university in Germany now, hoping to become a doctor, and Ruba, the second oldest, is a student at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Smart beautiful lovely people. I am so happy to call them friends. This day was tough. Emotional ups and downs, but the sweet note it ended on makes it a good day on balance.

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