Sunday, February 17, 2013

Week 3: Christian Problems in the Holy Land

This has been quite a busy week full of many adventures. For those of you who know about group dynamics and how groups of people function (form, norm, storm, perform), I'd like to say we are entering into the storm phase. You could also call it the terrible two's/three's. Not to say that I am enjoying this experience any less now than I have in the past, but we are past the honeymoon phase as a group of people. It's nothing too major. We are just realizing that spending a lot of concentrated time with certain others may not be the best idea given differing personalities. Enough negativity, though. It's time for the stories.

I left you last Friday before our Fourth Floor Shabbat dinner. I made Molly's special macaroni and cheese, and it was a success. That pot was spotless within minutes. I even had to give up some of my portion so that someone else could get some.

Last Saturday, I went with a group of friends to the Israel Museum. It is one of the coolest and most beautiful places I have seen so far in Jerusalem. It has a really awesome model of Jerusalem during the Time of the Second Temple. The museum is inside and outside and covers a vast area of land. Outside is a nice garden of sorts with lots of art. The main part of the museum is a huge art gallery, featuring pieces of all different styles and time periods. One of the most amazing exhibits for me was the Shrine of the Scroll, which is home to the Dead Sea Scrolls. As I walked around and saw the pieces of parchment, I was amazed that I could actually read the Hebrew letters that had been written thousands of years ago. It was a surreal experience for me to be in the presence of the documents that I studied in my New Testament class sophomore year. I actually got emotional looking at the different verses of scripture. I went outside of the exhibit and called my dad and emailed Dr. Brown, my religion advisor and New Testament professor. Thankfully, my dad wasn't too upset that I woke him up at 6:45 to geek out about seeing the Dead Sea Scrolls. Professor Brown sent me adorable email later in the morning that made me so glad to go to W&L and have such a great relationship with my advisor.

One of the rooms in the art gallery had a world timeline on the floor around the room. As I read and walked through it, I was surprised by how many of the events of the world were American. I already knew how strong American influence is around the world, but this timeline simply reaffirmed it for me. We joke about how sometimes non-Americans know more about American history than we do. For example, my Australian friend Yitzi knows the Gettysburg Address and can recite it by heart on command. I never knew more than "Four score and seven years ago." Sometimes I think that Americans can be arrogant in thinking that anything we do directly impacts the entire world. It was slightly disconcerting to see this affirmed in the Israel Museum. However, it should not be too surprising because much of the art in the museum came from American donors.

Speaking of art, I absolutely loved the pieces I saw in the museum. I have always been a patron of and participant the fine arts, but my focus has mainly been on the performing aspect. I really enjoyed seeing the creativity in every piece in the gallery. However, I also realized that one can experience sensory overload from looking at too much art. I kept thinking that the gallery would end, but it never did. Every turn I took led me to a different section with a different theme. By the time I got to the surrealist section and later the Native American section, I was worn out. I couldn't contemplate the artist's meaning anymore. I guess next time I will have to start from the opposite end.

In the States, we have an issue. We do not observe Sabbath. Whether you are religious or not, we all need to have some down time. As much as we would like to deny it, we are not Energizer bunnies. We can't just keep going all the time. I'm talking to myself as much as I am to my friends, family, and everyone else in my life. Even though it is somewhat obnoxious that the entire country basically shuts down on Saturday, I am finding myself thankful for the down time. At home, I am always running somewhere to do something. I never actually give myself any me time to just relax. I find it ironic that I am doing better about keeping the Sabbath (or Shabbat) in Israel. I fully intend to do that this semester. I always stretch myself too thin and say yes to too many things at home. While I am away, I plan to do the minimum in terms of work and responsibility, but I will make up for that in building relationships and having great experiences with the people around me.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I have reached a point in time here that has been my first challenging time. I am used to being in the minority in terms of my politics and beliefs. However, I have always been able to find a progressive Presbyterian congregation no matter where I find myself. This has been my first experience where my Christian identity is what makes me a minority. Last weekend and into this week, I found myself yearning for a community of like-minded believers. I was feeling distant from God, and I felt like I was straying. Normally when I feel like this, I will go to church, camp, small group, Bible study, or anything spirit-filled that could bring me back to my center. I have found that I am truly in a Jewish nation. Christians only make up 2% of the population in Israel, and most Christians are Arab. At this point in my stay in Israel, I have not had the opportunity to connect with Arabs who are not in my program. Most of my Jewish friends feel uncomfortable in Arab neighborhoods or on Arab buses so I simply have not been in the proximity to interact with Arabs. I have spent much time trying to find Christian or Presbyterian churches in Jerusalem. These searches are almost fruitless. The few Protestant churches that I have found only have services on Sunday mornings. I am in class on Sundays 9-1:30 so that does not really work into my schedule. It was so frustrating last Sunday. All I wanted to do was to go to church, but I couldn't because I had to be in Hebrew class. Again, this is the culture shock of being in the minority.

My first expected respite from this problem came when I got an email from the only Christian organization on campus. We were going to meet for dinner and fellowship on Saturday night. As my friends were going to Burgers Bar (a chain restaurant in Israel) for dinner, I was gathering the token Christians to go to this time of fellowship. All I wanted to do was be in community with like-minded believers. I showed up to this dinner, and we had nice conversation over dinner. After dinner, we all sat down. The leader of the organization proceeded to talk at us for an hour and a half about I don't even know what. When he said our job was to convert Jews to Christianity, I was out. That is absolutely against my religious beliefs, and I realized that I had not found what I was looking for spiritually.

One positive that came from that experience was finding out about a church that did a service Sunday nights. Sunday evening, I came home from the gym and got ready to go to church. I really don't think that I have ever been so excited to go to church before in my life. I met two other Christian friends who were going with us. We didn't know where exactly the church was. When we got off the light rail and arrived at the building where the church was held, we met a girl who was headed to the same church. She took us there and sat next to us for the service. That was the Christian community I was expecting. We arrived and sang songs in Hebrew and English, including "Sing, Sing, Sing" by Chris Tomlin. I was so excited to actually know a song and artist, even though it is not my favorite praise song. As we sang, I watched everyone around me become so moved by the music. I knew the Holy Spirit was in this place. It filled me with joy, and I finally felt the presence that I had been longing for. One of the most powerful lyrics to me was "Your presence is heaven to me. Without you, I have no life." In that moment, God's presence truly was heaven to me. I felt the void inside me fill up, and I felt whole again. Then, we sat for the message. The speaker was a guest from another church. Unfortunately, I once again had theological differences with the message. Even with the less than stellar worship experience from the sermon, I still felt much more satisfied than I did before the service.

I decided that I would fulfill my spiritual desire by going to the Ash Wednesday service at the Garden Tomb, which is the Protestant site of Jesus' burial and resurrection. Ash Wednesday and the Lenten season has always been very important to me so I wanted to make sure I got to a service and had ashes put on my forehead. I kept looking online for places to go to Ash Wednesday services, which was actually pretty difficult. Wednesday morning, I decided I would just call the Garden Tomb to find out when their Ash Wednesday service. Turns out they did not have an Ash Wednesday service and I was told that I was looking for the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. I found out that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was going to have a Roman Catholic Ash Wednesday service at 6:30. I was going to go to the Old City with a few non-Jewish friends before the service to look around and take pictures. We went to the Church and found it swamped with tourist groups from so many different countries. I know that this place is supposed to be uber holy and full of symbolic meaning and full of the Spirit, but  I was not feeling it. Perhaps it was because of the extravagant embellishments and ornate decor or simply because it felt more like a museum than a place of worship.

I went to Calvary, where Jesus was supposedly crucified. We were about to go under a table where you could pray to a rock and put your arm through a hole to try to touch where the cross stood, but we were stopped by a leader of the Greek Orthodox Church. A man in robes came out, stood directly in front of the shrine built to the cross of Jesus, and began reading in Greek from a book of old laminated pages. Another man in robes stood to the side and chimed in with a few words here and there. I thought this was merely a 5:30 pm blessing that happened everyday. Throughout the service, tourists who weren't aware of the service kept talking and moseying around as if nothing were out of the ordinary. A leader of lesser importance than these two men did crowd control to get people to be quiet and not pick up candles until after the conclusion of the service. After about 10 minutes, the priests left. It wasn't until after we left Calvary that my friends told me that was the Greek Orthodox Ash Wednesday service. As I was watching the different leaders, I thought to myself about my future. I want to go into the ministry in some capacity. However, I could never see myself wearing a black robe, a head covering of any sort, and acting as security at a church. I struggled with the thought of that man doing God's work by doing crowd control. I wondered if he actually felt fulfilled by his life and duties in the Church. I asserted to myself that I would never end up doing that kind of work for God. Unless, of course, God were to call me to that work. Even now, it's obvious that I am struggling with being called to that sort of work. I feel that almost anyone's gifts would be better used elsewhere.

After Calvary, we walked back down to the stone where Jesus' body was prepared for burial. This stone has become a sort of alter for people to pray at, rub oil on, and touch. I was not really in the mood to get on my knees and pray on a rock, no matter the religious significance (I have only prayed on my knees maybe twice in my life. It's just not a part of my religious practices.). My friend, Sam, convinced me to pray with him, though. So I knelt down, rubbed the stone, and prayed that God would bring peace to my heart and soul as I visited this holy site. We continued on to the tomb where Jesus was laid to rest. This is the site of the original church that was built. The massive cathedral was built with Roman architecture around this site. We waited in line to go into the actual tomb. I went in. It was pretty cool, but honestly I did not feel a significant pull on my heart or spirit. Throughout this whole experience, I could only think that my spirit felt more moved when I first visited the Kotel than it did at this moment. It was already dark when, we came in, but the entire cathedral was dark and dismal, which is not what I envision when I think of a church. I expect the church to be full of light, joy, and love.

From the tomb, we went down to a less busy area that was apparently under Calvary. Under here, it was obvious that the church-y architecture ended, and that this space was simply carved out of the rock. It had a much more natural feel, and had a fiberglass boundary to guard people from actually touching the earth. Behind the boundary were many folded pieces of paper that I assume were prayers that people left for God. It was here that I felt the most at home spiritually. I came to appreciate my Protestant and pretty simply upbringing. I do not need the fanciest shrines, alters, or sanctuaries in my church. I prefer the simple things. I believe the Church can use its resources to better serve the world through benevolences than through unnecessary embellishments. I have still yet to visit the Garden Tomb, but hopefully I will find a simpler and more spiritually fulfilling venue at that site.

When we left the underground area, it was about 6:10. I was anxious to find where the Ash Wednesday service would be held. Through all of our wanderings, I had yet to see an actual worship space, which seems odd because it is the CHURCH of the Holy Sepulchre. I asked a man dressed in robes who I assumed belonged to the Church, and he said he couldn't help me. Another man stopped us, saying he was a Christian and could tell us about the Church. I figured he wanted us to pay him to give us a tour, which we didn't want. I asked him where the Ash Wednesday service was anyway. He said all services were over by 4, including the Roman Catholic one. I didn't think that could be right. My friends came up with various explanations. Maybe it said 16:30? Did it say today? Was it really Ash Wednesday? I looked it up on my phone, and I saw that the times were listed in military time. I had missed the Ash Wednesday service by 12 hours. The only thing I wanted was to have someone rub ashes on my forehead in the shape of a cross and say "Angela, from dust you came. To dust you shall return." I had been banking on this service to fulfill my spiritual needs. Apparently God had different plans. We left the church, and I was brokenhearted. My friends tried to comfort me by saying I had observed a was just a Greek Orthodox service that I couldn't understand and hadn't even realized was a service. They also got on me for pouting when I had just seen the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on Ash Wednesday, which is a pretty big deal. However, so many people had told me that I had to go to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre for Ash Wednesday just because I was a Christian. For me, it wouldn't be as special just because I am not Orthodox or Catholic. What I needed was to have a familiar worship experience I could participate in and understand without trying to figure out what was going for the whole service (which is fine with me most times). As much as I felt like I was sulking stupidly, I still was spiritually sore. It hurt. I called my dad and held back tears as I told him the ridiculous epic that was me trying to find a good worship experience in the Holy Land. He reminded me that I knew the words and could still participate in the Ash Wednesday service. I decided that I was going to go back to the Kfar, find some leaves, burn them, and get someone to put ashes on my forehead. It was my mission.

When I got home, I couldn't find any palms. Normally the ashes are from the palms from the previous year's Palm Sunday. So I went to the apartment across the hall and pulled off a leaf of a plant that Pavel found somewhere. I pulled the live leaf off of the plant and tore it into small pieces and put it in an ash tray. I took Pavel's lighter and some friends to the roof to try to burn the leaf and make some ashes. It was windy on the roof, and the leaf was still alive so it would not burn. We came back to my apartment and tried to burn them again. The leaf fragments wouldn't light, and it was difficult to maneuver the lighter so that the leaves were exposed to the fire without burning a finger. Brittany had the bright idea of using alcohol as lighter fuel since we couldn't find any actual lighter fluid. She also found a Hanukkah candle somewhere so she wouldn't burn herself. She used the stove to light the candle, and stayed by the counter trying to burn the leaves, which resulted in a lot of wax combining with the small amount of ashes that she made. After a while, I was just over the whole situation. I decided we had enough ashes to suffice. I got my friend Mollie to get some ash/was mixture on her finger and put it on my forehead as she said the words. Rather than looking like a cross, it looked more like a line going down my forehead. After this whole saga, though, I considered it done. I had been ashed. That's all that mattered. I then started to cook, and my wax/ash marking fell off into the sink as I was washing dishes. I did what I could. That's all anyone could have asked.

Wow. Telling that story actually took a lot of writing out of me. Unfortunately, I think these next stories are going to be a bit abbreviated at the expense of Ash Wednesday, but I think that it was worth it.

On Monday morning, I woke up at 5:45 to participate in a protest/prayer at the Western Wall with Women of the Wall. Right now the Haredim, or Ultra-Orthodox Jews, hold much power in terms of the goings on at the Kotel. As I mentioned previously, the rights of women at the Wall are not equal to the rights of men. Women are not allowed to sing, read Torah or the Siddur, or pray with tallit (prayer shawls) while at the wall. Each month the Women of the Wall hold a Rash Hodesh (literally Head of the Month) service to celebrate the beginning of the lunar month. My friend Lindsay told me about it, and a group of us from the Kfar went to the Old City early Monday morning. When we arrived, I was surprised to see so many cameras and microphones. It felt like paparazzi were trying to get a glimpse of this service. Then Lindsay told me, those were men who were supporting our protest through prayer by blocking the Haredim from spitting on us. We walked down to the Kotel and joined over 100 women who were already assembled. I saw the police who normally patrol the Kotel standing around the area, some of whom were videotaping the entire scene. Lindsay had warned me that arrest was a possibility but not a probability. I was not concerned because I am not Jewish. I did not know the prayers to sing along. I was not wearing a tallit. At one point during the service, two Haredim women started yelling at us as they walked away from the Kotel. The policewoman with the video camera was the one who told them to leave us alone. It was so surprising to me that the only objections we saw came from women, not men. Men supported us from over the divider that separates the men's side from the women's side and from behind the barrier that separates the wall from the plaza. I saw women who obviously cared very much about this issue. The activism they demonstrated was awe-inspiring. After we finished the prayers from a prayer book, we made our way to Robinson's Arch, which is the designated area outside of the plaza where women are allowed to read Torah. When we got there, we learned that the police had detained 10 women, including a 7 month pregnant women (I later learned that comedienne, Sarah Silverman's sister, Rabbi Susan Silverman, and her daughter were also detained.). We then moved to the streets of the Christian quarter in the hopes of going to where the women were being held before we would read the Torah portion. We stood outside Christ Church Coffee Shop, which is where I ate my first time at the Kotel. Then we learned that the women were not actually going to come by us. We decided to stay there and read Torah on the sidewalk as the police watched from across the street and told us to stay out of the street. I ended up leaving with Lindsay at 9 so that we could make an attempt to get to class without being too late (Class started at 9, but I figured this experience was more educational than 45 minutes of Ulpan). When I came home from class, I found an article online that explained the significance of this month's prayer. Apparently it was the largest turnout for the service, and the police had never detained so many women. The women were released after 3 hours of investigation and questioning. To read that article click here. It was definitely worth the early wake up to be a part of something so great.

Don't know if you realized it, but Valentine's Day was on Thursday. Wednesday night I received a phone call from a number listed in Texas. When I answered, it was a guy with an accent telling me he had a gift for me from the states and wanted to know how to give it to me. Momentarily, I forgot I was in Israel where people have accents and thought he was trying to sell me something. I ended up being kind of rude and hanging up on him. Turns out my parents really did send me a gift of a beautiful bouquet of flowers for Valentine's Day! It was the best Valentine's Day present I've ever received. Love from across the world is beautiful! I'm so very thankful that I have a loving family!

This weekend, I went on a trip with the program to Masada and Arad. We left at 6 am on Friday and drove to Masada. We then hiked 100 m up to Masada, which is where the Jews had their last stand against the Romans. Apparently later it was a monastery. The views were absolutely beautiful. It was crazy to be 450 m above sea level and see the Dead Sea and across to the mountains of Jordan. It was also crazy to see the structure that has survived thousands of years. There are still panels of fake marble from King Herod's Palace (no, I don't think this is the same Herod from Jesus' birth). Even though some of it has been restored, the fact that so much of the structure and art is still in tact is amazing to me. I sincerely doubt that any of today's structures will survive for 2,000 years. If any of you look at my pictures on Facebook, I apologize. Yes, they are just pictures of rocks. A lot of rocks.  In the Judean desert. It was still beautiful. We hiked 450 m down the Snake Path to the main Masada center that has a museum, restaurants, and was even the starting line to the Snake Path race (anyone who ran up the snake path received $100).

After we left Masada, we spent some time at the Dead Sea. It is beautiful. And super salty. Yes, you can float without even trying. The salt coats your skin and dries on you, which looks kind of disgusting, but your skin is exfoliated and soft after you rinse it off. I didn't actually go swimming because I thought it was going to rain and didn't bring a bathing suit. Even so, I greatly enjoyed being comfortable at the beach in February despite the fact that the water was cold.

When we arrived at our hostel in Arad, I realized that I had earned my first sunburn in Israel. I haven't yet invested in sunscreen or aloe because it has been pretty chilly and cold in Jerusalem. I guess I didn't anticipate the desert sun to be so harsh to my skin. It's ok, though, because it was only my forehead and cheeks. It will be tan by tomorrow.

Saturday morning, we went on a walk through Arad to a desert lookout. The views were pretty cool, but then again, it was just a lot of rocks. I haven't spent any time in a desert before so naturally I took a lot of pictures. I've learned that I absolutely love the mountains, whether they are green trees or brown rocks. It was absolutely silent and lifeless on the lookout except for the gusts of wind and one desert lizard I saw. That is definitely the place I would go if I wanted some alone time.

On the way home from Arad, I decided to catch up on my Bible reading. I started from Genesis 1 early in high school and have been reading all the way through on and off since then. Unfortunately, I have only made it to 1 Chronicles. So I started at 1 Chronicles 9:1. Chronicles is all about names and families, which led me to have some pretty interesting conversations with my friends Scott and Brittany about Hebrew names and whether the name or the meaning came first. It is great to have people knowledgable in Hebrew and Judaism around while reading the Old Testament so you can get a different perspective on what you are reading.

One day during class, we went on a tour of campus that was led in Hebrew. On this tour, I learned that the Humanities in Hebrew is science of the spirit. If that's not the perfect description of what I'm studying (Religion/Psychology/Poverty Studies), then I don't know what is. The poetic nature of that phrase makes me even happier to be a humanities major.

The Speaking Tradition is not alive here. I miss you, W&L.

I just realized that I haven't really given an update about my safety since I've been here. I know many people were concerned with my safety in this country. I can assure you that I have never felt that I was actually in danger while I was here. Even on a crowded bus, I am not afraid of pickpocketing. I was kind of expecting to hear and see violence regularly, but that has not happened at all. The only gun shots I hear are fireworks going off at an Arab wedding. Earlier this week, the terror alert was raised in Jerusalem, but once I made it back to the Kfar, I did not feel in any danger. Perhaps I am living in a bubble, but no one I know has dealt with crime here at any point so far.

Like I said in the beginning, it has been a very busy week. It's about time to wrap up this week's post. I will leave you with one pondering. Being in the minority has taught me much already about how the majority treats the minority. Outsiders may say things that are stereotypical but do not apply to an entire group of people. In my experience when you are one of the only representatives of the minority, you have to deal with the generalizations and assumptions about the group that you represent. Sometimes it can be difficult to try to explain your side because some people are only interested in what they have to say rather than listening to what you are actually saying. Actually, this is not a majority/minority concept. It is a human one. The way to effectively communicate is to actively listen. In the words of David LaMotte, the opposite of listening is not ignoring; it is preparing to speak.

Update: Immediately after posting this, an Orthodox Rabbi came into our apartment looking for a Josh. We do not have a Josh. He came in anyways and offered us free shots and cake because it is Moshe's birthday. According to Scott, this is why Judaism is better.


  1. Angela, Sami Awad, director of Holy Land Trust in Bethlehem, is trying to contact you. The number in your blog didn't work for him. Check out HLT on your computer. E-mail for Sami:

  2. Sami Awad, Director of the Holy Land Trust, in Bethlehem is trying to contact you. The phone# listed in your blog didn't work for him. Check out the HLT website.

    1. That's because that is the US number. My number in Israel is 050-709-3761.

  3. I so love your posts! And you! For being JUST WHO YOU ARE! Loving you!