by Bill McCarthy

For several years, the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation has brought Marylanders to visit the ancient land of Israel. Their goal has been to provide a unique opportunity to witness, first-hand, how individuals have overcome adversity, organized themselves, and thrived with dignity. The objective has been to present Israel to participants so that they can better understand and interpret the complex realities of the Middle East. The Weinberg Mission has been specifically designed for leaders. In addition to visiting religious and historical sites, they have had the opportunity to meet and have conversations with major political and community representatives from the region.

This year, I was privileged to have been chosen.  These are my personal reflections on my journey in Israel.

This journey was incredibly enriching. I experienced the fellowship, grace, and hospitality of Rachel, Barry, Rheta and Benita and I made many new friends. I also renewed old acquaintances and developed a common bond with great people. I saw and experienced Israel in a way that few people can. I gained a greater understanding and insight about Israel, its people, customs, history, and position in the Middle East and the world. I have a greater appreciation of the complexities of the issues the Middle East and the world face. The journey has been extremely spiritual and life-changing for me. For all of this, I am most grateful to the Weinberg Foundation.


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My Journal

Saturday, May 14:  Baltimore to Ben Gurion

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I arrived at the offices of the Weinberg Foundation promptly at 3:15 for the 4:00 coach departure for Newark International Airport. We are expected to arrive in Tel Aviv around 4:30 pm, Sunday. Israel is seven hours ahead of U.S. east coast time. My colleagues and I boarded the coach with great excitement and anticipation about the journey we were beginning. As we pulled out of the parking lot, I reflected on my preparation for this trip and items of sentiment that I brought with me. I read in advance with great interest.

This week, with the help of my wife Maria, I got organized and packed for the trip. I wanted to bring items that would give me a sense of Maria’s, my daughter Erinn’s, and my son Ryan’s presence with me. For Maria, I decided to bring the Claddagh ring that I gave her in 1985 after we had been dating for a year. I placed it on the silver chain I wear that holds the crucifix that was blessed by Pope John Paul II and given to Erinn by Bishop Malooly about eight months before she died. In addition to the crucifix, I brought Erinn’s purple LL Bean backpack that she used to bring her books to and from school. In order to use the backpack, I had to remove Erinn’s pencil case, notebooks, binders and textbooks. We had not touched the backpack since Erinn last came home from Maryvale, which was a week before our last family vacation to Jamaica and two weeks before she died. That was four years ago. Erinn is with me every day! Ryan and I talked about what to bring for him. We agreed that the letter he wrote to me at the father-son retreat at Wernersville in March would be perfect. That was a great weekend. I read Ryan’s letter often. I also bought a small backpack of his for day trips where I did not need to bring as much.

Armed with reading materials, a new camera, my iPod and my journal I am ready for the drive to Newark, flight to Ben Gurion International Airport and our journey. This journey will be educational, historical and spiritual for me. We arrived in Newark around 7:30. We passed through security, checked our bags and the group began to get to know each other in the Continental Lounge before boarding our plane around 10:00 pm for our 11-hour flight to Ben Gurion.

Sunday, May 15 : Tel Aviv

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 We left the plaza and arrived at the hotel a little after 6:00 pm, which gave us a little time to rest before dinner and a discussion with Dr. Paul Liptz, a social historian, and professor at Tel Aviv University and the Hebrew Union College. Our dinner was at House number 3 in Jaffa. House number 3 is an Arab building dating back to the Ottoman Empire. The house is owned and operated by a wonderful couple. She is Jewish and he is Arab. This is uncommon in Israel. They both were warm and welcoming. The house had fantastic porches and the dinner was wonderful and represented the ethnic diversity of the home and community.

Dr. Liptz’s presentation was fascinating. He arrived in Israel from Zimbabwe on June 4, 1967, one day before the Six-Day War. He discussed Israeli society from a social perspective. He reported that based on a recent world study Israel was ranked 22nd in quality of life and 8th on a “Happiness Factor” which is extraordinary for a country in a conflict area. The United States ranks 14th on both of these measures. Israel is a young country only having existed for 63 years. It has a population of 7.5 million people (approx. 1 million more people than Maryland) and geographically is the size of New Jersey. As with many young nations, people are identified in groups, not just as Israelis. Groupings are based on ethnicity, regionalism, and religion. Dr. Liptz pointed out that the diversity within the groupings is extraordinary.

The economic class breakdown of Israeli society is similar to the United States, yet it only took them only 63 years to get this way! This is concerning to most but in my view typical of young developing nations. The top 15 families in Israel could buy half of Tel Aviv. The top 7% of the Israeli population controls a proportional amount of wealth as the top 14% in the United States. The top 7% are typically young and secular, self-made wealth creators. The next 50% is the middle class, which as a group has both the opportunity for success and growth and risk of slipping and shrinking at the same time. The remaining 43% are the vulnerable middle (10%), poor (18%), “underclass” when people stop dreaming” (12%), and the missing class (3%). So 33% of the Israeli population lives below poverty. This poverty population is made up of four groups: the Ultra Conservative (68% male unemployment); Israeli Palestinians; Ethiopian Immigrants; and Immigrants from the region formerly occupied by the Soviet Union. The cultural disciplines and beliefs of the Ultra Conservatives and open door policy on immigration are drivers of poverty. Hopefully, assimilation, training, and education will improve the contributions and opportunities for these groups. However current trends are showing the top 7% getting wealthier, the middle class marginally the same and the bottom 43% falling further behind. As wealth and power continue to concentrate in the few, some are concerned about the political influence and power that this group could have in the country.

We landed at Ben Gurion at 4:01 pm, 14 minutes early! The flight was uneventful but tiring. We were met by Kobe who expedited us through customs and we were warmly greeted by our guide for the week, Lee Berlman. We boarded our bus and headed north to Tel Aviv, “the city that never sleeps.” Tel Aviv is a city of 450,000 people. The metropolitan area has approximately 1.5 million people. From a historical perspective, Tel Aviv is new. The city is only 101 years old and was born out of the sand along the Mediterranean. Tel Aviv is a hub of commerce and employment. Lee had the bus stop in downtown Tel Aviv in front of City Hall and we all got out. We walked a short distance to a memorial in honor of and at the very place where Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin had been assassinated on November 4, 1995. The death of Rabin, a true steward , and champion of peace shook and stunned the nation and world. As we stood in front of the memorial, on a busy city street, it felt peaceful and quiet with a slight breeze blowing. It is such a reflective place…all that is going on around you is lost. We moved onto Rabin Plaza which was just as peaceful and reflective.

Monday, May 16 : Tel Aviv to Caesarea to Kibbutz Kfar Blum

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David Burnett, The U.S. Embassy Economic Minister spoke to us at breakfast. Three significant security threats are of concern to both Israel and the United States. These threats are obvious to most. First, is the Iranian nuclear weapon threat, which the U.S. has attempted to address by way of sanctions and Israel will be imposing sanctions on Iran for the first time later this year. The second regional threat is Pakistan, where the influence of the Taliban and Sunni extremist are potentially problematic. The third is the uncertainty in Egypt. The Egyptian army’s preoccupation with operating the government and upcoming elections has led to border security issues, which among other things has led to disruption of natural gas supply to Israel. While both the U.S. and Israel welcome new democracies to the region, the “Arab Spring” creates uncertainty. The hope is for an orderly transition to leadership that is predictable, understandable and one that the U. S. and Israel can work with.

Economically 40% of Israel’s GDP is export with 1/3rd going to U.S., 1/3rd going to Europe and 1/3rd to emerging countries. Twenty-five percent of Israel’s GDP is non-military export. Israel has managed the financial crisis well, inflation is under control and a conservative monetary policy is in place. Israel’s growth market has been technology. They are trying to improve its manufacturing base for technology and innovative products as opposed to simply selling the technology. The talk and discussion were interesting and helpful.

Speaking of innovation, after breakfast, we had the unique opportunity to visit Better Place, an innovative five-year-old company founded by Shai Agassi, an entrepreneur who at age 30 sold his software company to SAP for $400 million dollars. Better Place is an electric car service company that provides electric charging stations at home and at work, battery-changing stations strategically located throughout Israel which in essence provides the infrastructure necessary to support the electric cars it sells to customers. The model works much like the cellular phone sales and service model. You purchase the car and pay for fuel (electricity) by the kilometer driven, much like you purchase a cell phone and a plan that charges you for minutes used. Since the battery (which costs approximately $10,000 each) is owned by Better Place, the car is much more affordable. The environmental benefits of this model are remarkable. Today nearly half of the oil that is produced is used to operate automobiles. Converting to electric cars will both reduce oil consumption and the by-products of the internal combustible engine. The infrastructure provides for charging stations at home and work which meets commuter and community driving. The battery charging stations are used for longer trips (trips over 120 miles). Batteries last up to 120 miles without needing to recharge.  A changing station can swap out a battery in five minutes. Better Place has committed to buying 100,000 cars from Renault over the next five years. Better Place is also piloting its model in Australia and Ontario and with 60 taxis in the San Francisco Bay area. This is a great example of Israeli innovation!

We had an interesting experience at Better Place in that we were given the opportunity to test drive an electric car. Barry Schloss, Zed Smith and I took a car with a Better Place representative. We each took a turn driving at different points. We had driven a fairly long way and Barry was the last to drive and we were a little lost.  As Barry proceeded down the highway we came to an Israeli security checkpoint with Armed Israeli security officers. Since we were not where we were supposed to be and since Barry and Zed did not have their passports with them, we had to pull into a security area for additional screening and brief detainment. Fortunately, after a brief questioning and search, we were allowed to go and reconnect with the rest of the group.

After our adventure at Better Place, we traveled to the city of Caesarea located 60 miles northwest of Jerusalem on the Mediterranean Sea. Caesarea was constructed by King Herod between 22 BC and 10 BC. It was a port city and served as the capital of Palestine for 600 years. Sts. Peter and Paul visited Caesarea and, in fact, St. Paul was imprisoned there before being moved to Rome to be put on trial. (A full description of Paul’s trial and appeal can be found in Acts 23:23 and Acts 24.)

Pontius Pilate once resided at the Palace in Caesarea. There were amazing archeological findings at Caesarea, from the Theatre which is still used today, to a stadium along the sea, an aqueduct system, pools and spas, and the foundational elements of the palace. I imagined what it must have been like back then and the presence and evangelization of Peter and Paul.

After lunch in Caesarea, we continued north to Mount Carmel to the Youth Village of Yemin Orde. Yemin Orde was founded in 1953 to accommodate orphans and immigrant children during the great immigration wave of the 1950’s. Today, Yemin Orde is home, school and community to more than 500 traumatized refugee children from 20 countries including Ethiopia and Darfur. The loving, nurturing and spiritual environment with its children’s residences with house moms and counselors, its onsite school and other facilities on 77 acres reminded me of St. Vincent’s Villa and the amazing work that we do at Catholic Charities with children that have been entrusted to us. Our models and programs might be different, but our mission and operating philosophies and commitment to vulnerable children are very much the same. Another common tie between both programs is that the Weinberg Foundation has provided financial support to both. A remarkable note about Yemin Orde is that six months ago there was a devastating forest fire that destroyed many of the children’s residences. After the fire, the community came together to rebuild. To the untrained eye, with the exception of charred forestation, you would not have known that a fire had taken place.

We live in a blessed, loving and caring world. We are part of something greater, greater than we can even imagine. I continue to see the Divine working in and through so many people.

The final stop of the day is the Kibbutz Kfar Blum in upper Galilee. Kfar Blum is located between Lebanon and Syria near the Golan Heights. In fact, it is located three miles from the Lebanese border and 15 miles from the Syrian border. Yesterday there were problems at the border (a border breach) requiring the engagement of the Israeli Army. Our host was Dubi Ben Ari.  Dubi’s parents came to upper Galilee in 1943 from Great Britain to establish, build and operate the Kibbutz along with other immigrants. There are 279 Kibbutzim in Israel. Essentially in the 1940s and 1950s, the Israeli Government established the Kibbutz model based on socialism. A Kibbutz is a collective group of voluntary practicing joint production and consumption community. They make up 2% of Israel’s population and were organized for three purposes. First, they were a way to recruit Jewish people to immigrate to Israel. Second, the Kibbutzim were strategically located along Israel’s border creating population centers along the border, providing border security. Finally, Kibbutzim were an economic growth engine for Israel at the time. Today Kibbutzim provide a quality of life that is attractive to many and is in the process of changing from a socialist model to a meritocracy.

Tuesday, May 17 : Kibbutz Kfar Blum to Jerusalem

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We stayed at Kibbutz Kfar Blum last night. I thought we had a thunderstorm. In the middle of the night, I heard high winds, rain, and what I thought was thunder. At breakfast, I was told that what I could have heard were shells being fired by the Hezbollah from Lebanon. This was not confirmed, but sobering to think about.

This morning we visited the Naot Shoe Factory followed by an amazing presentation by Avi Molamed about the balance of power and challenges of Israel’s northern border. We visited the Golan Heights and learned about Israel’s relationship with Syria and the internal challenges that Syria is facing. We next moved to the Israeli/Lebanese border and discussed the challenges in Israel’s relationship with Lebanon. The northern border is policed heavily by the Israeli army. We saw the United Nations presence along the border as well. To give a sense of size, you can cross from the Syria/Israel border to the Lebanon/Israel border in less than 30 minutes.  Avi ‘s view and that of many Israeli defense experts are that giving up the Golan Heights to pre-1967 borders makes the threat of losing the northern finger of upper Galilee to one of the hostile neighboring countries more possible. Iran’s influence and engagement in both Syria and Lebanon bring added complexities and challenges to the region.

After the tour of the north, we traveled to the Mount of Beatitudes. At the Mount is a church and monastery run by the Franciscans. I read the Sermon on the Mount – Matthew 5:1-2 to the group on the porch of the church. What a beautiful, peaceful and spiritual place on the Sea of Galilee. I imagined crowds gathered from great distances and nations to listen to Jesus. The Beatitudes reminds us that all are blessed; particularly the least among us and Jesus gives all of us hope so long as we trust in him. I also reflected on how the Beatitudes along with Matthew 25:31-46 are the foundation of our call to service at Catholic Charities.

After a wonderful lunch and wine tasting at Golan Winery, we visited Tabgha where Jesus performed the miracle of the loaves and the fishes. At Tabgha, there is a beautiful church and monastery under construction run by the Benedictines. Zed Smith read the story of the Loaves and the Fishes to the Group. Mathew14: 13-21. I reflected on how the miracle of the loaves and fishes is what happens each day at Our Daily Bread and My Sister’s Place Women’s Center.

Leaving Tabgha, we made the long trip to Jerusalem. As we drove, I thought about the trip that Mary and Joseph made from Nazareth in Galilee to Bethlehem. Our motor coach ride took a little more than three hours. We went from the lush lands of upper Galilee to the arid desert along the West Bank to Jerusalem. The terrain was rough and the temperature was hot. We were in a coach. Imagine how Mary and Joseph must have felt as they made the long journey. Interestingly as we approached Jericho on our way to Jerusalem, you would see people walking along the road with nothingness all around. I wondered where were they coming from and where were they going. A road less traveled I guess. Along the road, we also saw Bedouin communities living in tents and crude structures made out of scraped corrugated metal. Some were shepherding sheep and goats; others were farming small parcels of land while others seemed to be in the middle of nothingness. I had thought and then Patrick McCarthy remarked had the Bedouins been left behind? Where do they fit in Israel today? What will become of the Bedouin communities in the future?

After arriving in Jerusalem we had a great discussion with Reuven Hazan, a professor of political science at Hebrew University, comparing and contrasting Israeli and U.S. politics. The commonality stops there –they are both democracies. Reuven observed that in the United States we tend to vote on the economy (fiscal) and social issues. In Israel, the people always vote on two things: security and religion. In fact, Israel has enjoyed GNP growth of 7% annually over the last four years. In spite of the strong economy, the people voted the coalition out. The reason…security. In terms of security, there are two camps: Hawks – whose firm belief is to hold on to all territory taken from Egypt, Syria and Lebanon during the 1967 war and that a buffer is needed for security; and Doves – who are willing to negotiate territory for lasting peace. They believe with advances in technology and weapon systems, fewer buffers are really necessary. Based on the most recent elections, the public sentiment favors the Hawks.

In Israel, there are no names on ballots, just parties. Parties fill seats based on election results proportionally and parties must come together to build a coalition government. Israel has more than 40 political parties and both voting and building coalitions are strategic – quite a difference from our winner-take-all system. This is the difference between a presidential democracy and a parliamentary democracy.

Wednesday, May 18: Jerusalem and Ashkelon

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This morning, we visited the Israeli Supreme Court. The Supreme Court has fifteen justices, five of whom are women including the chief judge and one Arab. The Supreme Court is a court of original jurisdiction for claims against the government. The justice system in Israel provides for one appeal and it is an appeal of right. In the United States you have one appeal of right and a discretionary appeal (the court has to agree to hear your appeal). There are no jury trials in the Israeli system. The court can be addressed in Arabic or Hebrew. The Supreme Court hears cases in panels of three or more. Court stenographers were introduced to the legal system about five years ago. Prior to that, judges had to rely on trial notes and memory. When we visited the court, we sat in on a trial regarding the legal property rights of settlers (per Ellen Heller, I did not understand a word spoken).

The new Supreme Court Building is an architectural masterpiece. It was an Israeli father-daughter team that designed the building. This team also designed the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem. The new Supreme Court Building was funded by a grant from the Rothschild Trust. The Rothschild’s have funded and continue to fund numerous capital projects and institutions through out Israel.

After the visit to the Supreme Court, we headed southeast to the city of Ashkelon. Ashkelon is located just north of the Gaza Strip, and as recently as 2009, was subject to constant rocket fire from Gaza. Ashkelon is a City of 135,000 people and is the sister city of Baltimore. The Ashkelon-Baltimore partnership started seven years ago. The partnership has several goals and areas of focus and has had significant successes.  Among the goals are: to improve the city of Ashkelon’s tremendous potential; to provide a mechanism for the communities of Ashkelon and Baltimore (particularly their Jewish communities) to share best practices; and to connect Ashkelon with philanthropic and business investors from the Baltimore region. Among the focus areas are economic development; engaging teens in the community; and supporting and connecting with families with young children.

When we arrived at Ashkelon we immediately went to the newly constructed Baltimore Community Park. The park sits on a city block in a residential neighborhood. It has green space, playgrounds and exercise equipment, community artwork, and walking paths. The park was built with the efforts of 750 volunteers, 250 of which were from Baltimore. Financial support was provided by several funders connected with Baltimore including the Weinberg Foundation and The ASSOCIATED.

After the park, we visited a local elementary school to see a community-based supportive school model at work. This program is operated with the support of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (the “Joint” or JDC) and is a school and community-based therapeutic and enrichment program that supports vulnerable and at-risk children and their families. We observed art, music pet and psychodrama therapy being used with small groups of children as part of the in-school program. Other services include mental health and family support services.

The program shares common elements with our Villa Maria School and continuum services that we offer at Catholic Charities. The visit was not long enough to gain a full appreciation of all the services offered.

The Weinberg Foundation funds a Parents and Children Together (PACT) program which has guiding principles and program components that we offer families and children at St. Jerome’s Head Start. There could be additional services that we might consider implementing as part of our offering.

After our school visit, we met with the mayor of Ashkelon and his staff for lunch at the newly opened Community Volunteer Center. There was a great discussion about community engagement (particularly youth) in volunteering. This is a key initiative for the Mayor and the City. The city currently has 3,500 consistent community volunteers. This is similar to an initiative Baltimore has undertaken with community volunteer engagement.

We returned to Jerusalem after our lunch and discussion at the community center. On our way to dinner, we visited and prayed at the Western Wall. What a majestic and spiritual site. Hundreds, if not thousands, of people were touching and praying at the Wall.  This was a moving and powerful experience. In addition to a gathering place for prayer for the Jewish people, the Wall serves as a retaining wall for the Second Great Temple.

We enjoyed a wonderful dinner on the roof deck of a building overlooking the Western Wall. Over dinner, we were led in a discussion about the relations between the Palestinian Authority, Israel, and Jordan by Dov Schwartz, senior advisor and spokesman to the U.S. Security Coordinator for Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Dov gave examples of hope, stability, and a sense of security among people. There is hope, but a great deal of work to be done.

Thursday, May 19: Bethlehem

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Thursday was another exciting day on our journey. I spent the morning with counterparts in Jerusalem. Patrick McCarthy, CEO of the Annie E. Casey Foundation and I had breakfast with Avrom Suslovich of the JDC and Miriam Cohen-Navot, director of the Engelberg Center for Children and Youth. Much of the breakfast conversation was around our respective agencies, the environment we operate under (political, private and social) and how we approach performance management and outcome measurement. The agencies serve similar populations and offer similar services that we do at Catholic Charities. Their partnerships with government are different. It sounds more like a socialized model. The societal and cultural issues they face are remarkable. The ultra Conservatives are much different from the Arab Israelis, who are different from the immigrants from Ethiopia and the former Soviet Union. These cultural challenges require differences in how services are delivered, what services are delivered and by whom.

After breakfast, we traveled to the JDC where I met with Arnon Mantuer, director of JDC –Israel, and Atara Stern of the Children and Family Services Division. We had a fantastic discussion on program evolution and innovation, outcomes measurement and the similarities and differences in mission, funding and operating philosophy. Arnon comes to the United States at least annually and we agreed to meet on a future visit.

At lunch, the group reconvened and we had a presentation by and discussion with Felice and Michael Friedson of The Media-Line about the role of media in the Mid-East and to discuss our visit to Bethlehem in the afternoon. I was looking forward to our visit in particular because I was to introduce the Mayor of Bethlehem, Dr. Victor Batarseh, and to lead the discussion and Q&A session. Bethlehem is in the Palestinian Territory and therefore we would need to cross an Israeli checkpoint and wall and then go through a Palestinian checkpoint. Since our tour guide, Lee is Israeli, she was not permitted to cross with us due to safety concerns. We crossed with The Media-Line folks.

Bethlehem is a poor city, cut off from much of the world. Its primary industry is tourism and has an unemployment rate in excess of 20%. The past violence and terrorism of the PLO and Hamas caused the wall to be constructed, effectively cutting off Bethlehem from the rest of the world. As an aside, violence and terrorism in the region also declined.

We entered City Hall for our meeting with the Mayor. The room was stately: two chairs separated by an end table in the front of the room with chairs and couches forming a “U” around the rest of the room. Coffee was served. The Mayor and I sat and the dialogue began. The Mayor has an interesting background. He was born in Bethlehem and has been Mayor since being elected in 2005. He is a Roman Catholic (Palestinian Christian). Prior to entering politics, Dr. Batarseh was a renowned ear, nose and throat surgeon. He has been a dual citizen of the United States for more than 20 years. His three children and seven grandchildren live in the United States. Dr. Batarseh is an ardent supporter for the liberation of Palestine. He offered a sympathetic and impassioned case for a two-state solution resolution of the conflict with Israel. He described the hardship, loss of dignity, and poverty that the people of Bethlehem are living under.

I also found the changing demographics of Bethlehem interesting. The Catholic and Christian population is rapidly declining and the Muslim population is growing. Dr. Batarseh said something that struck me. He said he believed that the great majority of Palestinians and Israelis wanted a negotiated peaceful resolution to the conflict and could live in peace with each other. He also said that he believed that the United States was the only nation that could facilitate a peaceful resolution in Bethlehem.

There is hope. However, until the Palestinians can address the acts of terrorism and violence of Hamas and others, and Israel is convinced of it, and Israel can convince the majority that there is and can be security with a negotiated settlement, peace is not possible. At the end of our meeting, the Mayor placed a prayer shawl around my neck and handed prayer shawls to my colleagues. I gave him a small gift on behalf of the Weinberg Foundation; we shook hands and were off to visit the Church of the Nativity of our Lord, the birthplace of Jesus.

The Church of the Nativity was extremely moving. I prayed for peace and lit a candle for Erinn. After visiting the Church, we crossed back over, returning to our hotel around 6 pm. Dinner was at 7 pm a few blocks away.

During dinner, we learned about President Obama’s policy speech on the Middle East that he gave at the State Department. The president said that Israel and Palestine must co-exist in a two-state system and that Israel and Palestine should go back to the pre-1967 borders. This is viewed as a huge shift in policy (particularly with respect to borders) and is troubling to the people of Israel and to many of those around our table at dinner. Wow! What a time to be in Israel.

Friday, May 20: Jerusalem   

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What a fantastic day. I am blessed and privileged to be part of this gathering and journey. Rachel Monroe, Barry Schloss,  Rheta Schloss, and Benita Robinson of the Weinberg Foundation have all been wonderfully kind, caring, and gracious hosts. The speakers have been fantastic, the visits amazing and the schedule, order, and pace have been superb.  Each member of the group that came together for this journey has been incredible and a gift to me. I am humbled to be part of this.

We started off the day with breakfast with David Zilberklang, senior historian at the International Institute for Holocaust Research at Yad Vashem. Yad Vashem is the Jewish National Memorial to six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust including one and one-half million children. The memorial also includes a historical museum and a children’s memorial. David made a thought-provoking presentation about the Holocaust, how it happened, why it happened, and why most of the world including my church and my country were bystanders as it happened. I reflected on his words as we toured the museum and memorial. The museum gave an incredible chronology of the Holocaust, told through the eyes and stories of survivors and those heroes who helped save so many lives. I left questioning how this could have happened and committing to never be a bystander in the face of injustice.

In the afternoon we toured the Christian quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem. We started at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher which was built on the site of Golgotha, where Jesus was crucified and died, and on the site of the tomb where Jesus was laid and rose from the dead. This church was built by Constantine in the fourth century. This is the holiest of sites, shared by the Roman Catholics, Greek Orthodox, and the Armenians. I was and am deeply moved by my visit and by praying at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. At the tomb of Jesus, I lit a candle for Erinn.

After leaving the church we continued down Via Delarosa through the Christian Section walking the Stations of the Cross in reverse order (since we started at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher). This was powerful and moving. Stations X through XIV are actually in the Church. We spent a good part of the afternoon walking the stations, ultimately arriving at the Mt. of Olives, Garden of Gethsemane, and Church of Agony. What a moving experience! We read the Gospel of Matthew, reflecting on the words as we walked.

I reflected on the morning at Yad Vashem and the Holocaust and in the afternoon the journey through the Christian Section of the Old City and Passion of the Lord. In both cases, I ask how could this happen? How could there be so many be bystanders to these injustices? In Jesus’ case, he died so that he could rise again to save us all. The ultimate act of selfless love. However, as I think about injustice, I realize that there are always bystanders to injustice. If nothing else, we should not allow ourselves to become bystanders.

Friday evening was the Sabbath, so we celebrated Shabbat Shalom with our group (‘Team”) and invited guests including six Israeli lone soldiers. These lone soldiers were inspirational to me and the entire team. They have an incredible love for the country and land of Israel and have come from foreign lands, alone to serve Israel. Typically, they come after high school. Men commit to three years of service and women to two years. Tadar and Talia were lone soldiers who sat at my table. Tadar and Talia are sisters. They came to Israel from Connecticut after high school to serve. Tadar just completed her service and will be reapplying to college in Israel. You see Tadar had been accepted to the University of Maryland and University of Connecticut as a high school senior but decided to serve in Israel instead. Now she wishes to go to school in Israel. Her sister Talia is just starting her service. She turned down an offer to Cornell to serve Israel.

The Shabbat program was fantastic and uplifting. We gathered in a circle, prayed, sang, danced and blessed and shared bread and wine. Although my Hebrew is not very good (I do not know Hebrew at all), I tried! It was wonderful celebrating the love and grace of God with my Team and members of diverse faiths. It was also amazing celebrating Shabbat while looking out at the Old City. This celebration was unifying and spiritual.

What a fantastic day! The most spiritual and uplifting day in our journey!

Saturday, May 21: Jerusalem to Baltimore

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Saturday is the last day of our fantastic gathering and journey. We headed southeast to the Dead Sea Basin. The Dead Sea is 500 feet below sea level. Our first stop was Masada, which has a vertical elevation of 500 meters. Masada was King Herod’s mountain palace and the site of the Jewish Zealots’ last stand against the Roman Legionnaires. There are two ways to get to Masada. You can either take the cable car up the mountain or hike the snake path. Seven of us decided to hike the path, while the others (“wise ones”) took the cable car. The views from Masada were spectacular. Hiking allowed us to take in the views as we ascended. After finishing the hike and tour (Yes, I finished the hike!), we headed to the Hod Dead Sea Resort to both float in the Dead Sea and take a mud bath. What a relaxing experience. We were such a hit at the Spa that strangers (“people not known to us”) were taking pictures of the team lathered in dark mud. What a relaxing and rejuvenating experience to end our week! After lunch, we got on the coach and napped on the ride back to Jerusalem. After a few hours of free time, we gathered for a farewell dinner and headed to Ben Gurion for our flight home.