I never thought I’d go to Israel. I always pictured it as a faraway land where all these historical, biblical events happened. But that’s it, nothing more. So, as I sat with my two Jewish roommates back in Tallahassee, Florida and listened to their summer plans where yet again they would be traveling to Israel for internships and leading Taglit Birthright trips, I got to thinking how cool it would be to experience Israel for myself. After all, Jewish-Israeli history is just as much my history as it is theirs, and how neat would it be if all three girls in the townhome on Bellevue Way traveled to Israel all in the same summer?
One of my roommates, who is very connected with the Jewish community through the OU, StandWithUs, and other organizations, mentioned in passing that she thought there was a Christian version of Birthright; some organization that was fairly new she had heard about on one of the dozens of conferences that she had attended in the past year. So, we both sat at our dining room table and scoured the internet for a Christian organization that brought students to Israel at a reduced cost. And finally, we found it: Passages. The website looked great, plenty of pictures and a description of the goals they had. My roommate actually had the email address of one of the main coordinators of the trip and sent her a message about my interest in the program and how I could go about getting more information and possibly registering.
Well, three essays, one recommendation letter, and 24 hours later, I was registered and confirmed on the Florida State University/Loyola University bus to Israel in June. It didn’t even feel real. The week before, Israel was not even a thought in my mind, and all of a sudden, I was going to the Middle East for a 10-day excursion with 45 people I had never met. In the month leading up to it, I intently and obsessively researched every single stop that was listed on the itinerary sent to me. I watched every video, read every article, and flipped through the dog-eared, highlighted pages of my Bible to better understand exactly what I was going to be seeing. The excitement kept building the more I learned about the land; where Jesus walked, taught, and lived. I stocked up on long skirts that I would need for the holy sites and tied up any loose ends back home so that my mind would be free and clear for the jam-packed trip. And then we were there. In Israel. In THE Holy Land, a land set apart and chosen by God. And everything that I expected was completely thrown out the window. My mind couldn’t comprehend it then, and even now, nearly one month later, still cannot seem to comprehend it.
The entire trip felt like an attempt to piece together a giant mosaic of history, culture, religion, perspectives, politics and the modern day understanding of it all. Each piece equally beautiful, yet vastly different, and in the grand scheme of things creates a piece of art so compelling, one could spend the rest of their life studying it. All 45 of us students came for varying reasons, whether it be to learn about the geo-political issues surrounding the Middle East, to discover the land of the Bible, or simply to travel. But, one thing all 45 of us had in common was our faith, and the roots of our faith were in this holy land.
My purpose for coming to Israel was to rediscover my faith in a new way. I grew up in the church, I hosted my own Bible studies, took theology classes and was the token Christian girl everywhere I went. However, heading in to college I just couldn’t seem to find my footing with any Christian connections, and soon became disconnected from any Christian base. After some futile attempts to find my faith home, I gave up altogether and settled into everyday life at University. Three years later, after being emotionally abused, being cheated on, and being bullied, I gave up everything and put my full faith and trust in God. In that moment, almost exactly a year ago, God began working in me and equipping me for the most fulfilling year of my life. I changed my entire lifestyle, I found a church home, I succeeded in almost everything I did and even got into my top-choice graduate school program. God had blessed me one-thousand times over, and by going to Israel and discovering the roots of my faith, I felt like it was a continuation of the rededication of my faith. Bringing me closer to God after spending a long, hard three years at a distance.
Seeing and hearing about the places we were visiting was like rereading an old book, the more I heard, the more I remembered, and the more connections I made. As we walked thousand-year-old streets, touched ancient ruins, and cruised across the Sea of Galilee, I fought the feelings of being a tourist, and attempted to grasp that I was actually in the land of my savior. That within this smaller-than-New Jersey-sized land area, the entire world was saved. I couldn’t help but feel so very small and insignificant as I was surrounded by the history of the world.
One expectation I had before embarking on this journey, was that I would be very emotional the whole time, and that I would be able to feel God’s presence at every location we visited. And although I did have a few of these personal moments with God, it was never in places that I expected, but in small moments and places that did not necessarily carry heavy biblical or spiritual significance. As crowds of people sat and prayed and cried at places like the Wailing Wall, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher or the Garden of Gethsemane, my moments with God were spent alone on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, at dinner laughing and sharing stories with strangers that turned into friends, and just simply sitting on the bus and gazing over the landscape of Israel with the chatter of everyday conversations in the background. If this trip taught me anything, it’s that my faith is not based on worldly things like landmarks and remnants of ancient times but is based on the knowledge that God loved me so much that He sent his only son as a sacrifice, His son, who is no longer here on Earth, because He is risen.
After coming back from Israel and beginning the transition back into my everyday life, I slowly began to understand how I was wrong for feeling small and insignificant while I was on the ground in Israel. Because out of the billions of people in the world, God specifically chose me, set me apart and gave me grace, despite how undeserving I am. Though I knew I had always been forgiven for those three years apart, I was finally able to forgive myself. I felt worthy again, I felt loved again- not because God ever stopped loving me or deeming me worthy, but because I realized that was never the case.
Israel showed me grace. It showed me that just as God delivered the Israelites from Egypt and promised them abundance, that I am promised abundance as well. I have been saved and made worthy of an unconditional love only a heavenly king could provide. An all-consuming love that resides deep within my soul and can never be shaken. My only wish is that I am able to spread that love to others and show them that they too are forgiven and made worthy of so much more they could ever imagine.