Ratio Christi's Israel Travelers - A Report from the Holy Land
(The empty tomb. Photo credits below).
In January 2016, we let our readers know about RC’s planned trip to Israel coming up in the summer. The trip was open to anyone who desired to go.
Here’s how the trip turned out! Keep reading to capture the experience of some of our travelers as they share the highlights of their trip. You’ll see thoughts below from David HaLevy* the trip organizer, Aaron Marshall, our RC chapter director at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, Samuel Knight, a student from that chapter and junior at UNCW, Tom and Cindy Simpson who are the chapter’s faculty advisor and “chapter mom” respectively, Corey Miller, RC’s president, and Melissa and Randall Slusher representing RC’s chapter at UNC Charlotte. “Visit” Israel through their words and photos of this beautiful country and its historical, biblical sites.
David HaLevy is a Jewish believer in Jesus along with his father and brother. They’ve led numerous trips to Israel and organized this one as well.
“As every member of the group expressed at some point, this trip is an education, not just a vacation,” HaLevy says. “Yes we had very much fun, but this is much more than sightseeing. A tour of Israel is a tour of the history of the universe. Rabbinical tradition holds that Mount Moriah was the foundation stone of the universe. From that point everything else unfolded. I think for many a trip to Israel is a foundation stone and springboard for their faith – a new beginning of understanding which cannot be found anywhere else. The people on our trip were very bright, so we were really able to go deep when it came to our study and examination of Israel from every perspective.”
Q: First, tell us about the Israeli people and their society. Is it very religious, or more secular?
HaLevy: This was my fifth trip to Israel and as always the Israeli people are the highlight. They are kind, warm, generous, gracious, hardworking, industrious, and ever optimistic. Witnessing to Israelis can be so much easier here. I was able to witness to an archeologist with the Temple Mount Sifting Project.
Israeli society is both more secular and more religious than America. This seems like a contradiction, but in some ways it’s true. There are many extremely religious people in Israel who have enough power to be a political force. On the other hand, there are equally secular factions which hold sway as well. This produces a society which is respectful of its religious heritage, yet welcomes very liberal speech and thought. Here’s an example: When you enter the Army (Israeli Defense Force, or IDF) and receive your rifle, they give you a Tenach (Old Testament). At the same ceremony you may have a "transgendered" private entering the Army.
Marshall: Jerusalem is a very religious city. Jesus once said, "For the sake of religion, you are missing me." The Jewish people are all doing the routines at the Wailing Wall – wearing the phylacteries, wearing black, rocking back and forth as they pray, but they are missing Jesus who is the key to salvation. Tel Aviv, which is only 150 kilometers away, is very secular.
Knight: While we were sifting through the old rubble we had conversations with other people at the sites. A number of the conversations were really talking about not do you believe in God, but mostly what do you believe about God?
Q: How do those who live in Israel deal with the constant threat of terrorism?
HaLevy: One would never suspect any kind of anxiety on the part of the Israeli people, even though they are of course under attack and the threat of attack every day. This is due partly to the fact that every Israeli person (18 and over) is required to do some kind of active duty service in the IDF. Training its citizens to combat terror and difficult situations breeds a society that is void of panic.
While we were there the Temple Mount was shut down by police for the safety of visiting tourists. The Muslim Arabs had stockpiled rocks and metal pipes and began throwing them at tourists. No one was hurt, but the police quickly took care of the situation. Henceforth, a small riot broke out on top of the Mount. This was more a display than an actual riot and no one was in any real danger. Our group was nowhere near the Mount when this took place. We were always acutely aware to never go into any places which are inherently dangerous. Everyone in our group said that there was no time when they were nervous or felt unsafe.
Knight: There was a young boy around ten years old selling bread at a bread stand. He was right next to a police station. The area was heavily guarded by police and members of the Israeli military. Even civilians can carry rifles, but no one blinks an eye. This is an everyday occurrence.
M. Slusher: The thing that really stood out to me was the humbleness of many of the soldiers we met. They were so incredibly young! Everyone has to serve in the Israeli Army. Men have to serve at least three years and women at least two. We met a 19-year-old female and a 19-year-old male soldier at the site of Jesus’ baptism (where John the Baptist baptized Him). They were almost shy and seemed surprised that we wanted to talk to them and ask them questions. We took pictures with them, shook their hands, and thanked them for their service. It seemed that they really appreciated our thankfulness.
I was nervous about going before we got there, but once we got there the nervousness went completely away. Even though we were close to dangerous places, such as the Temple Mount, I never was afraid. We had told our daughter Ashley that if something happened to us while we were there it was okay – because we were winners either way!
R. Slusher: One thing that amazes me is they are such a small nation and have had so many enemies for so many years, but they continue to exist because of God’s protection.
Highlights of the trip
When asked to tell some highlights of the trip, the first thing several people mentioned was a boat excursion on the Sea of Galilee – which was run by a Jewish man who had accepted Jesus.
Marshall: I had an incredible worship experience with a Jewish believer who has a boat and took us on the Sea of Galilee. Jewish people go there for vacations, but most people in Israel don't even think about Jesus. Before he knew Christ, this Jewish believer was taking Christian groups on tours. He would hear them talk and pray. Through interacting with these Christians, he accepted Jesus and now leads the trips from a different perspective!
T. Simpson: Yes - one of the highlights for me as well was being on the Sea of Galilee and looking out at Capernaum and the Mount of Olives. We had this worship experience on the boat. The director of the boat, the Jewish believer, also composes music now and sang for us. It was tranquil and quiet.
M. Slusher: Worshipping out on a boat in the middle of the Sea of Galilee…just picturing Jesus saying to Peter, “Come unto me.”
Marshall: Emotionally, the whole thing was incredible. It was nine days non-stop. We wanted to experience everything we could. The last stop was Jerusalem and we were there for four days, including seeing the Mount of Olives. Whereas we may look in awe at our oldest buildings here in America or the ones in Europe which are hundreds of years old, Jerusalem is an incredible city with buildings dating back thousands of years.
It was so hot there that even with bottles of water at our fingertips, you realize what it must've been like for the Israelites to wander in the desert for forty years. We had flown into Tel Aviv and our hotel was on the beach on the Mediterranean. We swam in this beautiful water.
Miller: One day we visited the home of Caiaphas and saw dungeons where he kept people. On day nine we walked on top of the walls of the city of David, went underneath where archaeology has revealed a 3,000 year old city confirmed by existing coins, seals, columns, etc. Then we went through Hezekiah's tunnels by which the Israelites first took the city, digging them out by hand and known by inscriptions found there.
While the New Testament says that Jesus performed thirty miracles in Galilee, it says he only did two in Jerusalem, at the pool of Bethesda and at the pool of Siloam. A few years ago the pool was found by accident – the way many things are found while digging new construction and hitting something below.
We then went on my first formal archaeological dig. I was actually sifting through dirt that hundreds of dump trucks had taken from the Temple Mount. With the Mount controlled by Muslims, these things had simply been discarded in the Kidron Valley a few years ago. Thus, Israelis are constantly digging through that dirt and finding things. I personally found bones, metal, pottery, ancient glass, and mosaic. I found two pieces of pottery in particular (which the project leaders said was) from the Byzantine period around the fourth century AD. One member of our team found an item 3,000 years old. We weren't allowed to keep any, however.
We culminated the day by locating Golgotha and the Garden Tomb atop Mount Moriah, the most likely places where I think Jesus was crucified, buried, and rose again. One cannot be sure about the location but the evidence is consistent with about seven lines of argument to this effect.
Knight: I always thought seeing Israel would be a fantastic opportunity and when the chance to go came up with Ratio Christi I jumped at it. I've never been out of America before, so seeing how other countries live was very eye-opening.
Heading up toward Lebanon there were so many barbed wire areas where there were still mines from the 1967 Arab-Israeli War (known also as “the Six-Day War”).
Nazareth was very interesting and Jerusalem was amazing. We saw the Qumran Caves where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered, and two designated places considered to be traditional sites where baptisms are done and were supposedly done in biblical times.
I found a Roman nail that may have been a little shorter than my cell phone. It looked like one that could have been used in Jesus’ day for crucifixion. But like Corey said, we couldn't take anything home from the digs.
M. Slusher: The Garden of Gethsemane…realizing that I was standing in the same garden where Jesus prayed, knowing that He was about to face the Cross and sweat drops of blood for me! The Garden of Gethsemane was one of our son Jordan’s favorite places when he came to Israel in 2011.
This trip really meant the world to Randall and me because we got to see many of the same places that Jordan did a year before he died. We felt very close to Jordan there! (To read the story of the Slushers' late son Jordan who attended RC at UNC Charlotte, please go here. RC’s Legatus Christi - student ambassador award - is dedicated to him.)
Irit Doron was our guide. She is a Jewish believer and an incredibly smart lady. She knew everything there is to know about the history of Israel.
R. Slusher: A highlight for me was Caesarea Philippi where Jesus asked His disciples, “Who does man say that I am?” Then He made it personal and asked, “Who do you say that I am?” I have always found this challenging to know that my actions speak louder than my words when I say who Jesus is to me.
And then Caiaphas’ house, where Jesus looked Peter in the eye after Peter had denied Him for the third time. I can only imagine what went through Peter’s mind when Jesus looked at Him. One day we will all see Jesus face to face, and I pray that when He looks at me He will be pleased!
C. Simpson: “Our tour guide Irit was wonderful. She has a history degree which helped her combine the Bible with her historical knowledge. She knew how to get us into places at times when the crowds were smaller so we could focus on connecting the Bible with the locations at which we were standing. Back home at our church, we had just studied about the Samaritan who was left on the road. Irit pointed out the spot where that happened. It was hot, dusty, and barren with no shade. You could just imagine him lying there in the road.
At Caesarea Philippi, we sat under massive fig trees, being taught where Jesus taught his disciples. The aroma was simply amazing and heightened our awareness of the study.
T. Simpson: Cindy and I weren't counting on this, but it turned out to be a blessing – we’ve been supporting a lady who is in Israel with Chosen People Ministries (an outreach to Jewish people by Christians and Jewish believers). We actually had a chance to meet her and spend time with her and her family while there. David and his dad also arranged for a meeting with the director of Chosen People. She met with us and told how open the people are to learning the gospel – young, old, and immigrants from places like Russia and Ukraine. Chosen People also has a ministry to Holocaust survivors and a backpack ministry to veterans from the Israeli Armed Forces. This also opens conversations.
Just imagine if many Israelis came to Christ through a massive Messianic movement. This could bring other Jewish people around the world to listen to God's word!
Closing thoughts, changed lives
M. Slusher: The one thing you will probably hear the most is that once you go to Israel you will never read the Bible the same way again. It’s true! The Bible comes alive to me now because I can actually see in my mind the places mentioned. I’m ready to go back. I think the first time you go, you are so in awe of being there that it’s almost like you are in shock. I want to go again and really soak it all in.
Miller: I came home exhausted. Fatigued. But I will never read the Bible the same again. My reading list grew. There is so much archaeological support and historically rich context that academic degrees in biblical studies just cannot provide.
Marshall: As an educator and RC chapter director I love teaching about Scripture. But this trip will change the way I do everything – it will just be different how I explain the Word. You hear the sounds, you see the sights. You walk where Jesus and the disciples walked. We read the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus did it. You see where he was crucified. We even took communion there. David, his dad, and brother helped us to see so many connections since they've been there so many times. They did a great job lining up the locations we visited. We basically saw the entire country.
When I got home, I ordered a number of new books to study. I teach a Bible class to high school students. I can now use the geography to help in my lessons, and plug things in on maps in the framework of having been there. It brought everything so much more alive.
From a chapter director’s perspective, five from the chapter were there, and now there's a bond between us, a life-changing bond. Even though we initially wanted thirty or forty people to go, the eleven of us who went were brought so close together. We are already encouraging people to go next year. For students like Samuel to go while they are young is a fabulous opportunity. We would also like to build a relationship with the students at Tel Aviv University.
Knight: This trip shapes how you see Scripture for the rest of your life. I would advise every to Christian do it, especially if you have the chance while you're young and you have your whole life ahead of you to read the Scriptures after seeing something like this.
I grew so much with the people I met and went with from UNCW but also the joy of meeting others like RC's president Corey Miller. The way we did corporate and individual prayer has helped my spiritual life.
R. Slusher: As I lay here wide awake at 2:30 am (still on Israeli time) missing my "Israel family," I am overcome with love and gratitude to Irit Doron, David HaLevy & his wife, and Aaron Marshall for everything that they did to make this life-changing trip possible! I really enjoyed getting to know the people that were on the trip with us…having Bible studies together and sharing what about the trip meant the most to us. I am so thankful for the time we got to spend with each of them. Memories and friendships that will last throughout eternity. Love to all.
T. Simpson: This trip really helped me appreciate the integration between the Old Testament and New Testament, and how God’s Old Testament prophecies were fulfilled through Jesus.
C. Simpson: Several years ago, Tom and I watched a Focus on the Family series of videos, "That the World May Know." The videos showed people in Israel sitting on rocks and benches and taking notes on biblical teachings about the historical spots where they were. I found myself wanting to go and do something like that. But we wanted to be sure to have the biblical experience. We have friends who went a couple of years ago with their church. They were expecting to connect in this way, but it didn't happen for them. It was simply a sightseeing tour. I am so glad ours was different.”
Come to Israel with Ratio Christi in 2017! Watch for details starting around January.
*Due to the fact that “David HaLevy” and his wife will be applying for dual citizenship in Israel and this post will be available on the open Internet, we are protecting his American name at this time. This is his Hebrew name.
Photos courtesy of Corey Miller and Cindy Simpson.
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