Every day in Israel has been full of surprises — the beautiful and excellent food, the wide variety of geographical features, the incredible detail of the archeological finds, and today, the leathery knees and elbows of camels. However, the best surprise I have had is the quality of the group that I am traveling with.
I’ve already mentioned Hela, our guide, a Messianic Jew from New York City; she is rich in knowledge of Israel after extensive training and twenty-two years on the job. She keeps spewing out facts, answering questions, and throwing in an occasional pun. Oy. Then there’s Dan, a friend and colleague from Ann Arbor; this is his fourth trip to Israel. He started planning this trip about eighteen months ago, brought John into the plan over a year ago, and added me last Spring when the number of students necessitated a third chaperone.
Of course I am thrilled to have my husband and best friend, John, on this trip of a lifetime. He is very conscientious, not only of me, but of everyone on the trip. He is so aware of what everyone’s needs are and anticipates how he can best be of service on the trip. He’s our Johnny on the Spot. Beyond that, he is fun to be with. He is always ready to try something new, like float on the frigid deep sea water before breakfast this morning, climb onto the back of a camel with me and ride it across the sand of the Negev, or eat candied mushrooms — I promise you, they were amazing!
But most amazing of all? The students we are traveling with. I gotta admit that in the days leading up to the trip, I might have had some reservations about traveling to the other side of the world with thirty college students. I had met almost half of them in Ann Arbor, but the rest were absolute strangers to me. Not only would I have to co-exist with these people, who, by the way, are aged 19 to 56, but I would be responsible for leading ten of them in small group meetings every evening, keeping track of them throughout the day, and being available for any crises that might arise. What if we had one (or more!) high maintenance travelers? What if roommate conflicts arose? What if students got lost? What if they refused to follow the rules? Well, I thought, we’ll cross those bridges when we come to them.
All of my worries were unfounded. Seriously, all of them. From the moment we gathered on the morning of January 6, these students have been easy going, friendly, receptive to one another, willing to lend a hand, and genuinely interested in all the information they are being exposed to. Granted, they are getting a grade for this adventure, but they could still be apathetic. Many students are, but these kids are engaged. Let me show you what I mean.
Almost every day, they have had to be up, packed, finished with breakfast, and on the bus by or before 8am. They ALWAYS are. We have not had to wait once for anyone. Several times a day, we stop at a site, Hela says, “bring your Bible and your camera,” and all thirty jump off the bus, follow Hela, and start taking pictures and notes the minute she starts talking. When she says, “go,” they disperse and milk the site for as much information as they can squeeze out of it. If Hela says we are staying together, they stay together. If she says, we are going to eat falafel, they eat falafel. If she says, “You should order the St. Peter’s fish,” they order the St. Peter’s fish. I am telling you, they don’t whine, they don’t complain, they don’t wrinkle their noses, they are all in. Always.
And in the evenings, after we have all had dinner and Hela has retired to her room for the evening, the rest of us convene to worship and debrief. Again, no one has ever been late. Two of our students take turns playing the guitar and leading worship. Others have volunteered to pray or read Scripture. After some announcements and singing, we break into groups of ten — the same groups every night — where we share about the experiences of the day, ask questions, and encourage one another. This all happens at 8pm, twelve hours after they boarded the bus! And they are still engaged and invested, sharing their hearts and listening to one another.
I know, I know, I sound like I am gushing. And, yes, I know, I always am bragging about my students; it’s like I think I have better students than anyone else in the world. And, you know, I think I do!!
This morning, when John and I walked down to the beach to float in the Dead Sea, we passed two young men who were working out together, one coaching the other. We found another girl, sitting alone, practicing the Hebrew alphabet. In the water, we met up with three students who hadn’t met before this trip, who were floating, laughing, and taking pictures of one another. While we were in the water, others joined, then Dan walked down to the beach to take our picture for the video he is publishing online most evenings. Because the water was very cold, John and I left the beach and walked inside the hotel where there is a pool full of filtered, heated Dead Sea water. In the pool, we joined Dan, some other students, and the last member of our tour, our driver, Elan.
Let me talk about Elan for a minute. He is a Jewish native of Israel in his fifties. His first language is, of course, Hebrew, but he speaks English rather well, too. The guy can drive that bus, a fifty-five passenger Mercedes, in places I wouldn’t drive my car. Today he wound us through hairpin curves from 700+ feet below sea level to 2500 feet above sea level and back again. He fits that bus through gates, into parking spots, and past busses and truck with inches to spare — I promise I am not exaggerating. He joins us at dinner and in the pool, cracks jokes, and is quick with a witty response. Two times he has missed a turn and said, dead pan, “I went a different way to show you the cows.”
If I had to interview and hand-select traveling companions, I couldn’t have compiled a group this magnificent. They are becoming members of my extended family — people who will matter to me for the rest of my life. I wasn’t anticipating that; it is a bonus blessing. I am so thankful for these traveling companions.
“walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called,
with all humility, bearing with one another in love,
eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”