Just Back: Intriguing Israel

Kelly Shea, of Kelly Shea Travels, visited Israel with Rebecca Recommends and Travex in November, and is back with the challenges and highlights of her journey, which included a few miracles along the way.

It was November 27 and I’d just taken my seat on the 6:05 p.m. Delta flight from Indianapolis to JFK for my connecting flight to Tel Aviv later that evening when the texts started coming, one after the other…not a good sign.

The first was from a friend who knew I was going to Israel some time after Thanksgiving. He works in Global Security for a big international company. “Are you in Israel yet? I sure hope so because Israel is closing down its borders, tomorrow, November 28th at midnight until at least December 13th.” Within a few minutes my cellphone was blowing up with other texts in capital letters, “Did you get to Israel?” “When do you leave for Israel?” “I hope you have travel insurance. You’re going to need it!” “Will the Israelis let you leave?”

Luckily, I’d made the decision early on to arrive in Tel Aviv the day before we began our journey through Israel with Travex, my “go to” DMC in Israel for clients traveling there. A quick calculation told me I was arriving only six hours and 41 minutes before the country closed down, for what turned out to be 43 days. There were to be 14 of us on the long-awaited familiarization tour with Rebecca Slater of Rebecca Recommends and Travex, preferred DMCs with Virtuoso and Signature. Seven of us were the “Fortunate Ones” who arrived just under the wire of the border closure. The not so fortunate were the seven set to arrive hours after the ban took effect. Miracle number one.

We stepped off the plane at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport at 5:30 p.m., November 28 and were whisked away from the passengers on an almost sold-out flight, directly to a private check-in counter just to the right of where 275 other passengers were getting in line to go through Immigration and Passport Control. It took us all of 10 minutes. Then onto the Test & Go for our PCR test, again circumventing the line of hundreds of other travelers waiting to be tested. We all tested negative. Miracle number two! And they just kept coming. 

Travex team and group at the Mount of Olives
The group, along with members of the Israel-based DMC, Travex, poses at the Mount of Olives, where they began their walking tour of Old Jerusalem on day one. (Courtesy Kelly Shea)

Our first two night’s stay was at Mamilla, a contemporary hotel of just under 200 rooms. Located less than a half mile away are the Old City walls and Jaffa Gate. We had just incredible views from the rooftop Happy Fish Lounge and Restaurant, which gave us all goosebumps. Just beyond the entrance to the hotel is the outdoor Mamilla Mall, full of upscale chic boutiques, outdoor cafés, a fantastic wine shop (I know from personal experience) and art galleries showcasing local Jewish artists. 

Shopping would have to take a backseat on day one of sightseeing through Old Jerusalem. We started our walking tour at the Mount of Olives and continued down Palm Sunday Road to the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus was arrested the night before his crucifixion. We then entered the Christian Quarter of the old city through St. Stephen’s Gate to walk along the Via Dolorosa, Latin for “way of suffering” which is said to be the path that Jesus would have taken to his crucifixion. As we walked the path through the old Roman city built by Hadrian, we marveled at the different stone and bronze depictions of the nine different stations of the cross that pay homage to the events of sentencing, carrying of the cross, crucifixion, death and the burial of Jesus. The final five stations of the cross are within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.  

Our next stop was the 3,000-year-old City of David, Jerusalem’s earliest settlement, now an archeological wonderland outside the old city walls. In 2004, workers were repairing sewer pipes in the old city, when they discovered The Biblical Pool of Siloam, an ancient gathering site for Jews making pilgrimages to Jerusalem. It is said to be the site where Jesus cured a man who was blind from birth. They also discovered an ancient pathway from the Pool to the Temple area. The path was built by the Prophet Hezekiah and later renovated by Herod, the Roman King of Judea who ruled in 70 BC. I’m sure this had to feel like a miracle to those workers in 2004. 

Speaking of working crews, we donned bright yellow hard hats, emblazoned with “The City of David,” as we were guided on over a mile walk through a dimly lit tunnel that is still under excavation and not open to the public. This special “behind-the-scenes” access was arranged for us by Travex, with permission from Zeev Orenstein, the director of international affairs for the City of David, who graciously accompanied us.  

City of David VIP tour
The City of David, Jerusalem’s earliest settlement, is now an archeological wonder outside the old city walls.  (Courtesy Kelly Shea)

After exiting the site through the Pilgrim’s Passage, we were on to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to see the Tomb of Jesus and then to the Western Wall, the holiest site in the Jewish religion. We watched the faithful pilgrims solemnly recite ancient prayers, and we reveled in their joy. Being in the presence of these energetic young and old women, dancing the Horah and singing songs of Hanukah, was a sight to behold. The candlelight, the display of such passionate devotion, oh and yes, those special Hanukah donuts filled with all kinds of delicious fillings was an unforgettable experience. 

We ended day one with possibly the most memorable moment of all. It was evening and we were at the Wailing Wall, placing our hastily scribbled notes into its crevices. At the same time, we could hear the Muslim call to prayer coming from the Temple Mount. Here we were, in this tiny Old City, in the midst of three different faiths, existing together peacefully, or that was how it felt. All of us were moved and inspired. Another miracle.

The next day we were on to Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Memorial and dedicated to the memory of the victims and honoring the survivors. Travex arranged to have a red and white memorial wreath made for us so we could place it at the Wall of Remembrance together. 

Later that afternoon we made two more fascinating stops. First, the Israel Museum to see the Dead Sea Scrolls. These ancient documents were discovered in the late 1940s in the Qumran Caves on the shores of the Dead Sea.  

The second was a short 20 minutes outside of Jerusalem, the town of Bethlehem. We arrived just as the workers put the finishing touches of holiday decorations and festive lighting all around Manger Square. 

It felt extraordinary to visit the Church of the Nativity, the birthplace of Jesus, just weeks before Christmas. Normally, the line to get into the Church can run up to three hours during this season, but on this night it was only the six of us. Another miracle. 

The next day brought another early morning departure. We drove through the Judean Desert to the Dead Sea with a stop at Masada, King Herod’s mountain-top fortress, a symbol of the ancient Kingdom of Israel that became a place of refuge and last rebel stronghold for people fleeing the Roman army during the 4th century BC. There are two ways to reach the 800-plus-acre plateau. The first is on foot via a snake-like path that begins at the Visitor’s Center and winds its way 2,700 feet up the mountain, easily a one-to-one-and-a-half hour hike. We were blessed with the second option: to ascend the mountain by cable car in less than five minutes. One can understand why Masada was an almost perfectly defended fortification, or it was until 74 BC, when the Romans breached it by building an assault ramp. 

View from Masada towards the Dead Sea
Masada, King Herod’s mountain-top fortress and a symbol of the ancient Kingdom of Israel, offers great views of the Dead Sea (shown here), the lowest point on earth. (View from Masada towards the Dead Sea)

Once on the top of the plateau, on view are the remains of one of the oldest synagogues in the world along with barracks, bathhouses, two palaces and beautiful views of the Dead Sea, which was our next stop. There would be yet another miracle for me, though, before we arrived. 

As I stepped onto a cable car that would take us back to our van for the trip to the Dead Sea, I looked up to see a woman who was looking at me as if she’d seen a ghost. There were only about 50 people on that plateau of Masada, due to the shutdown of the country, so she really stood out. I gasped when I realized she was a very dear friend of my mother’s who died unexpectedly in 2018. In fact, she had been the last person to see her on the day she passed. We fell into each other’s arms, overcome with both disbelief and gratitude.

Nothing was quite as much fun as floating on the waters of the Dead Sea, the lowest point on the earth, 1,400 feet below sea level, then covering ourselves with the local mud.  

This extraordinary day ended on the Sea of Galilee with dinner at the new Galei Kinneret Hotel and our hotel for the next two nights, the U Boutique Kinneret that sits on the shores of Lake Kinneret aka the Sea of Galilee.  

The next morning was spent with a second-generation fisherman from Tiberias who unbelievably had crafted a copy of a 2,000-year-old fishing boat dating to the period when Jesus was living in the area. We sailed quietly along the coastline as we listened and sometimes sang along to spiritual hymns like “Amazing Grace,” “On the Sea of Galilee” and even Leonard Cohen’s “not-so-religious-song” “Hallelujah.”    

We visited the Golan Heights and took a very exciting off-road Jeep ride with local experts who shared their perspectives about life in this troubled area, including the historic and modern significance of the region. It felt surreal, to be able to see the cease-fire line between Israel and Syria. We then had lunch in a Druze village, captivated by the story of this unique Israeli minority with secretive traditions. Later that evening, a traditional and delicious dinner for Friday Shabbat with a warm and hospitable Israeli family topped off another unforgettable day’s journey.

Menorah lighting in the old city.
The lighting of menorah in the Old City of Jerusalem. (Courtesy Kelly Shea)

The other places we visited, Capernaum, Tabgha, the site of the “Miracle of Loaves and Fishes,” the Mount of Beatitudes, the site of the Sermon on the Mount: all these ancient places and biblical stories I had read about and heard about during church services growing up, and we saw them all.

We arrived in Tel Aviv, which was such a contrast from the previous days. It’s a bustling city with a busy nightlife along with fashion, art, urban innovation and culinary pursuits. 

But it was meandering through the alleys of Old Jaffa, one of world’s oldest biblical cities, marveling at the facades of the Modernist architecture in the Bauhaus section of the city, that was the perfect ending to a miraculous journey that touched us all beyond expectation. 

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