Between one and two million people visit Israel each year. Some are Christians who come to walk in Jesus’ footsteps. An increasing number come to do business. Others come to have a good time in a country that offers scuba diving at the Red Sea, dipping in the healing waters of the Dead Sea, or wind surfing on the Mediterranean. The largest segment of visitors, though, are Jews coming to Israel because they are Jews and Israel is the Jewish homeland.
Perhaps these Jewish visitors can be called pilgrims. If pilgrimages are made to sacred places, however, it is a strangely secularized sense of sacred space that draws Jews to visit not only Jerusalem but also Eilat.
They come to see not only the site of the Holy Temple and the ruins of ancient synagogues but also trendy shops and cafés, to meet not only Jews engaged in Torah study but also Jews who are diamond cutters, dairy farmers, and software tycoons.
For Jewish travelers, a visit to Israel can and should be more than a typical tourist encounter with a foreign people, culture, and place. With preparation, it can be a stimulating, life-changing encounter. How, then, do we plan for a more enriching trip to Israel than that offered by standard tour agencies, a trip suited to our desire to explore what Israel means to Jews?
Experiencing Modern Israel
Jewish visitors come to Israel out of a sense of identification. But with what? Are they coming to learn about the land and people of Israel, or what being Jewish means to them?
If the experience of modern Israel is what you want to learn about, then you will want to visit sites like Independence Hall in Tel Aviv, where the Zionist leadership declared Israel’s independence in 1948, or Mt. Herzl in Jerusalem, where most of the state’s early political leaders are buried. You can visit the home and the burial site of David Ben Gurion in the stark emptiness of the Negev or see memorials to battles and to fallen soldiers, then meet today’s soldiers on military bases. You can visit the Knesset and the Supreme Court. You can learn about Israel’s minorities by visiting Druze villages and Bedouin encampments. Tour operators can facilitate this. You can experience the Jewish ambience of public spaces: city centers, outdoor markets, even shopping malls.
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