It was 1979. I came with a 5-week voluntary program to work on Kibbutz Ga'aton through my church, Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa, pastored at the time by Chuck Smith. I was in the second of several groups which came. I'd wanted to be there for Pesach, but was too late; we did Shavuot instead. The group leader was Pastor Skip Heitzig of Calvary Chapel Albuquerque, New Mexico (before he became a pastor).
Let me start with debarkation of the El Al airplane in Tel Aviv. I won't say it's the most profound experience I've ever had, but it's definitely up there in the top 10.
Upon stepping out the door and walking down the stairs, I remember looking out at the scenery, and feeling like I'd finally made it home. Like I actually belonged there. For a Jewish person, that is probably is a normal reaction; it's your ancestral land. You have a primal tie to the land. I however, to my knowledge, am gentile. I've never done a DNA test to find out, but as far as I know, I'm north-western European through and through. No family stories have ever arisen stating otherwise. Some might say that such an overwhelming feeling is because I believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Yaacov, and his heart beats in my chest. Whatever the reason, I felt something I'd never felt before in my entire life.
We took the bus to the train terminal, and I got on my first train ride... ever. It was nondescript, except for when we went through Haifa. A lot of people were walking alongside the train as we left the terminal, and I saw several soldiers with rifles, and weapons over their shoulders. Being from the western US with family who'd served in the military, I was kind of familiar with this, but not like this. Soldiers may have wore their weapons on base, or during exercises, but not walking down the street, in among civilians. That was really intense for me.
We got to Nahariyah and two soldiers were sitting at a bus stop downtown, across from the town's main pavilion, and they laid their rifles on the bus stop bench. Having been shot in the throat a year earlier, it was an uncomfortable experience just seeing rifles laying there, like it was normal. Upon commenting, I was told that for Israelis, it is indeed normal.
We arrived at the kibbutz, and settled in for our 5-week stay. A stay I would love to have been permanent.THE EXPERIENCE
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I remember hearing constant bombing sounds while in the Kibbutz. One afternoon, I was talking with two people as I was facing East and the others were facing West. As we stood talking, I remember hearing this really high pitched shrill noise, but had no idea what it was. All of a sudden, I heard the deafening sound of a jet flying overhead. I think as much from shock as from the memory of being shot, I dropped to the ground immediately as the noise cone hit me. The two guys had seen the jet coming, and I realized it. While I chewed them out for not warning me, they must've laughed for days afterwards.
Each weekend we traveled and saw all the major tourist destinations.
We went to Bat Yam, up to Caesarea Philippi, the Tel Dan Preserve. I so wished I could've remained in the preserve taking photos of the mounds, with water coming up out of them. THAT was breathtaking. We got to the head waters of the Dan River, when the water came out of the cliff wall. I've come to learn that it changes locations every so often. It was cool seeing that, and reminded me of Jesus' saying, ‘out of his innermost being shall come rivers of living waters.’
We did go to the headwaters of the Galilee. I was baptized there. I think what really struck me was sinking up to my knees in muck, and silt. This was long before the baptismal walkways they have now. We walked down to the river's edge, and it was really silty, and muddy.
We traveled to Rosh HaNikra and climbed down to the grottoes below. That was pretty cool, and freaky too, realizing that it was the border to Lebanon.
I remember the trip up north to Galilee, stopping at Cafarnum. I didn't go into the "town" behind the gates, because I didn't wear the proper attire. It was so warm that shorts, tank top, and sandals seemed more fitting (and comfortable). As such, I sat in the back of the truck in the parking lot, and mused over my misfortune. I was amused by the sign ‘The Town of Jesus, open 1000 to 1600.’
We traveled the coast, and saw Caesarea, and the placard with Pilate's name on it, or at least, what was left of it. We saw the Valley of Megiddo, and drove back towards the East.
For our last weekend in Israel, we traveled to the south. We drove down to the Dead Sea, and floated. I remarked we just needed a copy of The Jerusalem Post and a bottle of coke to top the experience off, along with a photo of it. We went to Ein Gedi and climbed back the falls. We did Masada, climbed the snake path, heard the stories, and spent the night at the nearby Hostel. We walked the entire plateau... and hearing the stories of the revolt, where the 1,000 Jewish people holed up, and their deaths, as well as the stories of how Israeli soldiers would come to the top of the mountain for graduation from military training, receive a copy of the Tanaakh, and recite, ‘Never again’ to honor the Jewish revolt, made me wonder deeply.
I begged for a trip to Be'ersheva, but we didn't have the time...
We went to Hebron, Bethlehem (I didn't go into the church there. I was too comfy wearing my shorts, tank top, and sandals. Instead, I meandered through town, seeing the shops, trinkets, etc. I remember one shop on the south side of the square, and as I walked in, the guy had a stack of ‘crowns of thorns’ wall to ceiling, from the front door to the back wall.
The Herodium, and last but not least, Jerusalem.
I remember getting out of the truck, and our kibbutz security guard, who'd fought in the 1973 war and had done whatever was necessary to get an Uzzi rifle (I remember being told the only way to get those was to kill in hand to hand combat), had brought his Uzzi with him. As we unloaded the truck to go to our rooms, I grabbed the milk crate the rifle was in, and said to him, ‘We don't need this, we have God for our protection.’ He gave me ‘the look’, and told me to bring it. I restated my comment, and he again ‘gave me the look’, and again said bring it. I tried a third time, and this time I fully comprehended ‘the look.’ I brought the crate, rifle and all.
After dinner at a local pizza joint that evening, we walked over to the Jaffa Gate of the old City. As I entered the gate, Psalm 122 came to mind. It was perhaps one of the most profound experiences, even to date, and I've had plenty. Entering the Old City, the stories, Bible studies, readings, etc., all came flooding in, and I just wandered. Thankfully, others were with me so I didn't get lost, but I remember walking the streets, and I think the next day or two we walked through the via Dolorosa, to the Damascus Gate, and as we exited it, I saw what I can only guess was Golgotha up behind the bus depot. There was no mistaking the cliff that looks like a skull. It's left me wondering ever since how traditions could ever be confused about where Jesus was crucified.
I remember that last Sunday morning going to the Mount of Olives, walking through the gardens, and walking up the pathways to the top. About halfway up, the sun rose, touching the golden gate. I stopped and took my last picture. Hearing the stories of how Muslims had their graveyard on the eastern slopes to fight against the Christians, and Jewish people, who'd be walking with Messiah, some of whom were buried on the western slopes of Olive, made quite an impact.
I think another experience that I really enjoyed was the times I went to the food coop to pick up, and drop off produce. I worked with the kitchen manager and his wife while I was there at the kibbutz. He brought me with him to watch the food we'd picked up. I would of course eat some of the fruit. Perhaps the best fruit I've ever eaten, except maybe from my own garden.
I heard at the time that Israel was the number 1 exporter of fruit and tulips into Europe. I hear it's still true....
We returned to the Kibbutz, and spent the last day or two preparing to leave.
I remember still to this day the reaction I had leaving the kibbutz and driving down the coast to the airport. I cried nonstop. I felt like my heart was being ripped out of my chest, and I was being taken from the only real home I'd ever known. Whenever I talk about my time there, I find myself wondering why I had so emotional a reaction to coming, arriving, and leaving....
I'd be lying if I said I didn't miss what I'd enjoyed as a 19 year old. Being 57 now, it's a far cry different, I'm sure. I can't say I weep for Jerusalem, or for Israel, but I do pray for you, and the land, and the people. If the opportunity ever arises again in this life, I will return. I hope for Pesach. IF not, in the next life to be sure.
...And no, I did not write this from my diary. It's all from memory. THAT's how DEEP an impact my time there had on me.
Written by J-Pilgrim contributor Steve Buckley.
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