Christian Pilgrims: Israel’s "secret" tourists

Detail of Tiberius church painting
When the rockets fall and the buses blow up with tourists (S. Korean tourists, Sinai, February 2014, Al-Jazeera), there are still people who come to Israel. Called by a higher voice, believing in a purpose, something as fundamental as the terrorists believe in freedom or nationality. Christian pilgrims still come to Israel regardless of state security warnings and daily media buzz. From their perspective, especially the inside sources of the church and tourism, Israel is no more dangerous than any other place. Are church voices mistaken in their assessment of the dangers? Why would priests put their followers at harm’s way? Do Christians still possess that fundamental spirit, which called for each believer to be a “soldier” and a believer? Or is there something beyond the media hype and political sniping (from the media, states, international organizations, political and military personalities)? Actually, with a little bi of reading, you notice a difference in opinion and belief in Christians’ view of Israel and the conflict. Many Christians, both lay independents and organized organizations, believe in total support of Israel. Some support Israel due to the Jewish state religion. Some due to the liberal and overall support of the state of Christians living in Israel. Beyond this, there is a different view of political and military issues in religious organizations and religious leaders. Unlike secular views, there is a long term perspective and a sense of belief in slow change. There is also belief in the right resolution long term. Whatever was meant to have happened will happen. More on the impact of religious tourism on Israel, not simply economically, in future blog posts.      

Non-Existant Parking, Construction & Crowded: Tel Aviv Annoyances

Construction cranes are ever present in the Tel Aviv skyline | © Ami Vider 2014 
You have probably have seen magazine articles and blog posts rating the best places to live. There is always one about where people want to go (usually most expensive). Then there is one about the hidden gems where nobody goes but it’s the best place for some reason. Usually the hidden gems are quiet and cheap and very remote. They are sometimes beautiful and relaxing. Tel Aviv does not make that list. In Israel Tel Aviv is the most expensive area and property growing at a steady pace. You can say it has been the place to go for 120 years now. It is not really a hidden gem, except for the people who have not been or simply don’t believe how good a place it is. But, with all that demand and popularity, there are problems. Parking at Tel Aviv’s streets is horrible and getting worst. City hall tried to encourage biking with a bike for rent program. The effort is wonderful, but still lots to be done. Construction is ever present in almost every part of town. It is also a bit of an annoyance when walking the streets. And finally, it’s the crowds which suddenly materialize. Not to be compared with New York or Tokyo, which Tel Avivians compare. Yet at rush hours, streets, sidewalks, shops and cafes are brimming with people. Add to this a bit of aggressiveness (Israelis are not known for their manners) and you got an annoying situation. 

If you find a quiet suburb or a neighborhood in the outskirts of the city, you may be able to escape these problems. But all the fun and excitement of the city is at the center. Yet for every problem in the city there is a solution or a bright entrepreneur waiting to sell you one. If you can’t find parking, don’t drive, get a taxi. The Get Taxi mobile app and its use by taxi drivers has spread quickly here. Now getting a taxi almost any time of day means no longer calling a taxi stand or standing by a noisy intersection. If you need a bus at the wee hours of the morning, there are a few “owl lines” running until early morning hours. Construction annoyances are unavoidable, so that one will force you to cross the street and pass by a construction site. Crowding is not an issue if you know where and when to avoid certain parts of the city. But than again, isn’t the city buzz what people are looking for?

Tel Aviv for Tourists? Not Just for Business

Renovated Ibn Gvirol street in Tel Aviv, landscaping and new sidewalks give a new life to street
It seems like Jerusalem is the tourist destination for Jews. Nazareth, Tiberius and Jerusalem for Christians. The rest of Israel is a playground for project Birthright tourists. But Tel Aviv is for the business travelers and “not exactly sure why I came to Israel for vacation” tourists. If you are not sure what Tel Aviv has to offer tourists, take a second look. Israel is a modern, democratic and somewhat fashionable state. With Tel Aviv as the economic and cultural center. The city itself is surrounded with towns and suburbs comprising the main population center in the state. This makes staying in Tel Aviv a fun and smart way to come see Israel for yourself. Overhearing two students in a Boston book store, looking at travel books, one says to the other about Israel: “people don’t go there any more”. Reflecting the popularity of Israel with college and first time American travelers in the 1960s to 1980s. Then, Israel was a place for young adventure seekers to volunteer in a kibutz or lay on the beach in Eilat. Fast forward 30 years and today Israel is a destination for Christian pilgrims and Jewish tourists. About half of the travelers to Israel come for religious reasons. Some tourists still come for the warm weather, especially to Eilat in the winter. But there is still a small percentage of tourists who come to Tel Aviv. Besides seeing a modern and open city, there are more cultural events here than in most small American cities. Tel Aviv has it’s own style, reflecting the warm climate and liberal open lifestyle. For shoppers, this is not Paris or New York, yet there are many world class shops and boutiques of every kind. Malls and small shopping clusters are dotted through the metropolitan area. Night life is also an attraction with vibrant club scene and restaurants / bars open to the wee hours. Last but not least are the beaches. Tel Aviv has been the city who’s back is to the sea. But for tourists, organized, clean and close to everything beaches are a nice surprise. So come to Tel Aviv, stay for the lifestyle and enjoy everything else this city has to offer. 

Tiberius is a destination for Christian pilgrims situated on the sea of Galilee

Torah Introductin Ceramony, Givatay’im Israel

Introduction of a new Torah ceremony, an important community event | (c) Ami Vider 2010
The Torah, first five book of the bible, also called the Five Books of Moses, is traditionally scribed in ink on a long roll or parchment. In ritual prayer, when reading the weekly portion of the bible, the scroll is used to read in a stylized sing-song, precise manner. Essentially, the Torah scroll in each synagogue is the direct connection of practicing the cyclical reading of the bible with a long tradition of keeping to the original writings. The writing of a scroll is a ritual by itself. Scribes, going back thousands of years, follow methods set by rabbis and adhered to religiously. The process of writing a Kosher (according to prescribed tradition) scroll is precise and require strict attention to detail. Through the years, going back at least a thousand years, Torah scrolls are written by hand yet are all exactly the same. Not a single letter is different making the Torah a true copy of one original book. This historical view of the Torah writing reflects the secular Israeli’s general knowledge (mine). While secular Israelis possess Jewish cultural understanding, they do not practice the rituals from daily prayer to Torah readings on a regular basis. Yet, it is interesting to see our tradition vibrant today.

Psalms scroll from the Dead Sea Scrolls collection (11Q5) | Israel Antiquities Authority | Public Domain
Besides the historical perspective, the Torah scroll, and it’s introduction to the community, is something special. Reading from a Torah scroll during a traditional service is considered an honor. In traditional Jewish community reading from the Torah is reserved to people who are honored or have a special life cycle event (child birth, wedding, bar-mitzvah, memorial for a friend or relative) or want to say a special prayer. Not every Jew knows how to read properly from the Torah during prayer services. These who do not know, say the prayer before and after the reading. A designated reader will read the Torah portion. Introduction of a new Torah to a community is a rare event. Since Torah scrolls are well preserved and they are expensive to produce, communities buy then only on special occasions. In some congregations a Torah will be introduced once in a few decades. Donors to the congregation, sometimes not from the community itself, pride themselves in contributing a Torah scroll.    

Digital Media, Economics & Tradition Pitted Against Another

Israel’s Calcalist daily (also The Marker) is a take off on The Wall Street Journal and Financial Times
Israel’s digital adoption is spotty at times. Amazon and e-Bay did not become the big shopping sites in Hebrew. But Google and WordPress are as strong here as anywhere else. So is Facebook, Twitter and WhatsUp and other mainstream global digital names. Adoption of smart phones and mobile apps is strong and moving faster every day. While Apple’s iPhone was a big seller, the Android push from a few companies, not just Samsung, is relentless. Prices of handsets is going down as well as mobile service plans. Golan Telecom, a company founded by a French immigrant wanting to bring European prices to the Israeli market is leading the charge. Add to the consumer digital world the strong technology and start-up activity, which gave Israel the moniker “start-up nation” (after the book), and you got a seemingly digital life here. Hold on skippy (as they say in Texas), not so fast…  digital life is useful in many places, but tradition and lifestyle habits are still holding back certain market sectors. 

For the most part, digital shopping is not as strong as in Europe and North America. Simply put, Israelis love shopping and malls. Israel’s strong economic growth in the middle class steady rise, is making shopping and spending a national obsession. Materialism is on the rise and companies want to sell here. This makes the traditional marketing and sales effort push toward more face-to-face sales and less virtual digital development. 
On the media side, digital publishing, news, magazines and audio-video format use is strong and pushing hard at the traditional paper publishing world. Newspapers here are in dire financial state. Magazines have already taken a beating and the ones left are struggling. Television and radio, especially the state owned channels are feeling both pressure from the market and from the state’s need to cut expenses. With one channel essentially “shutting down” to be replaced by a “new organization” and the others mostly reduced to low cost productions (i.e. talk radio/TV) or airing foreign shows. Israeli (Hebrew) internet portals and applications are growing at a faster pace than worldwide. Not simply because of growth in mobile use, but growth with new uses. More use of digital content in education, business and services (banking, health, insurance) is everywhere. The competition for Israeli consumers and their wallets between new digital merchants and the traditional business world is not going to end any time soon. As waves of excitement about digital devices and services wash over the market here, more traditional sectors will either have to change or to find an alternative way of life. So goes progress, even in traditional societies.    

Baptism in the Jordan River: A few pictures

Area of Christian Baptism on the Jordan River, Israel
 One of the unique experiences in Israel is the visit to religious sites. Besides prayer and experience of the original place where a religious event took place, Christians and Jews hold life cycle events when visiting. Pilhgrimage to holly sites and holding meaningful events are highly valued by Israel’s citizens and the government. In the Jordan river, many come to be baptized in a location where Jesus was called and experienced his baptism (Mark 1, 9-11: “At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” ) [picture below, scriptures in Hebrew and Greek at the site]

Once in a lifetime experience: a prayer during baptism
Signs in many languages with the quote from Mark 1, 9-11 describing Jesus’ baptism

Northern Israel: Now its quiet and peaceful

Landscape in Northern Israel: Brown in summer and green in winter | (c) Ami Vider 2011
Life in politics and technology changes fast here in Israel. When attacks were coming from Lebanon up north, nobody wanted to go there. This was just before Iron Dome defense system protected the large rockets. This was even before a multitude of drones and cameras were used to detect launching of rockets and disable them after the first launch. Since them the northern border has been quiet. It is mostly due to the changes in politics in Lebanon, some of it the influence of the war in Syria. Strange how political winds change and so does everyday life. It is still quiet in northern Israel. The politicians were hoping for economic growth and tourism. That is not the way it looks today (mid 2014) while the war in Gaza is going on. But like anything else, time will change politics, and war memories will fade into the history books. Still, even a beautiful place does not feel happy when worries of security is in the back of our minds. Enjoy the pictures. 


Memorial to Israeli war dead, Galil northern Israel | (c) Ami Vider 2011
Landscape sea of galilly northern Israel | (c) Ami Vider 2011

Come for the History, Enjoy the Trees and Flowers

Flowers at a local park, Givatay’im, Israel (c) Ami Vider, 2010
One benefit of a strong economy and a vibrant urban life is the trees and flowers in public parks. Until you come and see, it may seem strange when Israelis boast a life inside a green bubble. This country is literally being gardened to life, a green life at that. In most urban areas, not just the big cities, there are well tended parks. In many streets there are also small gardens planted in traffic islands. The older streets are covered by well established trees. In Tel Aviv and the older cities (Petach Tikva) there are some treed going back 50 years or more. In many windows and porches you will see green thumb hobbyists showing their prowess in small pots all the way to small trees poking their branches from roof top gardens. For a country with an arid climate and no natural water flowing at a steady pace, this is a wonder. One of the wonders you will not hear about in the mainstream media news channels. Enjoy the pictures, come visit for some real life experience.
Shaded walk / bike path near Ichilov hospital / (c) Ami Vider 2010

Young palms along the sea shore, near London mini store restaurant | (c) Ami Vider 2010
Blue flowers blooming in the summer, cold weather trees sometimes confuse spring and summer here

Don’t Come for the Animals: Go to Africa

A gazelle in the Negev desert, Israeli biologists are introducing native species
Israelis like to think of Israel as the ultimate place to visit. Well, that is true if you are an archeology buff and want to see Roman temples and early Hebrew synagogues. If you are coming for spiritual reasons, there are Jewish, Christian and Muslim sites. You can take the bible and literally use it as a travel guide. If you want to see medium size museums with some local archaeological finds, from glass plates and vases two thousand years old and looks like they belong on a dinner table at a fine restaurant (they probably did see fine dining in their time), that we can do in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. If you want to see some of the original Dead Sea scrolls, there are a few on display, including an almost complete book of Isaiah. But don’t come here if you are looking for a safari adventure or want to photograph lions walking through a camping ground at night. If you are looking to photograph a massive migration of animals, forget about it! Go to north America, Africa or even northern Europe. Not here, not unless you are looking for migrating birds twice a year, migrating from the northern countries to Africa for the winter. Then back again, going north this time, in the spring. If you are fashionista, go to Paris, London or New York for fashion shows or shopping. For sports, any big US or European city will have more events with world famous teams (try Barcelona for football or New York for baseball and basketball).   

Quiet North: What the media doe not report

Haifa, Bahai Temple and port from above (c) 2012 Ami Vider
There is lots of talk on Israeli Radio and in the social media pages about Arab (Muslim) loyalty to Israel. Now that the Palestinian question is back on the front pages. Some relatively small groups like the Druze bring up their loyalty to the Israeli state and their service in the IDF. Some bring up the small number of Arab Muslim protesters during the war in Gaza as a sign of tacit approval with the state’s policies. Yet what we don’t see is the slow and steady decline in the tourist and regular activity in the north. If you haven’t heard, tourism traffic to Israel is just about zero. Even evangelical Christians, ones that sometime on purpose come to Israel to support the economy in hard times are delaying their trips. Both local Jewish and Arab residents are also traveling less inside the state. The tourism department is taking out advertisements to support local tourism. But in general, this small step by the state is not helping. Some tourist destinations from hotels to restaurants and cultural sites (museums, parks, archaeological sites) are also offering discounts through advertisments. This comes at a time when the north needs as much support as possible. We just need to stay aware and see where this Gaza war takes us.