It’s rare that family vacations are life-changing. Some family vacations are stressful.
Some are fun. A few may be relaxing. But few “vacations” invade your soul and change your path forever.
When Becky Tallent and her daughter Rachel visited the Holy Land in March, all they were looking for was a chance to spend some time together. Rachel was in her freshman year of college at Valparaiso University in Chicago. Her school, a Christian college, requires all students to complete a minimum number of credits in theological studies. When a theology professor offered an 11-day trip to the Holy Land that would satisfy Rachel’s theology credits, she immediately called her parents and asked if she could attend.
“I said yes, absolutely you can go, but ask if your mom can go with you,” Becky said, joking. But the professor, Dr. George C. Heider, was happy to have Becky attend.
“All I wanted to do was spend spring break with my daughter, but it was a life-changing event,” Becky said.
She, Rachel, Dr. Heider and 12 other students traveled from Chicago to Tel Aviv. From there, they went to Bethlehem, where they went on a walking tour of the Old City, seeing Manger Square and the Church of the Nativity, which was built over the cave stable where tradition says Jesus was born. They visited the Palestinian Deheisheh refugee camp, then visited Shepherd’s Field, which is the site where the angels announced Jesus’birth to the shepherds.
They were in Nazareth, where they visited the Church of the Beatitudes, where Jesus gave the Sermon on the Mount.
They toured Jerusalem, where they worshipped at Christmas Lutheran Church, visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum, and viewed the Dead Sea Scrolls at the Shrine of the Book Museum. They stopped at the Mount of Olives. They walked down the Palm Sunday Road to the Garden of Gethsemane, walking the same path Jesus once walked.
They walked the Via Dolorosa, the street that marks the path Jesus walked, carrying the cross, on the way to his crucifixion. Along the Via Dolorosa are Stations of the Cross, artistic representations depicting Christ carrying the cross. The Via Dolorosa ends at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the site where Jesus was crucified. Becky, Rachel and the group walked the same road and visited the church.
Also in Jerusalem they went through Jewish Quarter and observed Shabbat at the Western Wall of the Temple Mount. They traveled to Jericho and rode a cable car to the Mount of Temptation. They stopped at Qasr el Yahud on the Jordan River, where Jesus was baptized by John.
As Christians, this was more than a trip. This was a chance to put their faith and beliefs into historical perspective.
More than faith, the trip was about witnessing the political strife between Israelis and Palestinians. They saw the Separation Wall (the Israeli West Bank barrier) from both sides. The wall was built by the Israelis in an effort to secure their citizens from Palestinian terrorist attacks. Palestinians and other wall opponents argue the wall illegally annexes Palestinian land and severely restricts Palestinians who live nearby, particularly their ability to travel freely, see family or work in Israel.
The wall is guarded by soldiers — kids, Rachel said, 19 and 20 years old — with machine guns. On their trip, they saw two Palestinians shot and killed for being where they weren’t “supposed” to be.
“The conflict is this big, awful circle of violence,” Becky said. “Violence breeds violence, on both sides. But those who aren’t extremists are oppressed.”
It should be noted that at no time did Becky, Rachel or the rest of the group feel endangered. Americans are popular there, because of the influx of U.S. cash and foreign aid. And everyone wanted to tell their stories. Even walking through a demonstration, Rachel said she never felt threatened.
There are over 300 checkpoints along the wall at which Palestinians have to show their I.D.s before they can cross. A tour guide told the group that if Mary and Joseph, traveling from Nazareth to Bethlehem during the census, had to contend with the Separation Wall, they never would have been able to complete their trip.
The settlements on either side of the wall say a lot about the conflict as well. On the Israeli side, the wall is beautiful and clean. It reminded Rachel of the stone walls along U.S. highways, with landscaping. “They made it pretty,” Becky said. There is money and luxury on that side of the wall. Homes and streets are nice and clean.
The Palestinian side, however, is desolate. The wall on that side is covered in graffiti and sometimes bullet holes. Instead of luxurious homes, Becky and Rachel saw refugee camps on the Palestinian side. Camps often had one latrine for 500 people.
“It was very eye-opening,” Becky said. “It doesn’t seem like anyone in America knows what the real situation is over there. It’s disconcerting.”
A lot of things fell into place to make this trip easy for Becky and Rachel to attend. Traveling to the Holy Land had been in the back of Becky’s mind for some time. She worked in the travel industry for 22 years, and though she and her husband now own a construction company, from time to time Becky orders travel brochures to keep up on the industry. One brochure she got just weeks before the trip was a tour to the Holy Land.
Rachel similarly was interested in the Holy Land. She’s pretty well-traveled already for a 20-year-old; that comes from having a mom in the business. She has been to Europe and to Australia, and anytime she has the opportunity to travel, Becky has always encouraged her.
Far from a college freshman’s typical spring break vacation a la cocktails and suntan oil on a beach, Rachel instead felt pulled to experience this trip. “I like going places that really offer different perspectives and different cultural opportunities,” she said. “That’s the way we grow.”
Exposing his students to those cultural, religious and historical perspectives and opportunities was Dr. Heider’s point. The trip was designed to have the students learn from both Israelites and Palestinians, and have the students come to their own conclusions on the conflicts between the two factions.
“It’s very complicated and very interesting and very, very eye-opening,” Becky said.
The professor arranged for the group to meet with authors, religious leaders and educators from the three major faith communities: Christian, Jewish, Muslim. To that end, they worshipped at a Muslim mosque in Bethlehem as well as the Christian church that was right next door. They listened to the Muslim call to prayer every morning at sunrise. They attended a service that was in Arabic.
“There are so many different religions worshipping all the time, all day long,” Rachel said.
“There are so many different layers,” Becky said. “That’s the best way to describe it: layer upon layer. It’s so complex.”
“Religion is the main focal point of life there,” Rachel added. “Not like here, where that kind of activity only happens at Christmas or Easter. They just don’t go to church once a week.”
“It’s very ‘full,’ ” Becky said. “It’s happening all the time, all religions at once.”
“It was awesome,” Rachel said. “We were not accustomed to that.”
“It was very inspiring,” Becky added. “Everyone there is so dedicated to their faith.”
“This wasn’t just a vacation,” Rachel said. “It showed me how important it is to think objectively, to see things for myself and not believe what I’ve been told. There are always two sides.”