“Jerusalem is alive!” declared our culinary guide Karen at the end of our first full day in Jerusalem – and after spending 24 hours in this amazing place, we think she’s pretty spot on. From the centuries of history that sweats through this city’s pores to the vibrant energy radiating from its signature markets and nightlife, Jerusalem has a beating heart that pulses to this day.
While the first few days of the trip focused on Israel’s struggle for independence and survival, the most recent days shifted to the (literally) layer upon layer of history embedded in this land. The theme obviously continued in Jerusalem, the holy city where three religions have planted their deepest roots. To paraphrase our guide, history comes alive in Jerusalem.
Thursday morning’s tour of the Old City in Jerusalem (just slightly older than Philly’s Old City) featured a cross section of multiple eras and empires. We saw:
• The City of David, an archaeological site that has been in various states of excavation since 1867. This ancient Jerusalem sites dates back 4,800 years ago, even way before the time of King David. Our group waded through the ankle-deep water (and sometimes higher) that streamed through King Hezekiah’s tunnel – a narrow, lengthy path carved out in two years to protect the city’s water from the invading Assyrians. Some found it fun, some found it cramped, all agreed that getting water from the faucet is much more convenient.
• The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the original site of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial. One would thing such a hallowed spot for Christianity would feature a corneal assault of mosaics and frescos, but in fact the church was quite plain in many areas, including its entrance, which hasn’t changed a bit since its construction nearly two millennia ago. Our masterful guide Yoav not only explained the significance of the Church but also placed it within a Jewish framework, such as how Jesus’ death mere hours before Shabbat influenced the events of that well-told narrative.
• The Cardo, the main commerce thoroughfare of the Roman-Byzantine empire, and parts of the Jewish Quarter where we ate lunch and our Scoop Deville King and Queen, Spencer and Julia, naturally had ice cream. The quarter was bubbling with visitors and the sounds of drums and trumpets from the multitude of Bar Mitzvah processions.
Our group also visited Orr Shalom, a non-profit organization that places at-risk youth in foster families and group homes. The organization features an innovative model: family group homes where a young family lives with several boys or girls to offer them an exemplary role model of family life. We visited Reut, Orr Shalom’s home and school for two dozen severely traumatized boys (between the ages of 9 and 13) who continue to make strides in education and social interaction. Orr Shalom is committed to these kids: their staff-to-child ratio is 3:1. That is, three staff members for one kid – a number that surprised and impressed us all. In our hour at Reut, we made Challah with the children, watched an engaging drum circle, talked with them and even played an impromptu game of pickup soccer. The message was clear: these children are being helped thanks to the efforts of Orr Shalom and the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.
We also took a culinary tour of Mehane Yehuda, Jerusalem’s famed marketplace. As we moved from place to place trying unique things like za’atar bread, Persian spices and halva, our guides emphasized that “Israeli food” is sort of a misnomer. Just like the U.S., it’s a melting pot of culinary influences: kebab from Romania, for example, or pita from Iraq. The food was wonderful, and favorites included the burekas (flaky potato filled puff pastries), Etrog juices and lotions, and of course more ice cream. At night, the market lights up with bars and late-night dining spots – a street scene that not only gathers the youth of Jerusalem, but also visitors from all over the world.
On our trip, Spencer had shawarma from the exact place he first had it nine years ago. Not only will it quell his many restless nights dreaming of that delicious delight, but it has a deeper representation too. Spencer has come full circle back to Israel, much as the Jews have returned to this holy city and promised land. Jerusalem is so rich in history, and yet it continues to build a dynamic and exciting future. So too have all of us on Israel360 – tapping into our Jewish roots and prepared to shape the next generation of Judaism in Philadelphia and the world.
Barrie and C.J. Mittica & Julia and Spencer Philips