The afternoon sunlight was turning Old Jaffa’s sand-colored stone buildings into gold as my group lingered next to St. Peter’s Church and listened to our tour guide explain the history of the site. The ancient port of Jaffa, located just south of modern Tel Aviv on the banks of the Mediterranean, is the place where God commanded Peter to extend the gospel message past its initial Jewish circle and into the Gentile realm. Jaffa Port represents the joining of Jews and Gentiles in mutually beneficial relationships, and it was the first place I visited on my tour of Israel. Hence it was also the place where I first became acquainted with my tour guide, a Jewish Israeli. Before I visited Israel, I had never met a Jew, and my perception of Jews was very limited. Most of my knowledge of modern Jews came from history books, which tend to highlight either the Jewish perpetration of Jesus’ death or the Gentile persecution of Jews throughout history. But the more time I spent in Israel, getting to know my tour guide and the culture he calls home, the more I came to know the values that truly characterize the Jewish people and distinguish Israel as a Jewish society.
Having seen very few religious Jews before my visit to Israel, I had assumed them to be generally reclusive, keeping out of the dominant authority’s eye in order to live in simple peace. If they were hiding, I certainly did not blame them, given the slavery, pogroms, and Holocaust marking their history. Once in Israel, however, truth quickly replaced my assumptions. On the bus ride out of Tel Aviv, Israel’s thriving industrial and urban center, our group passed through long stretches of flourishing green farmland bordered by flowering oleander hedges. On the way, our tour guide took the opportunity to teach us about the Jews who immigrated to Palestine in the late nineteenth century. Contrary to my assumptions, these Jews came not to hide from the world, but to labor together to improve and care for their most beloved piece of it, to provide the best possible life for themselves and their neighbors. Israel’s blossoming landscapes and concern for human welfare opened my eyes to the true and inspiring character of the Jewish people who founded the country. These values continue to be evident in Israel in the present day. Later in the trip, as our group viewed the Gaza Strip border, our tour guide told us about the high ethical code that motivated Israeli electricians to fix a power crisis in Gaza even under enemy fire. As I saw more of Israel and listened to one of her people tell me more of her story each day, I learned that the Jewish people do not hide in fear of victimization and mediocrity; rather, they are resilient, striving for excellence and human thriving.
The shift in my perspective of Jews resulted not merely from what my tour guide told me and how I saw it illustrated in the land. My renewed perspective also resulted from his own example. From the very beginning of our tour, he embodied the Jewish spirit of excellence in work and of hospitality to strangers by the way he welcomed our group and acquainted us with his homeland. When we first boarded the bus, he stood outside the door and introduced himself to each of us in turn. At our first site, he encouraged us not simply to travel through the land, but to let “the land go through you.” For the duration of the trip, whether we were riding the bus between sites or walking solemnly through Masada or the Golan Heights, he took every opportunity to teach us about Israel and her diverse people, using both his historical knowledge and his personal stories. He welcomed our every question, honestly admitting his own perspectives along the way. Genuinely interested in exchanging perspectives and learning from us, he even asked us questions of his own as we walked between sites or stopped for meals. By welcoming us to his homeland and getting to know us, he demonstrated the Jewish value of hospitality and care for neighbors. And by laboring to provide us a tour in which the land could truly travel through us, he exemplified the Jewish value of excellence in work.
My visit to Israel opened my eyes to a beautiful truth I had never known I lacked. Though I once thought of Jews as a passive minority struggling merely to survive, Israel and her deep Jewish culture shifted my perspective to see Jews more as they truly are: a diverse nation whose general value for humankind motivates them to thrive in their labor and to welcome those who enter their sphere. Although much of this knowledge came to me through what I witnessed of Israel’s thriving development and what I heard of her history, it was solidified by my experience getting to know a Jewish individual. My group’s tour guide represents just one of several Jews I met in Israel, along with whom he embodied general Jewish values of excellence and hospitality. Touring Israel with his guidance has unearthed my desire to build more relationships with Jewish individuals and to know more of the values that motivate their actions and characterize the land of Israel.