Going to Israel isn’t like visiting any other country. The idea that you are literally walking in the footsteps of the patriarchs, matriarchs, kings, judges, disciples, prophets, saints, and sinners of the Hebrew and Christian Bibles and the Koran is so humbling, so overwhelming, that visitors sometimes fall to their knees or are overcome with fits of uncontrollable sobbing. There’s even something called Jerusalem Syndrome, when -otherwise healthy and sane people develop temporary psychoses, -becoming convinced they are Jesus, Samson, John the Baptist, Mary, or Moses. After a week or so of wandering in the desert in animal skins or telling everyone they are giving birth to a savior, they resume normal behavior and go on with their travels.
Two months ago, I signed up for a “Spirituality and Ecology” trip to Israel. I felt as though I had been invited to a mystical smorgasbord where I could sample eternal truths, esoteric wisdom, and shimmering spirituality. I arrived at each site waiting to be overcome, transported, transformed.
At the Western Wall, or Wailing Wall, I was intrigued by the fervor of the prayers and the number of earnest supplications scribbled on paper and stuck into the stones that have withstood millennia of siege, warfare, uprising, and decay. In the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, venerated by Christians as the site of Jesus’s crucifixion and burial, I was impressed by the devotion of the visitors and the candles they lit as offerings and prayers. I gazed at the dome of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third most important site in Islam and thought, by many Moslems, to be the site where Mohammed ascended to heaven. But at none of the sites was I shivering with reverence.
“What’s really holy in the Holy Land?” I asked myself.
Then, the tour took us to Or HaGanuz, a visionary institute started by Yuval Asherov, where students come to study natural healing and kabbalah. According to the kabbalah, the root of diseases is spiritual in origin and is about suffering. The way to overcome suffering is to change one’s essence from being a taker to a giver. This fills you with light, joy, and energy and makes you capable of expelling toxins. As a healer, Asherov tries to reduce the gap between what a person has and what he expects. If he expects a lot, his lack and disappointment result in illness. “Expect zero from everyone, including God,” the healer said. As he spoke, he radiated light and divine energy.
Zman Midbar, in the Judean Desert, is, according to founder, Sefi HaNegbi, a “spiritual ecological place for peace.” They offer yoga, meditation, a course in miracles, torah study, and five kinds of peace: inner peace, between people, between cultures, between countries, and with the environment. First, we sat in a tent, looking over the land where Abraham, Moses, and Christ walked. Then we entered a rammed-earth building where we experienced a meditation for peace with Sefi — first in the Middle East, next in our hearts, then for animals. In our minds, we planted seeds of peace in war-torn countries. When I opened my eyes, Sefi was surrounded by and suffused with white light.
Zuqim, in the Arava Desert, includes a new aggregate of B&B’s for tourists. Builders use the landscape and materials of the desert in their simple, comfortable, soothing, sustainable architecture. One young man, who was constructing a small ecovillage for families with children, said that he and his wife had had a successful business in Tel Aviv, and they realized they wanted a life change. Then he’d had a vision of injecting spirit and soul into the concept of vacations. His eyes sparkled as he spoke of archery, donkey rides into the desert, pottery, glass blowing — things that would inspire adults and kids.
Kibbutz Lotan, 100 miles from the Jordanian border, is dedicated to the ecology that exists in nature and in each person who lives there. A tall, bespectacled man named Hidday had a vision of a center for Watsu treatment — massaging people in the water. “It’s a treatment of love,” he said. “As a practitioner, your heart chakra is open.” Hidday said he is trying to give Israeli culture some calmness and another way to look at life. He refused to go to his annual military service, served time in jail, and, although he spoke little about the details of his resistance, explained that healing and the military were not compatible. As I floated in his arms, I felt total serenity and deep empathy emanating from him.
Kibbutz Keturah, also close to Jordan, houses the Arava Institute of Environmental Studies, where Palestinian, Jordanian, and Jewish kids learn together about agriculture, land and water issues, and the environment. Our guide told us that it’s the only place in the Middle East where Jews and Arabs are living together this intensely. We met four of the 34 students; one from Britain, one from America, one Israeli, and one, in a headscarf, from Palestine. “I applied to the Institute,” said the one in the scarf, “and I didn’t know it was in Israel. But I decided to come anyway, because I believe in peace.” She exchanged smiles with the other students; I had to rub my eyes because I thought I saw a beam of light dancing in the room.
Before we left, we were introduced to Methuselah — a tree that sprouted from an ancient seed that was found on the cliffs of Masada. The seed was spit out by a Zealot or a Roman soldier 2,000 years ago, before the former committed suicide rather than submit to the latter. Methuselah was planted at the kibbutz two years ago and has grown into a small tree. They don’t know if the seed is male or female, but if it is Ms. Methuselah, it can grow into a whole forest. No one thought the seed would germinate, but the kibbutzniks had faith it would. So they planted it — and are watching it grow.
I had found what I had been looking for: a place that feels safe, welcoming, rooted in breathtaking history, and birthing some unforgettable people who are as enlightened, soulful, and peace-seeking as any I have met on our blue marble of a planet. These visionary people were infused by the same vision, grit, hard-work ethic, and can-do spirit that fueled the early pioneers in Israel. They fell in love with the harsh land. They planted trees, lived in communal kibbutzim, experimented with drip irrigation, excavated sites from the Bible, and worked for their children and the generations that would follow; they made the desert bloom. For them, nothing was impossible. They believed that if something can be imagined, it can be accomplished. They made mistakes, as we all do. They encountered formidable obstacles. But they followed their visions with the passion of lovers and believed wholeheartedly in what they were doing.
Judith Fein is an author, filmmaker, and public speaker. Her website is globaladventure.us.