We’re here! We had two smooth, on-time, flights and landed in Tel Aviv right on schedule. If you have done much in the way of traveling in recent years, you know what we encountered. Today was pretty much par for the course. We passed through security screenings twice, once in Chicago and again in London. Our flights in London were so close together that we didn’t get to see any more of London than their airport security. Cindy stopped at a Starbucks, and we were already boarding by the time she caught up with us – the flights were that close.
We had a couple minor snags. They accidentally gave me two boarding passes for the second leg of our flight, and none for the first, so TSA sent me back to the desk to get the right one. One member of our group tried to smuggle toothpaste through in a carry-on, and they unloaded her whole suitcase in London to find it. But Jan is the one who is really inconvenienced. Our layover in London was so quick that her suitcase stayed behind. They are hoping it will catch up with her tomorrow.
I managed naps on both flights to get maybe four total hours of sleep, so I should sleep well tonight, as I’m sure will the rest of our group.
Upon landing in Israel we came through passport control, where they asked us where we were going, how long we would be here, and then printed off a permit that allows us to be in the country, complete with a photo taken from our passport. We had to scan that through a machine to exit the secure area, and then we were met by a representative from our tour company, and have been in their good hands ever since.
Tel Aviv is a metropolitan area of two million people, but, as our tour guide keeps reminding us, Israel is a small country (less than half the size of Lake Michigan), and so things are tightly packed. There are lots of tall buildings and skyscrapers. The skyline seems to surround you, even as you drive for miles, because the tall buildings aren’t clustered together as much as they are in Milwaukee. The skyscrapers pop up all over the place, and more are being built just about everywhere.
Our tour guide, Ikey, is an Israeli Jewish man. To be licensed as a tour guide requires significant study in order to be able to accurately describe a long history that has been built layer upon layer on the same soil over more than three millennia. We will uncover more of that in the next days. As I mentioned, today was really just a travel day, and so most of what we learned was about present day Israel.
For those of you trying to picture what we saw today, you can start with most modern American cities. Lots of pavement, traffic lights, the same cars you would see in the U.S., being driven on the right, just like at home, mostly bumper to bumper. Then put the road signs in three languages: Hebrew, Aramaic, and English. We saw lots of palm trees, but also plenty of other vegetation that could have come out of the Midwest. Most of the billboards are in Hebrew, but English is also surprisingly prominent, at least in Tel Aviv. We have seen lots of familiar companies with locations here, including McDonald’s, IBM, Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Emerson, Intel, Dell, Ace, Office Depot, Toys R Us (still in business internationally), Taco Bell, Ikea, Papa Johns, RE/MAX and more. We didn’t see it, but GM also has a research facility here, though Israel does not produce any cars (of any make). We also passed a restaurant (near the Intel location) labelled in bright red neon “Burger Saloon”. Something makes me question whether the food there would be authentically Israeli.
Ikey told us about present-day Israel as we drove. Only about 1/3rd of the population is religious, and so there are lots of people here who are ethnically Jews, but are not observant. Economically, there is not much in the way of manufacturing because of the absence of natural resources, and therefore much of Israel’s economy is driven by the high-tech sector. We drove by Israel’s “silicon valley”, which is why so many of the companies I mentioned above are tech companies. I suspect that is also related to the prominence of the English language. Removing the language barrier for American tech companies can only help strengthen their tech sector.
We also passed by Tel Aviv’s recycling center, situated next to the garbage dump that had served the city for fifty years before they shifted to recycling. The only thing they separate is glass. Everything else (including demolished buildings!) goes in one stream through the recycling center so that it can be reused, which is especially important because of Israel’s small physical size and lack of natural resources.
Ikey made a point of challenging some of our preconceptions about Israel. He started off by pointing out that selective reporting in the media can taint a person’s perspective, mentioning that in Israel, you could hear reports of school shootings in the United States and come to the conclusion that it is a very unsafe place to live (“Why would anyone live there?”). He wagered that we would see more hitchhikers here than police cars during our stay (though on this rainy, traffic jammed, evening, I think he would have lost that bet). And then he pointed out that he is an Israeli Jew and our driver (whose name I haven’t caught yet) is a Palestinian Muslim.
All in all, we’ve been made very comfortable as we begin our tours. I’ve written most of this while on the bus on the way to our hotel in Netanya, and I think right now we are all just eager to have dinner and get some rest. We lost two hours on our flight from London to Tel Aviv, and those two hours happened to be lunch, so we haven’t had anything really to eat since breakfast.
I’m finishing this up now after arriving at the hotel. We have a suite with a living area and separate bedroom, with an open air porch in between. Our view is split between the city of Netanya on the left, and the coast of the Mediteranean Sea on the right. Unfortunately, we arrived here after dark, so we haven’t seen it in its glory, but it is striking even at night. After tomorrow’s tour, we will end up in Jerusalem at a different hotel, so this is our only night here.
I am rooming with my college friend and fellow pastor, Luke Jacob. He and I took a walk after dinner a little ways into Netanya. The streets are lined with shops and restaurants, many of which seem to operate with English as the primary language (at least for signage) although we saw at least a couple of realtors with listings in French, and then, of course, lots of Hebrew. The restaurants were open, but many of the shops had closed or were closing (we were walking between 7 and 8pm local time). For those of you who have read Making Room for Life – I wonder if we were looking at the Hebrew Day Planner in action, as shops shut down so that people could have time for family and relationships.
Initially I wondered how careful we needed to be walking the streets after dark. I relaxed after I saw a group of ten or twelve year old boys scootering across a plaza, unchaperoned. I also noticed that lots of shops seemed to have merchandise sitting exposed and unguarded, so theft must not be much of a concern, and both men and women seemed to be comfortable walking the streets alone. Other than one area of graffiti (some in Hebrew, some in English), there was no visible evidence of crime or people being even a little bit concerned about it. In other words, it felt quite safe.
Thanks for reading. We appreciate your prayers for our trip and for our families back home!