Sunday, June 28, 2009

The end is the beginning

Letters from home

I sit down to write this knowing it will be one of my last blogs from Israel. It’s tough, very tough. This year has gone so quickly, yet it feels like ages ago when I first arrived. I think back on my experiences: my highs and lows, the people, the sights. I will never forget the emotions I’ve felt here and the insight I’ve gained.

Ibrahim cooking for our party

I come away with so many friends: the monks, the sisters, the workers, the volunteers, and the guests. I have unique relationships with all. I learn from them all, I have challenges with everyone, but I leave happy. If I leave the people I’ve met with only an infinitesimal growth in their point of view of Americans, I’ll feel content. At least there is growth. We not all in the same mindset, but we are all human.

If there were a test that could measure my growth as a person over this year, the results would be staggering. I feel astonished that I cannot express with words what has happened to me as a person. I think to recognize what has truly happened to me, you can only be me. I have this idea of who I was when I came and it’s different from the person leaving here. Maybe those close to me at home will see a change, maybe not.

My tree fort

You wonder after spending a significant time anywhere if you made a change or what kind of change you made. My parents always said, “to leave it better than you found it”. I hope I leave all these things and people better than I found them.

When I was younger I always feared change, I feared things that were unknown. I know what I want to do in my life, but I don’t know what will happen. I know that the possessions I leave Israel with only increase my potential. If I thanked everyone who was influential to me in the last year, I’d have no time till my flight. Thank you Br. Paul. Thank you St. John’s Abbey. Thank you Tabgha family. If you are reading this, it more than likely means you’ve played a role in my progression whether you know it or not. Thank you.

Goodbye Sisters

Sunday, June 21, 2009

My last visitors

My sister Kate and her friend Nicki left me this morning. They arrived last weekend and I toured the country with them doing my best to guide them.

Nicki, Kate, me on Masada. Dead Sea and Jordan in background.

Both are older and both I looked up to in college. Both are capable people, both are smart and traveled, but both are in a foreign land. Again I was mystified at this guardian mentality that filled me while with them. When I am the most informed, traveling with loved ones is tough on my energy, physical and emotional.

We visited the grounds of Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Temple Mount holds the mosque Al Aqsa (not pictured), Dome of the Rock (pictured), and the foundation stone of the world (Jewish lore).

We did many of the things similar to when my other family members visited and the girls wondered what would be distinctive about their trip. How would I remember their trip?

Nicki and Kate at Dome of the Rock

Ha! Traveling with them was quite far from when the other family members were. I don’t think I’ll forget. The mentality of two young women in their 20’s provides a lot of surprises. We’re definitely treated much differently by people when they see us. There were so many subtleties I didn’t point out to the girls that I assume went unnoticed, at times hoped.

Ladies atop Masada overlooking desert

It was great to have one last familiar face here before I leave for home and another group of people that I can share this with. I hope I gave them another way to look at what life is like here.

Memorial for the deportees at Yad Vashem

Happy Father’s Day Dad! I love you.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Walk of life

Last week a group of children from Bethlehem came and stayed for about a week. This was a fascinating group: their supervisor was an older blind woman, the children themselves varied in disabilities from blindness to developmental issues, the children and their leader were extremely outgoing. Whenever we were working in the vicinity of them the children would always walk over and watch us or ask questions. They were a special group of kids.

The most captivating aspect of this group was watching the children with impaired sight go about their normal lives. The group chaperons would point them in the right direction and the kids would be on their way. I was mesmerized by their agility, feeling, and courage. I thought to myself as I watched them you can’t be afraid to fall.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Santacruzan Flores de Mayo Festival & Helena

Last weekend I had free, so I accepted an invitation from the Philippine sisters to celebrate Pentecost holy mass in Tel Aviv on Saturday and then participate in a combination of a Philippine festival and honoring of Queen Helen (for the excavation of Jesus’ cross, she gave the idea/encouragement for the excavation...none of the manual labor).

Sister Resurrection, myself, and Sister Leah (2 of our 5 Sisters in Tabgha)

I sat through back-to-back masses Saturday night performed by an Italian Father from the Ratisborne Community of Jerusalem on the third floor of a run down apartment building converted into chapel in Tel Aviv. The crowd, 100% Philipinne (they contribute a large number of migrant workers here in Israel), sat in this shabby room, on plastic patio chairs, in front of a makeshift altar, with a poor sound system, little ventilation, and haphazard lighting. Yet both services seemed energetic and packed full.

After the second mass it was about 11pm when we left the building, in a very sketchy part of town I hate to be in after nightfall. The three sisters and I headed to a nearby street market that tailors to the international community. This is where the sisters are able to find all of their ingredients for Philippine cuisine (hard to find them in the kosher stores of Tiberias). A huge variety of cultural shops sandwich a street filled with street performers and the latest knockoffs.

It reeked of garbage and urine, the homeless and drunks attended to the benches and corners, and I’m pretty sure I could have pointed out a prostitute or two. The comical sight is these three little women in full garb weaving in and out of the crowds and performers to find their way to the specific shops and stands.

The problem is I feel the need to always watch out for them and they attract a lot of attention good and bad.

I slept on the couch of the Philippine Consulate to Israel that night. I know people who know people.

The next morning we left early for Jerusalem. We arrived at the preparation point for the promenade. It felt a lot like a high school prom mixed with a wedding. We were celebrating all the Queens of the Santacruzan Flores de Mayo Philippine Festival, so there were specific queens with escorts. I was an escort, not a queen.

All the ladies were dressed in sharp colored sparkling dresses. The guys wore a traditional Philippine shirt, barong Tagalog. I was the only non-Philippine; I have a different body type than most of the Philippine men there that day and it took three tries to find a shirt that would look the least awkward. The sisters laughed as everyone participated in helping to dress me in open public.

We began the 1-mile march to the church and the busy streets of West Jerusalem reacted in all sorts of manners. There were people taking photos with cell phones, honking horns because we slowed traffic, quizzical bystanders both in the positive and negative tones, but best of all there were smiles.

People would pass by and their jaw would drop open. I completely threw a curve ball at all the unknowing onlookers. They would scan the parade of faces and outfits as we passed and then I would walk by with a huge smile. Many people looked at me and realized I was smiling at them and I would say “good morning” or “boker tov”, it made them smile. I don’t know how many people jokingly said I didn’t look Philippine.

We made it to the church and took a bunch of group pictures before having mass.

After mass there was a reception with signing, dancing, a presentation of the queens and what each means, and heavenly Philippine food. I always joke to the sisters that if I were a volunteer at their convent I would gain so much weight because they just push food at me until I could explode.

In my time here I have begun to search long and hard for “traditional American…”. Something that one could say defines us, something we celebrate that has a significant American meaning, minus Independence day. There are so many aspects of other cultures that they hold as original and I have trouble finding those for America. This was another great chance to experience one of those defining cultural traits.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Walk the walk, talk the talk

Two weeks ago ML and I had Sunday and Monday off. We headed to Jerusalem to do some hiking in Wadi Kelt where we visited St. George’s Monastery (Greek Orthodox).

Out in the middle of the desert between Jerusalem and Jericho is this isolated monastery. The walk down to the monastery is a hike alone even though it is on a paved surface due to the steep inclines. It is extremely hot there, I started sweating profusely upon leaving the car and it was 7:20 am. From what I could gather from the monk I spoke with (communication problems between us) all the living supplies are carted in with a donkey.

The actual monastery is tucked into the side of the wadi (river gorge). The water that comes from a natural spring (which we hiked to) is intercepted by families living along the water duct and adulterated with waste, feces, and chemicals making it undrinkable.

We hiked 5 hours in tremendous heat, both drinking 4.5 liters of water while out.

In Jerusalem we met up with the St. John’s theology graduate program and those making the trip to the middle east. Later that week while back in Tabgha Fr. Jerome, leading the May term group of Johnnies and Bennies, stopped by Tabgha on their way south to Jerusalem. We explained a little of how we are living here and what we are doing. We got words of encouragement and interesting questions from the students and the good Father. Seeing both groups brought back a flood of great memories from the last 4 years and all the great people who have influenced me.

Every Wednesday in Tabgha we have buffet night, which as the name points out we are allowed to stuff ourselves till the puke reflex kicks in. I’m not sure when, but it slipped that I flipped za’s for money and along with my outgoing enthusiasm for the dish necessitated a test of my skills.

I was asked to make pizza about a month ago and it was barely above something I would’ve ordered for my drunk college roommates, just poor. It was my crust, I don’t want to make excuses for poor work, but so many factors were not in my favor: manual temperature oven, unknown yeast, inter-religious conflicts. Really though, I think they find more edible material at the earth’s core.

Apparently it was not bad enough to warrant a lifetime ban. This last Wednesday I was asked again to make pizza. Well guess what? Today we spell redemption M...I...K...E. I by no means call myself Julia Child, but the Germans’ idea of my pizza is at least at a level I can be content leaving with.

You are constantly in my thoughts Jan. Hope you are smiling. God bless.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Pope Benedict

With the arrival of the Pope to the Holy Land this week there was much discussion and joking about Catholicism in the US, Papal qualifications, influence, and stardom between the volunteers. (Opinion) Roman Catholicism in America is not as celebrated as here and the central European countries. I went to Nazareth late Wednesday for the holy mass to be performed by the Pope on Thursday. The town was a buzz that night. All nationalities were out and about.

In accordance with Israeli security the protection was immense and strict. Those wishing to participate in mass had to be bused to the Mount of Precipice (where it was held) after checking through a security point with heavily armed soldiers. After a short five minute bus ride we then waited 2 hours in line to be checked again.

It was 8am when I passed through the final security point to find my VIP ticket seat (nothing extremely special just cement bleachers) and it was already hot. I wore jeans not knowing if I was going to be spending the previous night sleeping in line ensuring a place at mass (they started busing people in at midnight and closed the gates at 8:30am turning back the rest). Denim gets hot boys and girls.

The backdrop to the altar on the Mount of Precipice was the city of Nazareth. It was an appropriate setting for a mass with the houses on the sloping hills behind making the mind serene and untroubled. Except...

Mass didn’t begin until 10am so we sat out under the rising sun for two hours until the pontiff arrived. Had I been able to sleep a full night in a bed instead of on a couch for 4 hours it would’ve been a little easier. Just to test my drained demeanor even more for the whole two hours we waited the student chorus, led by an energetic monk and an off-tune woman, sang the same chants over and over. It seemed more like a pep rally or sporting event than a holy mass.

It continued to get hotter. I continued to get exhausted.

At 10am we saw, on the two huge video screens, the pontiff enter the Pope-mobile. We watched his motor escort with the sharply dressed Swiss Guard on the screen until we realized they were going to drive right by us down the road that separated the VIP section from the general assembly. It was 15 feet behind me and I ran to the rail to get a picture. So did everyone else. It was like teenage girls at a Justin Timberlake concert, just chaos.

Pope Benedict always had two members of the religious community by his side to ensure good footing but he did not need them. At 82 he seems in good health both mentally and physically; he spoke Latin and English during the mass. Other people spoke parts of the mass in Arabic and even short prayers in Italian, Spanish, French, and Hebrew. Some familiar faces: Patriarch Elias Chacour (SJU commencement) and Bishop Fouad Twal (our Archbishop)

Mass was two and a half hours long. At times of long pauses I drifted in and out of consciousness. The sun was so strong. The young children sitting in front and behind us were sprawling out and you could see they were struggling. Water was passed out to the crowd

It was announced at mass that over 60,000 people were present (I was fortunate enough to get communion but about 50,000 didn't). I looked behind me and it was a sea of people up the hill. I was amazed at the excitement in the crowd; people were waving many different huge national flags, Papal flags, and some groups singing songs not from the mass and dancing. They must have gotten more sleep than I did.

I came away from this experience with a different perspective of the Pope. Disapprovals are another story, what I am talking about is his influence. I did not expect it but I found myself with this mystic affection for him. He brings hope, love, and peace. He urged the people of this WORLD, of all different religions to live peacefully and to live like brothers and sisters. He wasn't trying to Christianize. He is not just a Roman Catholic icon. He’s a humanitarian. You don’t have to be Catholic, you don’t even have to be Christian to follow him and his call for peace.

We found the Tabgha Sisters and of course they did the two things they always do when they see us out in public: take tons of pictures and feed us.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Think of your favorite excuse for not writing...its mine.

I can’t believe Palm Sunday was three weeks ago. With that said I will do my best to recap what has happened since then.

While Jerusalem is the ideal place to celebrate Easter Sunday, I stayed in Tabgha to celebrate with our community.


Thursday night we extinguished all the lights in the church at the end of mass quietly and let the parishioners go their own way. The Tabgha family ate a quiet filling meal setup in fashion of the Last Supper.

Only a little work was done on Good Friday.

The band practicing for Easter Sunday

Holy Saturday was spent preparing for the next morning. ML and I hard boiled and dyed 300+ eggs with three elderly German women and two seminarians.

Easter Sunday began with a 4am mass. I woke up shortly before mass and felt my stomach growl and head slightly twinge, not used to the early hour. The congregation assembled out in front of the church and proceeded in, lighting the individual personal candles on the way. In the first 5 minutes after everyone found a seat an elderly woman keeled over. I thought Ohhh, I’m next there is no way I’ll make it the whole mass…I was alter-serving…you owe me Br. Paul. Consider that my donation to the BVC for the next 10 years.

Three and a half hours later and catastrophe free we headed down the path to the Pilgerhaus for a huge breakfast and (while nothing special added) some of the most satisfying coffee ever.

We chilled in the pool in the early afternoon enjoying our first post-Lent-fast alcoholic beverage (I mean I tried to refrain from consuming alcohol during Lent NOT that I drank this one quickly). I say try; no one is perfect.

The next Friday (17th) we had some of the monks from Dormition to Tabgha to celebrate as a family. It was a great fish and bread feast where I was actually tired of eating come Satruday night. Late in the night on Saturday Martin, ML, and I walked to Capernaum to watch the Eastern Orthodox Christian Easter celebration. Prior to the BVC I had no encounters with Orthodox Christians and I’ve found myself curious after many occasions, this one especially.

On the following Monday a group arrived from Bethlehem. Comprised of children ages 5-13 (I would guess) with varied abilities and disabilities this group makes a yearly trip to Tabgha to relax and let loose. The catch is: the children and adult leaders are only allowed 1-2 day passes to leave the West Bank and return, extending this time limit would result in loss of privilege to leave the West Bank or maybe worse.

Chaos and commotion

Because of the short duration the children spend as much of their waking moments in the pool and after our work sessions we would jump in with them. They would play keep-away with balls or climb all over us. It was constant commotion and laughter (much of mine).

Too strong...come get some

It was an unpleasant realization to think that some of the children only see a pool once a year. It sounds like nonsense and I can only hope that it is.