Three months have passed since my return from Israel. It has taken this long to assimilate the extraordinary experiences, and my eye-opening realizations and discoveries in this land sometimes called the center of the universe. My enthusiasm and encouragement to travel to Israel is met with apprehension by friends. That is understandable, for in tourism perception is reality. Fear has never kept me from traveling, but I do admit I was worried about the region. After absorbing the events that transpired during our nine-day visit to the land of Jesus and David, I realize I would go back in a second and without hesitation.

For most travelers, the desire to see and experience different cultures in distant lands- to see it all- overtakes fear and propels us to hop on a plane and embrace the adventure. That is exactly what I did late November of 2016 with a group organized by the Center for Latino and Jewish Relations not without preconceived ideas.

Israel is surprisingly young. Due to Israel’s ancient history and religious tradition, I expected a country of older, conservative individuals. What I found was a vibrant place bursting with young creative people. Not only young, but attractive and stylish; the type that know how to wrap a scarf around and up their hair. The streets of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem are out of a fashion magazine with plenty of style from both locals and visitors. Hip and contemporary restaurants and coffee shops abound along with good wine and engaging conversation.

The old city of Jaffa, one of the most ancient maritime harbors in the world, is an inspiring example of urban development through the support of the arts. The city’s narrow, cobbled streets are lined with art galleries, jewelry and antique shops. To me Jaffa is the Middle Eastern version of Austin’s South Congress Avenue, but with an incredible view of the Mediterranean Sea.

Old Port of Jaffa

Israel is the land of young female soldiers. They are a meaningful part of the culture and have been called the “Supermodel Army.” Since the founding of the state of Israel in 1948, all citizens are drafted at the age of 18. Only a handful of countries share this practice including Norway and Eritrea.

Upon high school graduation, these young women serve in the military for two years and men serve for three years. Visitors welcome any opportunity to meet and talk to these captivating young women as they casually stroll around public places sporting a lethal, fully automatic weapon slung across their shoulder. It is a fresh perspective of 21st century women. In 2000, the Equality Amendment to the Military Service Law stated that the right of women to serve in any role in the IDF is equal to the right of men. There are exceptions, and not all of the country’s females are drafted. Communication with locals is easy, for most of them speak English. The official language is Hebrew.

Female soldiers 2

Israel has a rich cuisine. Israeli culinary traditions stem from the importance of agriculture and the fruit of the sea. Mediterranean fusion dishes are the leading tradition. Our group leader said this could be a result of famine during the painful years of the Holocaust; a way to compensate for that fatal scarcity. Tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, eggplant, all sorts of greens, chickpeas, beets and various olives mingle in savory and organic entrees. Israel is a citrus producing haven, and the pomegranate is the symbol of the country. Persimmons, dates, apples and an impressive variety of fruits and vegetables adorn markets and tables with a cornucopia effect. Varieties of cheese, bread, and fresh fish prepared with olive oil and tomatoes and Mediterranean Sea salt are even present at the breakfast table! Very unexpected and exotic.

Breakfast in Jerusalem. For those not into this they also offer the standard menu items with the exception of bacon.

Israel is creative. Israel is a melting pot that embraces immigration and relishes the opportunity it bestows. Creatives from around the world live in Israel, especially in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. I met professionals from New York City, Philadelphia, the Philippines, Venezuela, Brazil, Spain and a few other places. My curiosity led me to find a book titled “Start Up Nation” by Dan Senor and Saul Singer which addresses these important questions. How is it that Israel – a country of 7.1 million, almost 70 years old, surrounded by enemies, in a constant state of war since its founding, with no natural resources – produces more start-up companies than large, peaceful, and stable nations like Japan, China, India, Korea, Canada or the UK? How is it that Israel has, per person, attracted over twice as much venture capital investment as the US and thirty times more than Europe?

From my observations, I deduce that it has a lot to do with their positive forward thinking. I soon realized that Israelis could not accomplish much if their minds were fixed on their tormented past. The people we met were focused on future endeavors and projects, and not on politics or the past, albeit all could hold an intelligent conversation on these subjects. Israel is a state of mind. What was even more amazing is that we visited the headquarters of the Start-up Mobileye – developers of driverless technology – in Jerusalem. Mobileye was just purchased by Intel for 14.9 billion dollars in the most expensive acquisition of any high tech Israeli company.

Israel is peaceful. While visiting a recently discovered first century synagogue in Mary Magdalene’s town of Magdala, on the shores of the sea of Galilee, I talked to young women from Spain who told me they volunteered for six months, but hoped to stay longer. Their duties include welcoming visitors, and assisting with the research center’s operations. A lodging center for pilgrims with great views of the sea is being built on site and will open in 2017.

Boat ride in Galilee

This place was special to me because it was discovered by Father Juan Maria Solana of Puebla, Mexico who is the papal appointee in charge of Notre Dame of Jerusalem. Father Solana dreamt of a place where pilgrims would be comfortable and have a memorable spiritual experience. He found the land and construction began in 2009. As crews dug to build the foundation, they stumbled upon an entire first century Jewish town with a first century synagogue where it is very likely that Jesus taught. Magdala, a magical place, was also the center of fish distribution during the time of Jesus and the apostles. Father Solana considers it the crossroads between Jewish and Christian history. No talk of fear or anxiety here – it is all peace.

Israel is mystic. The picturesque town of Tzfat sits atop a hill at 2,953 feet in the Northern District of Israel. It is considered one of four of Judaism’s holy cities. Since the 1950s, the town has been known as Israel’s art capital, and welcomes thousands of international visitors in search of the teachings of Jewish mysticism known as Kabbalah. Much of the town’s popularity is attributed to pop music icon Madonna. The ancient city boasts intricate cobblestone pedestrian streets lined with art galleries, jewelry and clothing boutiques and mystical objects. At one of these jewelry stores I met Jennifer, a young woman from New York City who said she traveled to Tzfat as part of a spiritual journey.

Tzfat Street

 My trip, too, was part of a spiritual journey even though it was a cultural and diplomatic familiarization tour undertaken as an executive board member of the Center for Latino-Jewish Relations. These are just a few of the many realizations that transformed my pre-conceived expectations. As it turned out, Israel is a place that made me feel at home. I cannot say that I felt afraid or anxious. On the contrary, I felt tremendous peace and an inexplicable sense of courage. I cannot wait to go back.

 Dr. Peter Tarlow, an expert in tourism security, former Texas A&M Rabbi, Director for the Center for Latino – Jewish Relations, and currently appointed by Texas Governor Abbot to head the Texas Holocaust & Genocide Commission (THGC) will be in McAllen from October 24 to the 26, 2017. He will headline the third annual Latino – Jewish Relations symposium and conduct a  meeting with the board of directors of the THGC. This is the first time the THGC comes to the Rio Grande Valley to host its quarterly meeting. The symposium is open to the public. More information will become available as the date approaches.