The first stop on tour d’Israel was Tiberias, a city in the north named after the eponymous Roman Emperor. The morning after we rang in the New Year at our hotel lobby bar, we drove to the Arbel National Park and Nature Reserve, a site that dates back over 2,000 years. Just like our ancestors before us, we became acquainted with the land with
our hands, feet and eyes by climbing and scaling the mountain, using the red and white markings on the rocks along the hiking trail as a guide. In addition to leading us in the right direction, the rocks also reminded us just how old the land is: each limestone is riddled with holes, eroded from the amount of water that has flowed down the riverbed over time. But even amid the dried out rocks, there were signs of life: blooming cyclamen, with their pink upswept petals, peered out from the soil between many of the stones.

Once we reached the top of the cliff, we saw a sweeping view of the Sea of Galilee, Israel’s largest freshwater reservoir, and a cluster of houses, including the former residence of Mary Magdalene. Across the valley was a series of caves, once occupied by the Jews to avoid being taxed by the Romans. On our hike down, various piles of excrement signaled approaching cattle, and sure enough, at the bottom of the plateau, a number of horses and cows grazed in the grass, as they did many years ago.

The next stop on our itinerary was Katzrin Park, and on our bus ride there, we recited the prayer of Shema from the Torah (one of the most important Jewish prayers), which discusses the unity of God and has been uttered by Jews for thousands of years, in both good times and bad. The park is located in an ancient Talmudic village and once housed 120 Jewish families who supported themselves in a variety of ways, one of which was making olive oil. We observed how the oil was made and learned about its plethora of uses by the Israelis: cooking, bathing, as a tonic and as a source of electricity, in particular, lighting candles for Hanukkah. We also saw the remains of a synagogue that dates back to the 4th century, which had a menorah emblazoned on one of its walls— a telltale sign that it was a safe haven for Jews. Additionally, it had a special room for the Torah, which faced south towards the capital city of Jerusalem. Other homes in the village had entrances that did not face one another, in an effort to preserve privacy.

Our last site for the day was Har Bental, a former military post with 360 degree views of Israel and Syria, the border of which was a mere 25 miles away. As we stood on top of the mountain, we learned about the Yom Kippur War and of the Israelis who sacrificed their lives for their country, so people like me, years later, can gaze upon the very same scene without fearing a military attack. This was one of the many aspects of this trip so far that resonated with me and made me deeply appreciate this place.

This post was written by Claire Stern