The living history of the Bible is what makes the Holy Land so exciting. Having a chance to see, touch, and feel a real connection to the life of Christ and countless events and persons mentioned in the Bible is why Israel is so important to Christians around the world – both as a historical record and a spiritual wellspring. The Monastery of Saint John in the Wilderness is one of those places. Commemorating the childhood of John the Baptist, the monastery provides us with a direct connection to one of the most important figures in the Bible.
Located just north of Even Sapir, the site is located very close to Ein Kerem, St. John’s birthplace. The gospel of Luke describes John’s childhood, saying "The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the desert until the day of his manifestation to Israel.” (Luke 1,80). Looking at the Monastery, you would be forgiven for doing a double take!
Indeed, the Monastery is not located in a desolate dune or craggy mountain range like you might imagine when you think of the word "desert.” Quite the contrary, the Monastery of Saint John in the Wilderness is surrounded by abundant lush green trees. Crystal springs dot the area as do other natural pools and groves. The local ecology enjoys a rich variety of animal life drawn to the bounty of the springs and the protection afforded by these shaded groves.
The difference between reality and what we imagine here can be chalked up to a translation difference. The biblical name for uncultivated land is "midbar.” This is the word that appears in Luke when discussing John’s childhood. And while this can and often does refer to literal desert, there is some nuance to the phrase. It can just as easily mean "pastureland” which can imply an empty area, or can merely refer to an area undeveloped by human civilization.
However, as surprising as this location might seem if you’ve been picturing John the Baptist contemplating in the sand, it makes a lot of sense. This is a location where John would have been able to live off the land and sustain himself while still possessing the isolation and quiet solitude he required. It’s a wonderful image to think of a young John resting himself against a tree, enjoying the cool breeze coming off a shaded pond, basking in the natural glory God has provided for his children.
The Monastery of Saint John in the Wilderness was built by crusaders over top of a Byzantine ruin which in itself was built over a cave where John is believed to have resided. As is common when you learn about churches and temples in Israel, there are layers of history to shift through and discover. Since then, the Church has fallen into disrepair and been rebuilt several times, the entire history of which has been lost to time.
The monastery contains several points of interest, most prominently are two caves. These caves have important biblical significance with the first containing a spring that was and still is used for baptisms. The second cave traces directly back to John’s childhood and is said to have been the hiding place where his parents hid him during Herod’s attempt to kill the infant Christ by condemning all male infants. To commemorate this piece of history, a fresco has been added depicting this terrifying scramble to safety.
The monastery features some impressive architectural flourishes including a domed roof and several gateways and walls. It feels every bit as ancient as it is with materials and touches from different centuries of renovations coming together to create a unique and textured feel. The monastery also features some truly beautiful springs and water features – perfect for contemplation and thanksgiving.
Complacency kills. It kills in the work environment when people ignore safety regulations to move a little faster. It kills on the road when people get a little too confident in their driving and don’t keep their eyes open. And it kills spiritually. Complacency can slow your walk with Christ and obscure your vision – to the point where you might not recognize God when He moves in your life.
This happens when we get a little too comfortable in our Christian lives. When the sacred act of prayer and communion with our Lord becomes routine. When you stop thinking about what you’re praying for and instead run through a quick and thoughtless script. This is the mumbled prayer before dinner that the rest of the table can barely hear. The quick nod towards Christ before heading off to bed. It happens when our expectations take control – when we focus on what we want to see from God so much that we forget to look for what else He may be showing us.
This isn’t a new phenomenon. Even back in the days of Elijah people were missing the forest for the trees when looking for God. 1 Kings 11 shows us how difficult it can be, even for the truly devoted, when we let our expectations cloud our vision.
The Lord said, "Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.”
Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. 12 After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. 13 When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.
Elijah was looking for the fantastic. He was looking for a five-alarm act of God delivered with the spectacle of a powerful windstorm, in the world-shaking roar of an earthquake, or in the raging flames of a spiritual wildfire. But none of those things came. When the voice of God finally reached Elijah’s ear, it was only a whisper.
Elijah had been through a lot at that point. His life was being threatened and he fled to the woods alone in desperation. He thought his life was over and begged the Lord for a merciful death. He needed direction, he needed to recognize what God wanted from him. Just before his flight into the woods, he witnessed a miracle where God proved himself on Mount Carmel and it colored his expectations. He was expecting another miracle, another blazing pyre or sign from above. He wasn’t ready to hear God even though He was already with him.
Be wary of complacency. Be wary of applying your expectations on God. Instead, try to recognize that God is always with us. That His voice is often only a whisper, his directions often just a small tap on the shoulder, not a shove. When we embrace life knowing that God is always with us, always providing direction and learn to look and listen for Him, our spiritual lives flourish and God moves in ways no one can expect.
You don’t need to be a baseball fan to know who Sandy Koufax is. Right up there with Babe Ruth, Michael Jordon, or Tom Brady, his accomplishments were so great and so impactful that his name transcends the sport he played, becoming an American icon. It’s fitting then that it’s not just Koufax’s performance on the mound that makes him special.
Born in Brooklyn to Jewish parents, Koufax represents an archetypical American experience, the melting pot in action. His childhood days were split between rowdy play at school with time on backlot diamonds and basketball courts, and the synagogue and Jewish Community Center. His parents were proud Jews and raised him to value his heritage. It was an identity he would cherish and carry with him his entire life, even when it was difficult.
Koufax established himself as a great athlete from an early age, but he didn’t always have his sights set exclusively on baseball. You can always spot a prodigy by how many sports they can be competitive in and a young Koufax was equally enthralled with basketball as he was of baseball. In fact, it was basketball that clinched him a scholarship to the University of Cincinnati. It’s fun to speculate how different his legacy might have been if the Dodgers, who knew exactly how much potential the young man possessed, hadn’t wheeled out an irresistible offer to get him to sign in 1954.
It was an unorthodox move for the clubhouse, the bonus Koufax signed was over the league’s threshold for non-players, meaning the Dodgers HAD to keep him on their major league roster for at least two years before they could even consider moving him to the minors (you know, where most young pitchers develop their game). The result was a trial by fire in the big show for the young star.
And what a trial it was. Just one year later in 1955 the Blue Crew found themselves in the World Series. Koufax didn’t play in the series, but he did help get them there posting respectable numbers throughout the season against some of the hottest bats in the league. All of this while balancing his continuing education, now at the University of Columbia.
Appreciate the situation here, Koufax is not quite 20 years old, still very much a young man. He’s pitching for one of the most prestigious teams in the league without the benefit of developing his game in the minors in front of thousands. On top of this, he’s commuting between New York and Columbia for every game so he could keep up on his studies. What a tremendous workload on anyone, but in particular a 20 year old. And yet he thrived, both academically and athletically.
These were the years where Koufax would develop his game. He always had a cannon for an arm, it was what led the Dodgers to sign him up in the first place, and it was enough to place him ahead of his college league peers. But what he lacked in those early Major League starts was control - wild pitches and a high rate of bean balls were preventing him from being truly great. It took a partnership with another Jewish player, his catcher Norm Sherry, to become the legend he is celebrated as today.
The key, it turned out, was to slightly ease up on the ball, to reign in his monstrous speed. Koufax transformed his arm from an artillery piece to a scalpel, developing a three-punch combo consisting of a still blazing (but accurate) fastball, a sneaky change-up, and a devastating curveball that seemed to defy physics. With just those three pitches, Koufax built an unassailable legacy.
Koufax was instrumental in securing the World Series for the Dodgers in 1959, but it was the 60s when he really started cooking. His 1961 series set a league record for batters struck out, with a jaw-dropping 269 sent back to the dugout. This tremendous success was immediately put in jeopardy in 1962 when a blood clot formed in his throwing arm that required surgery to fix and almost cost him his index finger, threatening to end his career. Sports writers at the time openly questioned whether or not it was possible for him to come back, to even approach the success of his 1961 campaign.
Koufax made them eat their words. Not only did he return in form for 62, he was better. He threw his first of four no-hitters that season. A feat he would repeat for the next three years culminating in a legendary "perfect game” in 1965 against the Cubs.
To put this accomplishment into perspective, the vast majority of MLB pitchers never even come close to a no-hitter. Over the entire history of the league, there have been only 315 no-hitters pitched, and Koufax was responsible for four of them. As impressive as no-hitter is, the "perfect game” (where absolutely no opposing players reach a base on a walk, hit-by-pitch, or error) is a unicorn. Over the history of the MLB, with more than 218,400 games played, there have been exactly 23 perfect games recorded. Pitching one essentially guarantees entry into the Hall of Fame.
But in the same year, Koufax did something almost equally impressive. Something far more personal and demanding than a perfect game. He stayed true to himself.
Picture the scene, Koufax is coming off 4 straight years of pitching no-hitters including a perfect game, a feat nobody to this day has matched (outstripping Cy Young, the namesake of the most prestigious pitching award in the game). He outdid his 1961 record by leaps and bounds with an astounding 382 regular season batters struck out. He was undeniably the greatest pitcher in the league and the (at this time) L.A Dodgers single greatest weapon. Largely thanks to his Herculean efforts, the Dodgers are in the pennant race for the World Series.
But there is just one catch. One of the games fell on Yom Kippur. With the eyes of the sports world on him, at a time when antisemitism was far more prevalent than today, Sandy Koufax refused to pitch on this holy day.
Can you imagine the agony of such a decision? Can you imagine what it would be like to go to the head coach and say "not today” when the World Series itself was on the line? To risk the ire of not only Dodger fans across the country, but even his own teammates? All to stay true to himself and his faith. It was a decision not many people would have the strength of character to make.
But in an ESPN documentary in 2000, Koufax was completely unbothered. "There was no hard decision for me, it was just a thing of respect.” He knew what was right, and that was that. Incredible.
It’s an action that is still spoken of with reverence by Jewish sports fans and players. In the years since, several players have followed in Koufax’s footsteps (Koufax himself looked to Hank Greenberg who stood out of an important 1934 game for the same reason). But Sandy Koufax stands out because of the spotlight that was on him, because of the stakes of the World Series. It was and remains unprecedented.
It’s a legacy that is celebrated to this day. In 1990 Koufax was inducted into the Southern California Jewish Sports Hall of Fame, an honored addition. In Israel, Koufax had the distinction of being the final draft pick by the Modi'in Miracle’s in the inaugural 2007 Israel Baseball League season. Seventy-one years old at this point, Koufax was invited by manager Art Shamsky, saying "It's been 41 years between starts for him. If he's rested and ready to take the mound again, we want him on our team." An offer Koufax declined, but still an immeasurable sign of the deep respect Jewish players and sports fans still hold for him.
For as accomplished as he was, for as important as baseball was to him, Koufax never lost sight of what was truly important – his personal faith and self-respect. Perfect games are rare, nearly a miracle when they happen. But that clarity of purpose, that deep wellspring of respect and perspective – that is something even more rare and precious.
When I was a child, church attendance was a given. My family had a highly set routine – get up at the same time, put on one of the same two "church” outfits, be in the parking lot just before Sunday school. It’s easy to go to church regularly when you are a child and have no real choice in the matter. When you get a bit older it gets tougher. And when both social pressures and technology provide you with so many tempting alternatives, mustering up the energy to get up on a Sunday morning, wash your face, make yourself presentable, and show up in person can seem like an even taller order.
The cases AGAINST physically going to church are numerous and persuasive. I think the strongest of them (and the one I bought into for a few years into my adulthood when compulsory church attendance was no longer so compulsory) is the idea that the real work lies outside of the church, not in it. When you look out at the staggering amount of people in need of food, shelter, love, and understanding it can feel hypocritical to get in your pressed shirt or modest but nice dress and spend an hour or so nodding along to a familiar sermon. There is so much work to be done and so much more Christians can be doing that it seems frivolous to "preach to the choir” as it were.
And then there are all the shiny new ways to connect with the church community. Considering the convenience of streamed services and social media prayer circles, actually showing up to the same building feels a little old fashioned. Why endure the stress of getting the kids up and ready to go for a 9:00 AM Sunday school class when you could let them tune in while eating their breakfast?
But for as persuasive as those options can be, can they really replace the experience of going to church? And I want to be careful here, because I’m not saying those alternatives are bad. As Christians we absolutely have a duty to put our values into action out in the real world. If your Christianity begins at 9:00AM on Sunday and ends when you walk out the door of the church, then you need to do some reflection. And streamed services and alternative long-distance forms of communion and sharing are absolutely valid, especially for our brothers and sisters with mobility disabilities, compromised immune systems, or other impediments.
But for those of us blessed with the ability to attend, the church is about more than saying hi to the regulars who sit in your pew, and there is a lot of value in gathering under God’s roof even in this modern age.
The church offers us something we can’t get anywhere else – shared love in Christ. It’s a place to go to spend energy, but a place to be revitalized. When the stresses of the world are bearing down on us, when everyday seems to bring some new catastrophic headline or calamity, when you start to wonder what God’s plan could possibly be, it’s the church that will lift you back up by reminding you that this is a shared experience. We all feel hopeless now and then and it can sometimes be hard to see the big picture, but there is one and it is always moving in God’s direction.
"Preaching to the choir” might sound like a waste of time, but you need to remember that the choir is made up of real, feeling, hurting people. People who need spiritual nourishment, the kind you can only get from communion with your brothers and sisters in Christ. We need to feel that bond, that love. Without it, we face a lonely and daunting world.
And just as we as Christians have a real duty to put our values to action in the street, we also have a duty to put them into practice in the church. The church is an institution made and maintained by countless individuals. Every Sunday school lesson you nodded off to when you were young? It was written by a church member who cared enough to give their time and energy each week to plan a lesson and the strength and determination to get it across to a room of bored and fidgeting 10 year old’s. Every bulletin board you see with prayer group dates, help-phones to call, food basket services, and such is a testament to the care your brothers and sisters have for you and each other. Every cup of free coffee you drink, every stale grocery store doughnut you eat, was brought in by someone who wanted to make sure you were comfortable and alert and ready to receive the message and fellowship of Christ. That is love. Real love.
No church is perfect like no Christian is perfect. There are going to be times when we let each other down, when we feel like we’re either not doing enough, or doing too much of the wrong thing. But that isn’t a reason to give up on it. It’s a reason to stay and put in the work to do better. We are all the beneficiaries of a million tiny acts of kindness and care performed by people who never had to lift a finger if they didn’t want to and who likely never received any kind of compensation or even praise for their efforts. It’s our duty to honor those acts by keeping their spirit alive, by contributing a few of our own. And that is why the church can and will never be replaced.
The kibbutz was an influential cultural icon of Israel’s development, and the heart of the kibbutz was the dining hall. The very bedrock of the nation was formed in these large communal halls where kibbutz workers would fortify themselves for the day with a well-rounded breakfast, socialize over a shared brunch or lunch and end their days with dinner and conversation along with their families and peers in these large, boisterous halls. While the kibbutz of today looks a lot different from the farms of the early Israeli settlers, the impact of kibbutz food can still be felt today.
In popular Israeli culture, kibbutz food is a little bit of a punching bag. People like to make jokes about how bad the food could be, and those who are old enough to have first-hand experience of the early kibbutz often enjoy swapping horror stories of their most loathed meals. And there is some truth to that. After all, if you need to quickly make food for over 100 people with limited resources, you’re likely to have the occasional "it will have to do” dish.
But this is largely an exaggeration of the actual history. The kibbutz dining hall has consistently been a place of experimentation and cultural growth that has developed right alongside Israel as a nation. As diaspora chefs returned to Israel to join the kibbutz experience, they brought with them recipes and techniques from around the world that were reflected in those kitchens. And as the state of Israel developed and changed over the decades, changing what types and quantities of food were both available locally and for import, the style and kind of food served in the average kibbutz changed along with them.
Despite the reputation, the kibbutz was THE place to go for quality ingredients and food in the 1950’s. As austerity measures gripped the rapidly expanding state, forcing rationing and limitations on many common ingredients like butter, meat, and some types of vegetables, Israelis faced a dilemma. They could either go without, turn to the black market to stock their pantry (and all the risks and costs associated with that), or go to their local kibbutz which produced those rationed items and often had an abundance to spare.
As a communal experience that was served by trolleys and trays wheeled from table to table, choice was not a priority for the kibbutz of the 40s and 50s. This has been described as the "instead” period of kibbutz dining. If you didn’t like the main dish for the meal, no problem, you could have whatever else was made instead. This was generally a less elaborate (and often less appealing) alternative. And if you didn’t like either option, well, tough luck. This is likely where a lot of the less pleasant memories of kibbutz food comes from and it’s not hard to imagine why.
This improved over the 60s and 70s however as most kibbutz transitioned from serving members table to table and instead opted for a self-serve system similar to a cafeteria. Take your plate up to the buffet and make your selection based on what was available. This allowed for more choice in the average kibbutz meal plan while still keeping the logistics simple enough to provide for a large group quickly.
The 90s marked a period of privatization for many kibbutz. Meals went from being freely provided to paid services. Naturally this led to increased selection and quality, after all if you’re paying for a meal it better be what you want. But this has led to the kibbutz dining hall experience losing some of its identity.
And it’s hard to describe how valuable that identity is to Israel. The kibbutz was where entire generations of Israeli’s grew up. It was the system that helped to develop the nation and form it’s national character. Many kibbutz chefs became local legends to those who ate their food, for example Yankale’s Yeast Cookies were so beloved and requested in Kibbutz Na’an that the recipe was engraved on the chef’s tombstone when he passed!
Today so called "kibbutz foods" have become a staple in Israeli homes. Late evening snacks and hearty kibbutz style breakfasts are popular across the country, focusing on salads, olives, eggs, yogurt and cheese. Meat is never included, but various types of fish are, and the preparations vary depending on where you are in the country. Different pickled foods are also directly inspired from kibbutz kitchens and enjoyed as a snack. And of course, no kibbutz breakfast would be complete without a healthy helping of bread products, juice and a steaming cup of coffee.
The kibbutz breakfast is so popular it’s become a mainstay of Israeli hotels. Included with your stay at most hotels is a hearty kibbutz approved breakfast offering. It’s become so ingrained in the culture that any attempts to swap to (less expensive) continental breakfast offerings in the early 80s were met with widespread derision and ended in failure. The kibbutz breakfast has remained a mainstay since.
The heyday of the kibbutz has long since passed, and of the roughly 270 kibbutz remaining in Israel, only a select few still offer the classic cooperative dining experience. Despite this though, the legacy and impact of this food and style of life can still be felt in Israel today, from home breakfast tables to restaurants. A connection to Israeli heritage that is still alive today.
Social media is a part of modern life. It has been for a long time now of course, but since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic it’s become an even more ever-present aspect of our culture. People who never had a Facebook page or an Instagram handle had to get one to stay in touch with distant friends and family, and people who were already part of those ecosystems suddenly had to do the majority of their socializing on these large quasi-anonymous platforms. At the surface level, there doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with that. After all, sharing pictures of the family, recipes, and carrying on in conversations about what shows and movies people are watching is all harmless fun.
But this connection comes at a cost though. While social media allows us to stay in contact with others and meet new people and engage in conversations, it also distances us emotionally and spiritually. Every day social media makes us a little sadder, a little more anxious, and worst of all, a little meaner every day.
Anonymity and distance
In 2002, the BBC ran a special episode of a show called The Experiment. This particular episode, Remote Control, was set up as a kind of candid camera prank show centering on an unknown participant named Chris out for a night at the pub who was surrounded by actors and unaware he was being filmed. But there was a twist – the live studio audience would have the chance to decide what happened to Chris by voting on different options presented by the host. Crucially, the audience members were all given masks to hide their faces while they watched the spectacle and voted on what to subject poor Chris to next.
The show wastes no time establishing a slightly sinister tone as the masked audience members vote to make Chris deal with an angry boyfriend in the bar by falsely accusing him of pinching a woman. The presentation leans into the spectacle like it was a goofy prank, like gluing a quarter to the pavement and the audience goes along. But the scene is actually pretty intimidating, with the angry boyfriend threatening Chris and urging him to "go outside” to settle it. Far beyond what would be considered a good-natured prank.
His night goes increasingly poorly from there as the audience unfailingly chooses the nastiest options they are presented with. Should Chris be treated to a free pint or be ridiculously overcharged for his drinks? Overcharged. Should he win a free TV, or be accused of shoplifting? Shoplifting. And on and on it goes, as the audience roars with laughter. Up until the final question.
After tormenting this man all night, the final choice posed to the audience is if Chris should win a 10,000 pound cash prize for putting up with all this nonsense, or get kidnapped. Naturally the audience chooses the more sadistic option and just as Chris is about to call his awful night to an end, masked men suddenly emerge from a dark van to accost him. Only things go terribly wrong as a panicked Chris runs from his would-be captors… straight into oncoming traffic.
His body is flung to the ground, crumpled and not moving. After a shocked collective gasp, a terrible silence falls over the audience. Everyone knows they are responsible. Everyone has a sudden moment of reality that this is actually happening to a real person. No more laughter.
Thankfully, it is revealed that while Chris had no knowledge of the events or the show as the host promised, this last portion was a bit of trickery on the part of the producers. That wasn’t Chris being hit by a car, but a trained and protected stuntman wearing the same clothes filmed earlier in the day.
The Experiment in this case was a test of what happens when you combine distance, anonymity, and a mob mentality, with the depressingly predictable results. This was a coup of dramatic flair for the show, but all of these years later we can glean surprising insights from it. After all, what else does social media combine but distance, anonymity (or quasi-anonymity) and a good helping of mob mentality?
What we see in The Experiment is a daily reality for anyone on social media. For social media savvy users who want to build their "personal brand” or become e-famous online, the easiest way to generate clicks and follows is to pick a big showy fight with someone, land a devastating insult that will be re-posted, and become a "name” in a particular conversation or topic. These arguments, barbs, and dunks inevitably spiral out to their followers and fans, creating tribes, factions, and disagreements everywhere they land. With such omnipresent negativity, it’s difficult to not fall into the same trap. Even if you’re not responding, just reading this kind of bickering, divisive rhetoric day in and day out has a negative effect on your personality.
The way social media is structured it is almost guaranteed to generate hostility. It’s a way to connect you to hundreds, even thousands of cardboard cutouts of people. 2D avatars and one-dimensional insights into their lives, personalities, and beliefs. Between the distance of the screen and the fact that you don’t really know most of the people you see online, it becomes easy to forget they are real humans. And with the veil of anonymity if you are posting under a handle or assumed name, it can be tempting for even normally considerate and rational individuals to dish out a quick insult or nasty word you would never say to someone looking you in the eye.
Even in places where you are not anonymous (like if you have a personal Facebook page with your real name) the performative aspect of social media warps our interactions. Because when you have a conversation in Facebook, unless it is in private messages, it is visible to other people and there is an awareness of that. So, an argument you might have with a friend isn’t just an argument, it’s a spectacle. And people naturally become more hostile in front of a crowd, everyone digs their heels in, refusing to admit they could be mistaken – compromise becomes a sign of weakness rather than a preferred outcome. It’s easy for people who can get along in person to become bitter enemies online, a phenomenon that has struck many families through the past two years of pandemic distance.
This creeping negativity flows through the screen and into your life. It distorts your view of other people and groups, turns relationships into competitions, and worst of all obscures your relationship with the Lord. By making it easier to be mean, judgmental, and two-faced, social media enables all of our worst impulses and none of our better angels.
What you can do to avoid negativity
Of course the knee-jerk response to all of this is to simply avoid social media, don’t participate. But we live in a technological world. As mentioned earlier, for some people social media is the only way to stay in touch with some friends and relatives. So rather than unhelpfully suggesting you simply delete your accounts, here are a few tips that can help keep your social media life balanced and in proper perspective.
First, identify what you get from social media that is constructive and positive. Do you love seeing new photos of your nieces and nephews? Great, keep those accounts. Enjoy hearing from an old friend every now and then? Sounds great, keep in touch. But are their some accounts that only seem to post terrible news everyday that makes you depressed and spurs arguments and drama? You don’t need to follow them. Clean up your follow list and concentrate on constructive, affirming content.
Limit your social media time. Don’t check in on it constantly throughout the day, that’s a surefire way to make social media seem more important than it is. Instead have a set time you check it (maybe during your lunch break, just after work when you’re winding down), something that gives it structure. Then, set a time limit (no more than an hour) and be strict about it. That way you can keep in touch with the people you care about but won’t be tempted to weigh in on every conversation and piece of news that crosses your feed all day.
Finally, and this one might seem goofy but give it a chance, put a mirror next to your monitor or near wherever you prefer to browse your phone. It sounds silly, but studies have shown that people who see themselves in a mirror are far less likely to break social norms or act selfishly/cruelly. It makes sense, it’s a way of not only reminding your of who you are, but also that we’re never truly alone or anonymous. God is right there with you through every post, tweet, and Instagram, even if nobody else is.
Dom Bruno was no stranger to hard work. He was a man of study and contemplation, used to spending long nights pouring over Latin manuscripts and theological thesis. But now, during the occupation of Belgium from the Nazis and their sick policies of Jewish oppression and extermination, his long nights were occupied with a very different sort of work – resistance.
Dom Bruno’s efforts were meticulous. No detail was left to chance, he planned around every contingency he could, anticipated every need. And he did it personally, assuming every responsibility, from networking with other resistance members, to physically transporting children, to supplying for their financial needs out of his own meager pocket. He rode from safehouse to safehouse on his bicycle, with false papers and ration cards hidden in his clothes for children he had stashed away across the countryside. The scope of this effort cannot be understated. Many days he worked without sleep, having to keep up appearances of normality while he lived a secret second life as a resistance savior. These were long days too. In retracing all his bicycle excursions, it is estimated he pedaled more than forty times the equivalent of the Tour de Belgique. His own personal marathon of salvation.
Eventually he was able to secure financial aid from some likeminded compatriots in the Church and a Belgian banker named Jules Debois-Pelerin. With the added financial clout, Dom Bruno stepped up his activities in the resistance, sheltering more and more Jewish families and children.
The operations were planned down to a ‘T’. Jewish mothers received detailed instructions on where to bring their children and who to look for, how to act to avoid suspicion, even through the heartbreaking scenario of possibly seeing their children for the last time. Dom Bruno or one of his close confederates would meet the families at a train station or a café. The children would arrive as Jews and leave as something else, taken to a new home or Church to be cared for under Dom Bruno’s watchful and kind eye.
The quiet unassuming monk turned out to have a gift for spycraft. More than once he and children he was with were questioned by German occupiers, and each time the monk with the silver tongue would simply talk his way out of the situation. His calm reserve and intellectual bearing dissuading suspicion and soothing nerves.
As talented and intelligent as Dom Bruno was, it was only the grace of God that kept him and his children safe. He managed to sneak children through German roadblocks, covering them with a blanket in his backseat. He convinced troops at train stations to let him leave with children that lacked identification cards, all chalked up to some innocent mistake or forgetfulness. Again and again he and the children he protected escaped suspicion and all but certain arrest and detainment, it’s not hard to see the hand of God at work.
Dom Bruno’s dedication to his children didn’t end at securing them homes. He saw to their emotional and developmental needs as well. He forbade the churches and orphanages he placed Jewish children with from attempting to convert the children, excusing them from mandatory church attendance and study, allowing them to find their own path. This might seem strange from a Catholic monk, but it was part of Dom Bruno’s respect and commitment to the Jewish families that trusted him. He didn’t want to change who they were, he wasn’t saving them to be a good Catholic, he was saving them because it was the human and right thing to do.
He kept in contact with parents, risking his life to bring notes and small trinkets like dolls to children who lost all sense of their place in the world. These small gestures might seem foolish to risk your life over, but to the children separated from their family, these keepsakes were precious beyond words. Dom Bruno understood this intuitively and worked hard to maintain these small connections between family members. Glittering beacons of light in a dark and scary world.
Eventually Dom Bruno’s luck ran out and the Gestapo finally identified him as a resistance member. His abbey was raided, but again God protected him and he was coincidentally out at the time of the raid. This forced him into hiding, the monk trading out his habit for slacks and a gentlemen’s coat. A stylish beret was used to obscure his distinctive shaved head.
Still, even while in hiding himself with the Gestapo actively searching for him and questioning every acquaintance and friend he had, Dom Bruno thought of others first. He continued to orchestrate rescues and coordinate communication between groups. He was a tireless and fearless fighter for righteousness, a true hero.
In the end, Dom Bruno is said to have personally saved over 400 Jewish children. Their lives would be his enduring and most profound legacy. Many were reunited with their parents. Others stayed with their adoptive families. Some destinies were even stranger, with two rescued children meeting years later, getting married, and only realizing later they both owed their lives to the same man. Mysterious ways indeed.
For his part, Dom Bruno continued his good works in the Church. He was characteristically modest about his wartime experiences, deflecting credit and praise. Years later, when one of the children he saved, grown into an adult, asked him why he put himself through so much danger and sacrifice Dom Bruno just shrugged "why do you keep asking? I only did what I'm supposed to do." A beautiful sentiment – he didn’t need reward or praise, his only motivation was righteousness and justice.
Dom Bruno lived to the age of 78 before succumbing to a neurological disease. Well loved and admired, he was buried in his abbey with honors. Today, the city of Ottignies honors his work with a plaque in the down square.
Dom Bruno, Benedictine (1903-1981). Hero of the resistance. At the risk of his life he saved 400 Jews from Nazi barbarism.
Slight and bespectacled, everyone knew Dom Bruno. He was the monk who would bicycle through the countryside whenever he was homesick. The book-smart priest who could rattle historical trivia off the top of his head like he was lecturing from a textbook. An unassuming and considerate man who always had time to listen to your problems, who could always offer a wise word of advice or a soothing consolation. What they didn’t know was underneath this seemingly sedate man’s chest beat the heart of a lion, courageous and fierce. The secret protector of hundreds of children, driven by purpose and faith.
Dom Burno, born Henri Reynders, enjoyed a completely unexceptional childhood. The fifth of nine children born into a comfortably upper middle-class family, nobody was surprised by when the quiet and reflective Henri decided to become a monk. He was considered by everyone who knew him as a devout and intellectual man, with a sharp mind and a keen interest in classical Greek and Latin studies, so it seemed like a natural fit. He took his vows in Rome at the age of 22 and led the monastic lifestyle of study and contemplation.
In 1928 he was ordained as a Priest and sent to Leuven where he took his new name and continued his studies. Dom Bruno spent the following years carving out a place for himself in the community and finishing a Doctorate in Theology. It was the quiet, ordinary life of a priest he always wanted. One that would never be the same after the German Invasion of Poland in 1939.
Dom Bruno was called to service as a chaplain in the mobilized Belgium military. But his service didn’t last long. In May of 1940, Belgium was invaded and the small nation was unable to meaningfully resist the Nazi war machine as it stampeded through its borders and cities. Dom Bruno suffered a leg injury in the fighting and was rolled up by occupying forces, spending six months in a PoW camp. But even here he stayed true to himself and his devotion to Christ, ministering to other prisoners and providing hope for the future and faith in Christ.
After Belgium’s surrender, many PoWs were allowed to return home and indeed Dom Bruno returned to his abbey. But everywhere he looked he saw signs of a growing and insidious evil. In 1938 he had visited Germany as part of a lecture series to young German Catholics and the brutality of the Nazi’s anti-Jewish policies shocked him to his core. He saw the propaganda posters, heard the political messages over the radio, all vilifying the Jewish people. He witnessed first-hand the bitter fruits of these efforts when he saw a group of German thugs accost and beat an elderly Jewish woman for no reason other than her ethnicity. He knew exactly what the Nazis were and what it meant to be under their occupation, and he began to plan.
It was a very delicate position for a man used to calm and serenity. Dom Bruno began to make forays within the Belgium Resistance, a dangerous game riddled with double agents reporting to the Gestapo and the ever present threat of being turned in by a collaborator. But still he got the word out and made contact with resistance members. He used his position in the Church to help conceal and shelter the vulnerable. Not just Jews either, one of his first acts as an active resistance member was to help ferry downed Allied airmen to safety, hopscotching from one Church to the next to get out of the country.
In 1942 as the Nazi’s extermination policies went into high gear, Dom Bruno also stepped up to respond to the crisis. He arranged to be transferred as a chaplain to a home for the blind in a small village. The manager of the home and the majority of its residents were secretly Jews. It was here that he began his rescue efforts in earnest.
Realizing that it was only a matter of time before the true nature of the blind home was discovered, Dom Bruno worked tirelessly to secure the safety of its residents. Some were quietly sent to other Abbeys and Churches, other were secreted away to rural homes, given new identities as members of other families. Chief among his concerns were the children, innocent, blameless, and terrifyingly vulnerable. He used every connection he had built from his time as a priest, a lecturer, and a monk to find places for the children to hide. Any friend he ever had, any sympathetic acquaintance he could think of, a fellow man of the cloth he could convince, wherever he thought the children would be safe. He even sent some to his own mother and brother’s house, placing his own family in direct danger to safeguard Jewish children.
This was the beginning of the network Dom Bruno established. One that would grow into one of the most successful Jewish rescue operations during the war. Find out more in part 2.
A church doesn’t need to be large to be grand. As the Church of Dominus Flevit demonstrates, small buildings can contain a whole lot of spiritual power.
Situated on the Western Slope of the Mount of Olives, the church is named and designed after a specific incident described in the Bible following Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem during the original Palm Sunday. On that glorious day, Jesus rode into town with worshippers throwing their own clothing as well as palm leaves on the ground in front of him in a display of worship and respect. "Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” But after his arrival though, Jesus at the Mount of Olives looked down at the city. Rather than celebrate his arrival or the reception he received, Jesus was overcome and wept.
In what outwardly appeared to be a moment of triumph, Jesus knew that it was temporary. As he gazed out to the city, he could see what the future held for it as plainly as you or I might see a sunset. He knew ruin and conflict would befall the city as described in the Gospel of Luke.
"The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.” – Luke 19:43-44
Hence the name "Church of Dominus Flevit” Latin for "the Lord Wept.” More than the name though, this moment is built into the very design of the Church with its unique teardrop shape. An intentional design by architect Antonio Barluzzi (who designed many churches in the Holy Land) who wanted the building to cry out with emotion the same way Jesus cried with compassion for His people. Inside, the four corners of the dome each contain four vials. These vials are a nod to antiquity when carrying tears in a vial was a symbol of grief and remembrance. The vials here symbolize the tears Jesus himself shed overlooking the city.
And what a view the church offers. The window behind the altar of the church provides a panoramic view of the city where you can see both the Dome of the Rock and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher as well as many other buildings of importance. It is an incredible perspective, to think that Jesus would have seen several of the same buildings and exactly what the future held for them, a future we live in now.
While the church itself was built in 1955, the site it occupies is ancient. In fact, there was a previous church built in the same location by the Byzantines in the 5th century. It was destroyed, but when excavating to build the new Church, several discoveries and artifacts were unearthed. The most striking of which is an ancient floor mosaic which has been restored and is now displayed in the Church.
There are many churches you could say are more magnificent or grand than the Church of Dominus Flevit in Israel. But grandeur extends to more than physical design or size. Once you understand the significance of the Church’s location, design, and history, the spiritual impact of this tiny Church is massive.
The Jesus Trail is a 65 kilometer direct connection to the life of Christ. It is a pilgrimage that has the faithful re-trace the steps of Jesus’ ministry. To travel where he traveled, how he traveled – by foot.
It is an incredible experience. Visit Zippori where Jesus learned Joseph’s trade as a carpenter. Make your way through the Old City, bustling with life and activity now just as it was in Jesus’ day. Finally, make your way to the Mount of Olives where Jesus wept and contemplated things beyond our limited human scope. It is a powerful way to bring the Word to life and really ground His ministry to the here and now.
While it is a powerful experience, it is also an arduous one. If you are thinking of making the hike (or any of Israel’s other amazing hiking experiences) you need to be prepared.
Make sure you’re healthy enough for the hike
By sport hiking standards, the Jesus Trail is not exceptionally difficult. There are plenty of stops along the way including cheap cafes and bed and breakfasts where one can take a break, get something to eat and drink, and rest for the remaining journey. The 65km distance usually takes 3-4 days to cover. But while a hiking enthusiast might think 65kms with plenty of stops sounds relaxed, it’s a very different experience for those of us with health conditions, infirmities, or who just don’t normally encounter that level of exertion!
Before you take on this hike, make sure to get plenty of practice. You don’t want to come all the way to the trail, walk for one day, and discover you’ve blown out your quads and can’t even move when you wake up! You’ll also want to be smart about any health concerns you might have. Walking 3 or 4 days in the Israeli sun is no small undertaking and it should be done with caution.
Bring the right gear, but pack smart
If you’re going to walk 65km, please do it in good quality socks and hiking boots! This is one of those areas where it definitely pays to invest in yourself. Nothing will ruin your trip faster than aching, blistering feet that have been sliding around in loose, scratchy socks and poorly fitted shoes. Make sure you bring the right footgear (moisture wicking socks, comfy and well-fitted boots) before trying to tackle this challenge!
You’ll want to consider the rest of your gear as well. A wide brimmed hat, sunglasses, sunscreen, changes of clothes, and of course water. Even with plentiful stops along the way, you don’t want to get caught out on a trail in the hot sun with no way to replenish yourself. You don’t want to weigh yourself down with too big of a pack, but you should always make room for water.
Depending on the season, you may want to pack a rain poncho or tarp. Hiking poles can also be helpful. You might also consider emergency gear such as a help whistle and flashlight just in case something goes wrong, and you get off course or get stuck out after dark. And of course, I recommend bringing a camera and notebook to document your journey!
Plan your trip
The two hiking seasons in Israel are fall and spring. Nobody wants to go hiking in the summer sun, it’s way too hot. Fall and Spring both bring their own advantages. The fall is drier, but the scenery isn’t quite as nice while the Spring brings showers, but also lush blooming flora.
Scout the trail and make note of the various stops, motels, and bed and breakfasts along the way. Make reservations, bring the appropriate amount of money for the trip, and know your options if you come to a location that is closed, full, or just not usable for some reason. Thankfully, on the Jesus Trail, you’re never too far from civilization, so in a worse case scenario you can always call a cab and get a ride.
Get the most out of your hike by preparing yourself spiritually. There are so many key locations you’ll visit while retracing Jesus’ steps - places like the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth, Cana where Jesus famously turned water into wine, and the Mount of Beatitudes where Jesus held the Sermon on the Mount. Reread the gospels of the Apostles before you visit, look into the history of these locations, study up so you can fully appreciate what they mean when you stand before them.
As Christians, traveling to Israel always involves a lot of spiritual reflection, but it is something else entirely to actually travel as Jesus traveled and retrace his ministry. Be prepared to contemplate on what you see and feel and listen for God’s voice as you absorb the experience.