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.
Israel is home to some of the worlds most beautiful churches, chapels, and temples. From landmarks like the Dome of the Rock and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, to historic ruins like Megiddo, there is no shortage of skyline defining treasures and well-known tourist sites. But Israel’s historic marvels don’t end with what you have already seen in movies and documentaries, there is beauty tucked away in every corner of the country.
One of these nooks is the Armenian Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City. There you’ll find one of the most ornately decorated churches in the world, the breathtaking St. James Cathedral.
The church itself is located in the larger St. James Convert, a sprawling compound home to thousands. A living, breathing, spiritual community. A city within the city where nuns, priests, children, teachers, and other people live and work and grow, all under the impressive shadow of the Cathedral, a densely packed center of spiritual pride and wonder that anchors the community.
The cathedral is one of Israel’s only fully surviving Crusader-era churches and it shows that history. Built with impressively tall stone walls and turreted roofs, the cathedral looks like a castle. An ancient structure built to last. But as impressive as its exterior is, the true splendor of St. James Cathedral lies within.
Inside the halls of the church is an unbelievable collection of gilded altars, fine metalwork arches and decorations, and works of art. The effect is dizzying, a truly awe-inspiring sight to behold. The main ceiling is a vaulted dome containing hanging art including chandeliers, lamps, and many, many intricately painted ceramic eggs.
The floors are covered in Kütahya handmade painted tiles. Each and every one of these delicate pieces of ceramic is itself a work of art, nestled together to create incredible murals. This is without mentioning every bronze engraving, handmade piece of pottery, and carved wood decoration that festoons every inch of the church. Flickering light plays off every polished surface. The church is not wired for electricity, meaning all this astounding work must be appreciated by sun and lamplight, creating a magical and changing effect as morning breaks, filling the church with golden light, brightens as the day develops, and as twilight falls gives way to candles and lamps. "Elaborate” does not do it justice.
This is joyous worship. An artistic devotion to God created by innumerable hands over hundreds of years. A collective work one can contemplate on and appreciate more and more as each small detail, each carved line and careful brushstroke stand out to the observer.
But the cathedral isn’t just an artistic masterstroke, it is also a place of deeply relevant history. The church is dedicated to two martyred saints, St. James the Great and St. James the Less. Both towering figures of Christian history, one of the Jesus’ first apostles and a relative of Jesus. St. James the Great was beheaded by Harrod and the church is believed to be the site of his martyrdom. Indeed, the most important shrine in the church, the Chapel of St James the Great, is said to be the very spot he was killed. The head is buried in the Shrine, a chilling reminder of the persecution early Christians faced in the middle of a celebration of worship.
Access to the compound and the Cathedral is tightly controlled. Remember, this is not just a historic site, but a community. This is a working church, not a museum, and a working community of real people living their lives. As such, visitors to the compound must be accompanied by an Armenian guide. So, if you want to explore, you’ll need to plan ahead. Fortunately, the cathedral itself is open to the public at specific times without the need for an escort, as are a few other museums and libraries in the compound.
In these blogs we’ve detailed many stories of boldness and heroism. From housewives becoming spies, to teenagers fighting with the Resistance, there are many stories of exceptional acts of bravery. But it’s important to remember that perhaps the bravest act of all is to love without exception or thought of repayment. To love like Christ.
That was the kind of love that moved through Sofia Kritikou. Sofia was a humble woman of modest means. A single mother raising her daughter Agapi on her own, Sofia worked as a house cleaner and maid in Athens to support her small family. In September of 1943, the German army occupied Athens and the world she lived in began to change.
Immediately after the Nazis took over, the persecution of the Jewish population began. War time shortages put everyone into hard straights, so when rumors that extra rations would be distributed at the central synagogue, people took the bait. This included the Kazansky family. The women of the family went to temple to see if they could secure some extra food for their children, only to find soldiers waiting for them. They were taken by the Nazis to Auschwitz and later murdered.
Devastated, the father, David Kazansky, took his remaining family and blindly fled. He had an older son, the 18-year-old Tsvi, a teenaged daughter, Liana, and the 8-year-old baby of the family, Jeny. David secured some false identity cards that claimed the family was Greek and hit the road, desperate to stay a step ahead of the Gestapo.
They meandered through the country, staying with relatives, friends, and acquaintances for short periods of time. It was a tough life. David was trying to pay his way with these families they were staying with, and the children were constantly being uprooted, never knowing where they would be sleeping next. He needed to restore some semblance of security and safety to their lives.
That’s when a friend got him in touch with Sofia. She was known as a hard-working and compassionate woman. The kind of person who put action to her words and cared for her fellow man. Despite her own precarious position as a single working mother, she didn’t hesitate when she was approached to help the Kazanskys.
At first she thought she was just offering room to a family down on their luck. Sofia welcomed them with open arms. But soon the real plight of their situation was understood. But such was Sofia’s compassion and love that even with the knowledge that they were in fact a Jewish family, and all the terrors that could bring upon her and her own daughter, she couldn’t turn them away.
David’s work took him away from the family regularly, doing whatever he could to support this makeshift homestead. Tsvi, the son, eventually left to join the Resistance, visiting now and then while doing what he could to support fellow local Jews and men and women of conscience resisting Nazi rule. The girls, Liana and Jeny, stayed home and started becoming like daughters to Sofia and sisters to Agapi.
They weathered it out together, a family united by perseverance and love in the face of oppression and hatred. For the entire rest of the war the family stayed with Sofia, skirting suspicion and dodging the eye of the gestapo. It wasn’t easy, they were impoverished, food was scarce, and Sophia worked from sun up to sun down every day walking miles to the homes she cleaned, but they made it work.
After the war, the family went their separate ways. David and Liana stayed in Greece, while Tsvi and Jeny decided they needed a change and moved to Israel to start new lives. But love brought this family together once and it would do it again. In 1964, Tsvi went to visit Sofia when he met Agapi again. Now a grown woman, they fell in love with each other. They married. Agapi converted to Judaism and together they moved to Israel, taking Sofia with them. Bonds of love tying them together forever.
- Photo from Yad Vashem
Sofia lived in Israel till the age of 100, an honored mother and grandmother. A fairytale ending that was only possible because Sofia extended an open hand to the needy, because she risked herself to love like Christ. If you’re looking for a powerful example of how living in Christ should look, you’ve found it in Sofia.
- Photo by Yoli Schwartz/Israel Antiquities Authority
Israel is a land of history. It seems like not a month goes by without a story of some new artifact, some piece of history, being discovered. Israel is unique among the nations in that it has been the focal point for so many historic and important events, and also has a climate that lends itself towards preservation.
But soon, one of these artifacts will be traveling to a very different environment and will make new history in the process. Eytan Stibbe will be accompanying the January Space X launch, breaking the orbit with a piece of Israeli history on his person.
Stibbe will be the second Israeli to go into space. Scheduled to launch off the planet and join the International Space Station as part of the SpaceX program, Eytan won’t be going alone. He’ll be taking a small, but important piece of history with him, a 1,900 year-old Jewish coin.
Stibbe became familiar with the coin, a recent discovery from the Judean Desert, after a visit with the Israel Antiquities Authority Dead Sea Scrolls lab in Jerusalem. It was a visit looking at Israeli history, the sheer breadth and scope of Israel’s story and place in the world’s development. It included private viewing of ancient scroll fragments, biblical texts found in Judean caves, and other rare and wonderous archaeological finds. One of those finds was that coin.
The coin is a recent discovery. Found in what is (distressingly) called the Cave of Horror in the Judean Desert. The cave gets its name from the original excavators who explored it, they were horrified to find the ancient skeletal remains of over 40 people in the cave, victims of the Bar Kokhba revolt nearly 2000 years ago. However, the cave also contained several significant historical discoveries, including a Greek translation of the Book of the Twelve and new scroll fragments of the Books of Zechariah and Nahum as well as several other unique artifacts. Heartbreak and triumphs side by side, very much the pattern of Israel’s history.
The coin has symbolic value for Stibbe. "I saw the coin, minted with the palm tree and vine leaf, that for me represent the connection to the land, the love of the country, and the desire of the population of Israel in those years for independence.” Stibbe hopes to take this philosophy and spirit with him to the stars.
Stibbe will be joining Space X on a "tourist” flight, but he is no stranger to the sky. A former Israeli air force pilot, Stibbe distinguished himself in the service. During the 1982 Lebanon War Stibbe flew combat sorties into enemy territory and personally shot down five Syrian aircraft. This record makes him an actual "Ace Pilot” in the strictest sense of the term.
A bittersweet loss hangs over Stibbe’s upcoming flight. During his military service Stibbe served under another Israeli hero, Ilan Ramon, also known as Israel’s first astronaut. Ramon was a distinguished airman himself who was tragically lost in the Columbia disaster in 2003. Stibbe has since been an active force in the Ramon Foundation, a philanthropic organization dedicated to the memory of Ramon. His January flight will be made in honor of Ramon and his family.
It's a heavy responsibility. Stibbe is not only carrying national pride and history into space, but the emotional weight of his lost friend and national icon. But what better place to free yourself of such a burden than in the weightlessness of space.
When I was young, I was always intrigued by a verse from Hebrews. "Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.” It was something my mother used to reference when she’d give money to strangers in a parking lot. When she’d offer to watch over other kids for the day when their parents needed an emergency babysitter. When (despite my pleading) she would give oft neglected children across the street some of our leftover KFC, a delicacy we only ordered on birthdays, and I was heartbroken to part with.
But even as a child it struck me as odd. The idea of angels in disguise, testing us to see if we are living up to our virtues. It’s a curious thought and one that will make you see outstretched hands in a different light. It’s certainly motivating to think that we could be being observed in the act, that an angel could be watching us as we make the mental calculation to spare some change or open our door. I always admired my mother for keeping that kind of mindset, for always being willing to help because, like she’d smile and say, "you never know.”
But really, God has no need for angels to test us and report their observations to Him. He sees what we’re doing and what is in our hearts at all times, he already knows when we live up to the standards He asks us to and when we disappoint. And what is the difference to God between giving to an angel and giving to another one of his children? Do we believe He would value charity given to an angel more than He would value a helping hand extended to a needy child or a lonely soul? I don’t think so.
While that verse is helpful for clarifying God’s expectations for us, it doesn’t really change anything if it is taken literally or not. There is no difference whether we’re talking to an angel, a small child, or a wandering drunk, our commitment to that person is the same. God wants us to love our neighbors no matter who they are or where they come from and show them hospitality.
But what does hospitality mean exactly? In the times when Hebrews was written, hospitality served a very different function in society. Secularly, hospitality and etiquette was a defining social structure that maintained the freedom of travel and commerce in society. Between Christians though, it meant something more.
When the Church was young and persecuted, hospitality also meant survival. When preachers might have to travel far and wide by foot, either voluntarily as part of their mission or involuntarily to stay ahead of those opposed to the message of Christ. These wanderers hit the uncertain road with nothing but faith to guide them. They didn’t have the ability to make arrangements or "send ahead” for a room and meal at their destination. Frequently, they were not even sure what their destination was. They were dependent on open doors and hearths, on a seat at the table for a meal, on fellow brothers and sisters understanding their struggle and sharing what they had. A beautiful sentiment.
In our day and age, it is a very different thing to be a Christian. We are blessed to be free to worship without fear, and Christians as a group have flourished and thrived in North America. We don’t have wandering prophets making their way to our city with nothing be the sandals on their feet and the good book in hand. We don’t have fellow brothers and sisters in Christ dodging centurions and looking for a safe place to stay. We have safety, security, and prosperity.
Does that mean our responsibility is the same as those early Christians? Not at all. I would argue it’s far greater. God asks us to dig even more deeply and give even more freely.
Loving a brother in need, a social equal with the same beliefs as you, is easy. You have common ground to start from. There is the knowledge that you could wind up in the same position just as easily someday. The favor you do today comes with the understanding that it might be someday repaid to you.
How much more difficult is it to love the stranger. The person who is different from you, that you seem to share little common ground with on the surface. Someone who would be incapable of repaying you in the same way if the situation was somehow reversed. When we can embrace that person with an open hand and no expectations, that is when we can show real, Christ-like hospitality.
And if our ancient fellow Christians were expected to open their doors and share the last of their loaves and oil with a stranger who wandered in off the dusty road, what are we expected to share when we live in relative prosperity? We’re to give openly, without hesitation, without calculation. When someone asks for a hand, our first response shouldn’t be to think of what we can give without really missing it, but rather, we should be figuring out what they need and making sure they get it.
As we celebrate this Christmas, a season of giving, let’s be inspired to show real hospitality. Reflect the generosity of Christ in your own life and give to those you don’t know, to the people you don’t understand or recognize. Whether or not they are angels in disguise doesn’t matter, they are God’s children just like us, and he wants us to love them like we love the brother or sister sitting next to us in Church.