Bound for Holy Ground

Imagine being with church friends in Jerusalem and walking the Way of the Cross, the path that traces Jesus’ route during his last hours on earth.

Picture your group on the banks of the Jordan River or sailing across the Sea of Galilee. Ponder the meaning of a worship service at the Church of the Beatitudes—on the very spot where Jesus is said to have preached the Sermon on the Mount.

For any church with a travel program—or thoughts of establishing one—the Holy Land looms as the ultimate destination. Following in the footsteps of Jesus Christ and his disciples can be a life-changing experience, one that transforms the heart and spirit. Indeed, the Bible takes on a whole new meaning for Christians who have traveled to connect with the roots of their faith. Such a trip to the most iconic sites in Christendom—in places straight from the Bible—can strengthen a church community by creating fellowship and providing spiritual renewal for individual members. And think of the sheer adventure of traipsing off to this ancient corner of the world.

While the notion of spending a week or two in the Land of the Bible will generate excitement among the congregation, a trip to Israel and Jordan is obviously a much larger undertaking than a weekend campout. Like any overseas trip, it calls for a certain investment in time and money. And planners need to consider all the logistics involved. But it’s the journey of a lifetime—buckle up!

Getting Started

The Church of St. John the Baptist is nestled in the hills of Ein Karem, a picturesque village on the outskirts of Jerusalem (aerial photo).

The Church of St. John the Baptist is nestled in the hills of Ein Karem, a picturesque village on the outskirts of Jerusalem (aerial photo).

First of all, the priest, pastor or another leader—rather than just talk about the vague possibility of going to the Holy Land—has to make a firm decision that the trip will definitely take place. He or she must confidently declare that the trip is on.

Once that commitment has been made, the person in charge and his committee need to find a professional travel provider who can plan the trip from beginning to end. Most church leaders do not have the expertise or time to set up a tour on their own.

National tour operators like Collette Vacations and Globus/Cosmos offer a wide variety of trips around the world, including a selection of tours specifically designed for the religious market. Some tour companies focus exclusively on faith-based travel and work only with church groups. Others specialize in Israel, Jordan and the Eastern Mediterranean, packing trips for both faith-based and secular groups.

Church travel leaders also can work with a local travel agent, who acts as a middleman between the client and tour operator. Travel agents charge a commission for their services and may not specialize in the Holy Land, but they can help steer you toward a reliable operator—and the local connection is a plus.

Here are some things to ask when selecting a tour provider:

  • Does the tour operator understand the importance of this type of travel and will it be responsive to your church’s needs?
  • Is it experienced in arranging trips to the Holy Land?
  • Can the operator make room for daily devotions in the itinerary, schedule worship services or help with other special requests?
  • Can it provide references from other churches it has worked with?

Omer Eshel, director of the Israel Government Tourist Office in Chicago, said a common mistake is opting for a “cookie-cutter” tour that might not fit your particular denomination. Catholics and evangelicals, for example, have different interests, he pointed out. (See page  ___ sidebar with Israel Ministry of Tourism tips on choosing a tour company.)

Dr. George Koch, the minister of Resurrection Anglican Church in West Chicago, Ill., recently took a group of 17 to Israel and worked with the tour operator (Pentecost Tours) to include not only traditionally visited sites but some “relatively unknown but meaningful” places he knew about. In addition, he arranged to have a Sunday morning service at Christ Church in Jerusalem, the oldest Protestant church (Anglican) in the Middle East, and communion at the Garden Tomb.

Planning for Resurrection Anglican’s trip started six or seven months before the departure date, but Eshel recommends that the planning process begin 12 to 18 months out, as trip leaders need the time to generate interest among the congregation, promote the tour, sign people up and let everyone clear their calendars. He said organizers should not get discouraged if only a handful of people show up for the initial orientation meeting—with determination and proper promotion, the trip will materialize.

When to Go

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Israel has a Mediterranean climate, with hot summers and cool, sometimes rainy weather from November through March (when off-season hotel rates and airfares are available, except at Christmas). Spring and early fall are ideal as the country is virtually rainless from April through October.

“I would recommend any season except for summer,” Eshel said, noting that it’s hard to find a hotel room in summer, a time when the Jewish community in Europe comes to visit family and the locals are on vacation. Also, avoid the Easter/Passover period and the Jewish High Holidays in late September/early October, he advised. The shoulder season from Easter to Pentecost is less crowded and offers good weather. As for airfares, Eshel said they’re highest at Christmas, lowest in February.

Itinerary: How Long and What to Include

Because Israel and neighboring Jordan are small countries—Israel is the size of New Jersey—your group can cover a lot of ground in a week or so, hitting the main sights without many long bus rides. A minimum would be seven days, but 10 or 12 days is better. Keep in mind that a tour operator’s advertised 10-day trip includes only seven or eight days of sightseeing because of travel days and time zone changes. A flight from New York to Tel Aviv is 10 hours and 20 minutes, from Los Angeles 14 hours and 20 minutes.

A multi-day stay in Jerusalem is common to many tours. Collette Vacations’ nine-day/seven-night “Israel: Pilgrimage to the Holy Land,” for example, spends the last four nights at hotels in centrally located Jerusalem, but even a whole week in this fascinating city would not do it justice. As the cradle of three religions—Christianity, Judaism and Islam—Jerusalem overflows with riches and can be overwhelming if not taken in small doses. Ending the tour in Jerusalem, rather than starting there, gives the group time to acclimate to Israel and guarantees the trip ends on a high note. Besides the Way of the Cross, or Via Dolorosa, Christian groups in Jerusalem typically visit the Mount of Olives, the Garden of Gethsemane and important churches like the 12th century Church of the Holy Sepulcher, built over the site where it’s believed Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected. Other common stops are the Western Wall and Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial and Museum, sites with deep meaning for Jews.

A standard tour of Israel also takes in the northern region, where pilgrims visit Capernaum and other Sea of Galilee locations associated with Christ’s ministry. In Nazareth, Christian travelers flock to the massive Basilica of the Annunciation, which occupies the site of Mary’s home, where, according to Roman Catholic tradition, Gabriel made his announcement, or annunciation.

Some places included on a Holy Land tour lie in territory administered by the Palestinian Authority, the most prominent being the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, a few miles south of Jerusalem.

Visitors to Bethany Beyond the Jordan may see priests or pastors performing baptisms.

Visitors to Bethany Beyond the Jordan may see priests or pastors performing baptisms.

Jordan is the eastern side of the Holy Land and rich with Old and New Testament history. Malia Asfour, director of the Jordan Tourism Board, North America, said, “There are too many bible stories to name, but any Holy Land program should include Jordan—it is an integral part of the bible, not an extension, so it should be an integrated part of any church trip to the Holy Land, not an afterthought.”

Asfour acknowledges that church groups often combine Jordan with Egypt and Israel, but stand-alone, faith-based Jordan itineraries are available. “Pastors and tour leaders can easily spend a week in Jordan following in the footsteps of Jacob, Elijah, John the Baptist, Moses, Jesus and many others, and still just scratch the surface.”

She added, “We hear so often from pastors and other visitors that they appreciate the unspoiled nature of our holy sites. We have worked to avoid over-commercializing the biblical locations while at the same time making them easily accessible to groups and individuals coming for religious purposes.”

The Bethany Beyond the Jordan baptism park, where Jesus was baptized by John, is Jordan’s No. 1 biblical site and has seen substantial development (including newly built churches and guesthouses outside the protected area) since archaeological discoveries in the mid-1990s identified it as the exact site where John carried out his baptisms. People from all over the world come to be baptized or re-baptized in the River Jordan. (Just across the river Israel operates its own baptism site.)

Also in is Mount Nebo, the reputed burial site of the Hebrew prophet Moses. In nearby Madaba, the “City of Mosaics,” groups visit St. George Greek Orthodox Church and see its mosaic floor map of the Holy Land, made around 560 A.D. Mosaic artisans demonstrate their skills at Madaba handicraft stores.

Time for shopping and just catching your breath should be built into any Holy Land itinerary. It doesn’t have to be one pilgrimage site after another. Groups appreciate having time to wander through the exotic bazaars, testing their bargaining skills over caftans, handbags and religious souvenirs.

Instead of a group restaurant meal, travelers occasionally may want the chance to try Middle Eastern street foods like falafel (a pita bread wrap of deep-fried chickpeas with salad) or shawarma, a sandwich packed with salad and grilled lamb sliced from a spit. Another popular meal option: Lunch at a kibbutz, the uniquely Israeli brand of communal living.

For a little beach interlude, some tours allow time for a float on the salty waters of the Dead Sea before or after visiting the ruins of Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered by shepherds in 1947. Both Israel and Jordan have well developed resort areas on the mineral-rich body of water known for its therapeutic qualities.

Safety is always an issue when travel to the Middle East is discussed, but groups should not let that be a factor, Eshel said. “I always like to say ‘3.5 million tourists a year come to Israel. Out of that 3.5 million, 3.5 million come home safe and sound.’”

Dr. Koch, who has been to Israel several times, said first-timers worry about the water, food and medical care. “But the water is as good, if not better, than home, the food is terrific and the medical care is world-class.”

The Anglican minister’s main message to those contemplating a trip to the Holy Land: “Do whatever you can to go. It’s life-changing.”

Tips on Choosing a Tour Provider

In its free, 30-page Christian Leader’s Tour Planning Guide, the Israel Ministry of Tourism offers these hints on choosing a tour company:

  • Get proposals from several operators. The Israel Ministry of Tourism does not endorse individual tour organizers but has a list of operators on its website, goisrael.com.
  • Compare the quotes for value as well as price—that is, see what’s included in the base price. A lower-priced tour, for example, may offer fewer meals, fewer tours and more modest hotels. Choice of hotels can make a big difference in price and in the tour experience.
  • Count the “days at leisure” on the tour. Some groups welcome free time, but others may want to pack in as much sightseeing as possible. And beware of the added cost of optional tours on days at leisure.
  • It’s suggested that all tips, taxes and transfers, plus entrance fees to museums and attractions, be included in the selling price. (An exception may be the freewill gratuities to the tour guide and bus driver.)
  • Note meal descriptions and how many meals are included. Remember that a “continental” breakfast is usually just rolls, jam, and coffee or tea, while an “Israeli” breakfast means a hearty buffet, for which Israel’s hotels are famous.
  • Look at how the process of trip registration, billing and communication with participants is handled by the tour operator.
  • Get it all in writing. If you make any arrangements that differ from those in the tour brochure, make sure you have written confirmation for those arrangements.

The tour-planning booklet is part of the Israel Ministry of Tourism’s “Christian Leader’s Tool Kit,”  which has a CD-ROM with a template for preparing a Request for Proposal (RFP) that can be sent to several tour operators—each company will submit their best response to your proposal. The CD also has photos, graphics, and templates for e-mail blasts, promo letters and press releases. The booklet offers a step-by-step outline on how to promote the tour and recruit participants. Other free promotional materials in the Tool Kit include brochures, maps, a “Video Tools” DVD, and trip promotion shells and letterhead with photographs of Israel.

Another resource is “The Bible Comes to Life,” a 12-part series of video programs that links the biblical stories to the physical land of Israel. In addition, the tourism ministry can arrange for speakers to come to the church.

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