Text and Photos by Cheryl Levitan
srael may be small, but it is mighty.
A country 1/18th the size of California and boasting locales of both the sacred and the serene, Israel is a top tourist destination. Bordering the turquoise waters of the Mediterranean Sea with golden sandy beaches, Israel caters to all types of globetrotters: the luxury traveler and the armchair archaeologist. From the majestic desert of the Negev to the wineries and fertile lands of Northern Israel, the less than 9,000 square miles of the Middle East has an adventure for every traveler.
In October 2018, two Central Valley women set off on a journey of a lifetime. With passports in hand, Debbie Winsett and Taylor Johnson traveled to Israel, to the Holy Land. Winsett and Johnson sojourned in different tour groups with unique adventures, but both returned home knowing that their lives had been changed by the experience.
Winsett’s adventure began when she was unsure of how to find a meaningful tour of the Holy Land. A project manager for a national bank, Winsett is no stranger to taking the lead on the impossible. Full of grit and determination, she became her own Sherpa. Synergizing with America Israel Tours (AIT), she led 50 travelers with a wide span of ages and abilities to Egypt, Israel and Jordan.
Landing in Cairo, the group spent less than a week exploring the land of pyramids, riding camels and walking through the wilderness. The days were sandy and warm, but the evenings were relaxing and tranquil along the Red Sea.
A particular favorite of Winsett was the midnight hike up Mount Sinai. According to the book of Exodus, Mount Sinai is where Moses received the Ten Commandments. The tour group began at the base of the mountain a little after midnight and ventured toward the summit. Covered by a blanket of bright stars, the same stars that represented Abraham’s descendants, the group slowly trekked, some on camels and some on foot, but all breathing in the ancient landscape, reaching the top just before sunrise.
By private bus, Winsett and her group traveled from Egypt to Israel, where they were led by Yoram Black, an Israeli tour guide. Black ushered the group through fame-filled spots of the Bible: the Valley of Elah, where David slew Goliath; the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus walked on water; Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Caesarea Philippi along with Qumran; Caesarea Maritima, Masada, Golan Heights and the Mount of Beatitudes. They beheld displays of ancient Roman architecture, as well as other biblically significant sites.
“Black was diligent about his role as a guide,” Winsett recalls. “He shared with us, ‘Israel is working hard to retain our biblical heritage for the Jewish people and for Christians. We are taking care of our history for the sake of our future.’” Each day was carefully planned and executed. Black arranged for a bus to transport the group to new adventures each morning. The days were filled with the sights and sounds of modern-day Israel colliding with the stories of the patriarchs of Scripture.
The breathtaking landscape of Israel can be enjoyed without a tour group, but to get the most out of the complex and rich history, a guided experience is recommended. Many groups such as AIT and GTI Study Tours offer similar, all-inclusive packages. Costs are reasonable and value-oriented, with travelers returning home feeling that they received far more than they spent. Every detail is considered and coordinated, from the necessary visas to breakfast buffets; tourists are able to relax and enjoy the adventure.
Much like Winsett, Johnson also enjoyed a deep dive into the landscape of biblical literature. Johnson traveled with GTI Study Tours, with guide Ray Vander Laan (RVL). He is known for his adventurous spirit and relentless energy, and his tours are filled with hiking, activities and education. Johnson and her husband, Tim, trained for eight weeks prior to venturing to Israel in preparation for the trails and hikes, averaging seven miles a day, that led them to wondrous places throughout the country where they would spend their time “learning the Bible with their feet.”
Johnson arrived in Tel Aviv, one of the world’s Top 10 beach cities, according to National Geographic. From there, Vander Laan taught the group as they followed him through the desert and Israeli countryside, as he recounted Scripture and gave an Eastern cultural context to the Western lenses of Johnson and her fellow tourists. “We spent the first chunk of our time in the desert because that is where God led his people, to speak to them and shape them,” Johnson recalls. Although long, the days were meaningful.
Vander Laan’s motto is to “follow the rabbi” on an experiential learning journey. Through exploration of ancient synagogues, Herodian architecture, Hellenistic culture, various landscapes and ancient texts, his tour groups leave Israel with a great knowledge of the Bible and the context in which it was written.
During her time in Israel, Johnson visited a plethora of historically significant sights: Masada, Capernaum, Mount Carmel, Gamla, Chorazin, Galilee, Scythopolis and Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. After spending much time being dusty in the desert, the guide led the expedition to a beautiful waterfall in Ein Gedi, an oasis where David found refuge when fleeing King Saul. The tour continued with many other locales, including Jerusalem.
Jerusalem is one of the most desired destination points for tourists. The ancient city has more than 3,000 years of history and is the home to three faiths: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It has more than 60 museums and 2,000 archaeological sites, so tourists can spend multiple days soaking in the vibrant city. A must-visit is the Western Wall, the most sacred location of Jewish prayer in the world. Continuing in the steps of Jesus, sojourners can walk the Palm Sunday path and share communion in the Garden Tomb just outside the old city walls.
Israel offers fine hotels, decadent dining, colorful nightlife and adventures galore. For the tourist who has embarked on a spiritual pilgrimage, being baptized in the Jordan River tops the list of must-do experiences. Both Winsett’s and Johnson’s groups took part in this religious milestone.
Winsett remembers the sacredness of the event. “Just to look back at the pictures, the emotion, husbands and wives baptizing each other, these were special moments.” Johnson, too, found the afternoon to be spiritually significant, as well as educational. “When we were getting ready to be baptized, RVL explained what mikvah (water immersion) was and meant in the days of John the Baptist and Jesus. This was probably my most memorable moment, as I thought about the kindness and grace of God to offer us, even daily, a chance to repent and get back to his ways.”
Most guides offer their groups this experience of spiritual reflection.
Both Winsett and Johnson have fallen in love with the Holy Land and look forward to returning. Johnson says, “A fellow traveler on our trip said it best: reading your Bible … it’s like you’ve been listening to a movie your whole life and now you’re seeing it with your eyes.” Walking the steps of the heroes of the Christian and Jewish faiths brings a fresh perspective to Scripture and a hallowed meaning to the land of Israel.
Winsett’s nonprofit organization, Discipleship in Unexpected Ways, is dedicated to helping travelers make their way to Israel and experience the ancient land at an easy pace. She is adding Greece to her next venture, following Paul’s ministry in that area.
For anyone who may be considering the journey, “this is the most transformational thing you could do for your faith,” Winsett says. “Wherever you are, you’re going to come back transformed. Whether it is in-depth study or a more go-see-everything style, there is a style of trip for everyone. You just need to go.”
Above: The ancient ruins of the synagogue in Capernaum, a fishing village on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee. The Garden of Gethsemane sits at the foot at the Mount of Olives opposite a panoramic view of the eastern gate of Jerusalem’s temple and is home to some of Israel’s oldest olive trees. Ancient Ruins of the synagogue in Chorazin, about two miles north of the Sea of Galilee.
Below: A refreshing brook in the Ein Gedi Nature Reserve is a welcome sight after a long hike through the rocky mountain terrain of Israel’s Negeve region. The theater of ancient Scythopolis, the capital city of the pagan Decapolis located at the east end of the Jezebel Valley. Ancient pagan city of Caesarea Philippi, located at the base of Mount Herman. A mother and daughter are baptized together in the Jordan River.
Headline photo above: A rock plateau at the eastern edge of the Judean Desert and adjacent to the Dead Sea, Masada was fortified by Herod the Great, one of many elaborate structures he built as a show of his power, wealth and pomp. It is better remembered today as the place where a small group of Jewish zealots sought freedom after Romans destroyed the temple in Jerusalem in 70 A.D.