Reflections on a first-time visit to Israel

A refreshing stream at Ein Gedi

By Gaye Moonieya

It takes time to process a trip to Israel, especially a first time visit and what is often a long-held dream, which it was for me.

It’s a tiny country and there is so much to see. Our nine day trip was packed with non-stop activity as well as wonderful times of ministry. I specifically chose this tour as it was a small group of 14 women and I wouldn’t feel spare. And the theme: The Esther Beauty for Ashes tour based on Isaiah 61. 

We arrived a few days before the protests about impending judicial reform closed the airports (extra time in Israel, I had hoped). And then on our last day, a Saturday, when we were at the Western Wall, a shooting terror attack aimed police at Temple Mount was thwarted. But I never felt nervous or anxious. Sometimes I spontaneously prayed in tongues but real dangers (as opposed to silly ones like Daddy Long Legs spiders, eek!) don’t scare me: it’s a chance for God to show up and demonstrate Psalm 91. We were once carted off at gun point in India while preaching the Gospel and I was excited to see how He would rescue us. It was a miraculous, but that’s another story.

I hadn’t planned to go to Israel anytime soon as my agenda was to save for Bible college studies in America. But when my friend purposefully thrust her phone in front of me, then sent me the information a few days later saying my name kept coming up when she was praying for the trip, I said I would pray about it.

Really, Lord?

It was a yes. 

We heard the story several times while in Israel that no one chooses the time they go, they are drawn by the Spirit of God.

But because I am thorough, I also asked my friend Dawn Barkhuizen what she thought of our itinerary. She loves Israel, has lived there and I knew she would give good advice. She said she couldn’t have chosen a better one.

And then with just under three weeks to go, I landed in hospital for four days with an extreme bout of vertigo — a combination of foolishness on my part for doing too much and the enemy taking the gap. It happened before my first trip to China as well.

Feeling a little depleted, I was a bit concerned about all the walking — from no exercise for a month to what amounted to a gleeful 14 000 steps a day — but God always undertakes. 

After some intense scrutiny at OR Tambo by El Al staff, and an eight hour flight to Tel Aviv, we hit the ground running and headed for Caesarea. Our guide for the day was a Russian Jew who had lived in Israel for many years and was a wealth of information. After brunch we witnessed preparations for a wedding taking place which felt so prophetic, then headed to Megiddo overlooking the Jezreel Valley where Armageddon is destined to be played out.

Wedding preparations at Caeserea

Unbeknown to me, we were going to exit through an underground tunnel which held a centuries old cistern. I don’t do enclosed underground dark spaces so I sang Awesome God out loud all the way through and felt very pleased with myself as we exited into the sunlight on the other side!

We were all looking forward to arriving in Migdal with its stunning views overlooking the Gallilee where we stayed for three wonderful, peaceful nights at the House of Virginia, Beth-Haccerem Retreat Centre. The land was given to the late Rev Ellen Blackwell, an Assemblies of God minister from America, who made over 100 trips to the Holy Land. Out of obedience to a word from God, she visited the Galilee in 2004 to fast and pray for a “sliver of land”.  Blackwell died there at the age of 104 in 2018 and is buried in the Messianic cemetery in Haifa. Bina Richardson, the associate director of the Centre, continues the work to the poor and needy and hosts groups from all over the world.

Besides everything else I love about Israel, the food is delicious, healthy and tasty; salads, hummus, halva, yogurt, honey and nuts and delicious meat stews, stuffed peppers and the Israeli staple, shakshuka, a breakfast dish of poached eggs in a tomato gravy with onion, garlic and red peppers.  But on my last day I gave a nod to the American diet at our hotel in Jerusalem and had a Belgian waffle complete with chocolate and syrup. Along with other sweet samplings, in a moment of dietary piety, I added a stuffed carrot to my plate for good measure. I sent a picture home: my son, of course, noted that I looked like the stuffed carrot. 

We had a boat ride on the Sea of Galilee on the Faith boat owned by a Messianic Jew who records worship music. We sang along with him: what a wonderful experience to worship where Jesus lived and performed so many miracles. I imagined Peter climbing out onto those choppy waters and wondered if I would have done the same.

Reflecting on the importance of Israel, it is curious that so many Christians think the Church has replaced Israel and do not see the spiritual significance of Jesus’s birthplace and where He will return at the end of the age. So much hatred aimed at a people on such a small scrap of land indicates that much more is at stake here, than what is just happening in the natural. The devil hates that this is where Jesus died and rose again to give life to a world that is destined for death and darkness because of idolatory. The label of apartheid is a distraction and diversion and doesn’t stand up to analysis. If that indeed were one of the reasons, why didn’t the world call for South Africa to be wiped off the face of the earth during the days of apartheid? Imagine also if you will, if France fired hundreds of rockets into the UK and when the Brits retaliated, the latter were accused of overreacting. It is the ultimate spiritual battle that is being played out.

There were many highlights of our trip but a definite was a visit to the Messianic Jewish organization, Israel College of the Bible (One4Israel) in Netanya. One4Israel is reaching out to Jews via digital media. They are seeing an exponential increase of many coming to Christ. Their YouTube channel is a wealth of information as well as wonderful worship music in Hebrew, Arabic and English. They suffer a great deal of persecution and requested prayers for safety. It is not unusual for their staff to be attacked and a few weeks ago there was an arson attack on their offices. The building is currently being assessed for damage.

From there we headed to the winding streets of Nazareth and Nazareth Village based at the YWCA in the heart of the city which provided fascinating information about life in the time of Jesus. Volunteer guides, who are passionate about their subject, made this a very worthwhile stop. 

Magdala, western Galilee, birthplace of Mary Magelene and where a first century synagogue was discovered

We also went to Hope House of Prayer and Exploits which was founded by Rania Sayegh in 2004 where we listened to stories of how God is pouring out his Spirit on women and youth who are standing in the gap for the land of Israel. The name derives from Daniel 11:32b, a Scripture I used to teach my Sunday school class: the people who know their God shall be strong and carry out great exploits.

After the lushness of Galilee and a trip to Magdala where a first century synagogue was discovered in 2009, we headed South to the Jordan River where we attracted quite a bit of attention. There were many people being baptised but the love and joy in our group was so evident, people couldn’t stop looking (and taking photos – even from the opposite bank in Jordan) and then on to the Dead Sea where we did what every tourist does and covered ourselves in mud which has beneficial properties for the skin. None of us had ever better become famous because Blackface is tame in comparison to how we looked.

Next day we headed to the vast, dry landscapes at Massada, En Gedi where David hid from Saul, and the caves at Qumran where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered. En Gedi was another personal highlight for me as I felt the presence of God so strongly there and got to see the Ibex high up on the surrounding mountains which capture visually what the Lord says in Habbakuk 3:19 — The Lord God is my strength, and he will make my feet like hinds’ feet, and he will make me to walk upon mine high places

Sure-footed ibexes perch on the desert cliffs of Ein Gedi

Our tour was organised by Henda Marais, who heads up AFRIque-ISRAEL Tours in Pretoria. She is able to arrange bespoke tours according to people’s wishes and goes three times a year. The mid-year trip currently underway, is always for students. 

And then on to Jerusalem where our group spontaneously burst into the song of the same name which gave me hoendervleis. We were 12 Afrikaans ladies and two English and by the end of it we were speaking Mengels and were bonded for life having laughed and cried around this beautiful land.

Jerusalem was unseasonably cold for the end of March. From 41 degrees at the Dead Sea the low of 6 degrees at night was a shocker. Unprepared (because some of us didn’t heed Henda’s advice), we shared thermal tops and put layer upon layer; I wrapped my head in my scarf and resisted all photo opps!

The Jaffa Gate, one of the entrances to the Old City of Jerusalem

We stayed at the Eldan Hotel just outside the Old City near the Jaffa Gate a few doors up from the historic King David Hotel that has hosted presidents and royalty. Supper was at the Gloria Hotel in the Old City as the Eldan only offered their scrumptious breakfasts.

We went to the Mount of Olives where one of our number enjoyed a camel ride, the Upper Room where an orthodox Jewish man asked for alms but got a prayer instead and a stray cat ate our left over communion. Another tourist, or local, I’m not sure, came and emptied a plastic bag of cat food for the now, well-fed feline. If you are a cat lover, take some food, there are cats everywhere. 

We thought we weren’t allowed into David’s tomb but another traveller said we were. The entrance was blocked off with women on one side and men on the other and we heard the deep groans of a man on the other side crying out to God. Gethsemane, the Wailing Wall and a walk along the Via Dolorosa were all part of the day. It was Ramadan so the Arab Quarter Mosque was busy and we were caught up in a huge crowd coming from midday prayers.

David’s Tomb on Mount Zion, Jerusalem

In the afternoon we went to Mahane Yehuda Market and shuk. It was heading into Shabbat so it was pumping with people and loud music from some of the bars. It was a colour kaleidoscope of sights and smells and I felt a bit like those one of “kyk daar” binnelanders we all made fun of in a pre-politically correct era. In a less busy walkway, where we could walk comfortably without being pushed along by the crowd, I bought arguably the best halva in Israel from Halva Kingdom which was founded in 1947. The choice was mindboggling but I bought a rich chocolate nutty taste fest that satisfied without the addictive craving that chocolate leaves you with. Their strap line is “made with love”. It was not cheap – nothing is cheap in Israel, even the locals say that — but it was worth all 70 shekels (R350). From there my friend and I walked down to Ben Yehuda Street and I finally had a falafel schwarma, the cheap fast food staple of students and workers. It needed salt!

Dawn had asked me to go and see if I could find a shopkeeper she knew in Umbrella Street so we headed there only to find most shops closed or closing for Shabbat. Dawn wanted to know if a dear man, she met on one of her trips, had survived Covid. About to give up, I asked another trader if he knew Rami. Which one, he asked? There were two Rami’s in the street. I said he had a small jewellery shop. Ah, he nodded, and pointed to a few doors up and there we found the target of our quest, about to close for the day. I explained my mission, he graciously allowed me to take a picture and my friend and I both bought a Star of David and chain from his shop. When Dawn saw the picture she said she promptly burst into tears. I could see why she remembered him. Rami had an evidently good heart and kindness about him.

Rami, a friendly shopkeeper in Jerusalem

Later that evening we were treated to a fabulous Shabbat lamb dinner with Henry Ilse Strauss from Bridges for Peace, a Christian organisation that supports Israel and builds relationships between Jews and Christians in Israel. Apparently a leg of lamb costs about an arm and a leg in Israel: R2 000. My normal 500ml water cost R30 so we all refilled our bottles wherever we found free water. Ilse made a popular Israeli dessert for us: matzos dipped in caramel and then smothered in chocolate. I’m not a matzos fan but with the addition of toffee and chocolate, it was irresistable. I bought a box at the airport for family to taste. A box of biccies for nearly R200. Ouch!

Some of us wanted to pray at Succat Hallel, the 24-hour prayer room founded by Rick Riding, so at 10pm a group of us were dropped off there. It was worth the late night. We had a panoramic view of Jerusalem lit up: what a spectacle. No wonder the Lord loves this city. We walked back to our hotel in the bitter cold, ending a trip that just made us all want to go back. 

As soon as possible!

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One Comment

  1. Priscilla Taylor

    Thank you Gaye, for an amazing summary of your trip to Israel. Beautifully illustrated + spiritually written.
    I have always wanted to visit Israel
    Perhaps God will open the door for me to go, soon.