Israel trip an eye-opener for SA clergymen

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Pictured are part of a group of 20 senior clergymen at the Sea of Galilee who have just returned from what was, clearly, a life-altering experience for them. Not to mention an eye-opener. Read about their experience, where they went, what they did, and – most importantly – why each and every one of them would do it all again – despite the cost. The trip was facilitated by Bridges for Peace and assisted by SAFI and the Cape Fed. This is a great read…
by ANT KATZ | Feb 10, 2016

A partnership between the Jerusalem-based “Bridges for Peace” organisation, the SA-based “South African Friends of Israel” and the Cape Council of the SA Zionist Federation, recently facilitated a trip for a diverse group of South African Christian clergymen of various denominations to Israel.

At the end of the 11-day trip - which ended last week - it was clear it would indelibly alter the perceptions of the 20 delegates, both spiritually and politically, of the Holy Land.

Pastors2From the moment the group arrived at Ben-Gurion Airport, says SAFI executive director Gavi Sacks, they were unanimously impressed with the interpersonal respect the airport workers showed to all religions.

RIGHT: Some of the visitors and their guide at the exit to Yad Vashem

“They seemed to be surprised that they were in such in a safe space,” explains Sacks. One delegate even told him that he had been surprised to see a Muslim family waiting for a flight.

While the delegates did not expect the same environment to exist in the country as a whole, they were quickly to find that there was no discrimination in Israel at all. “From shopping centres to buses, even walking in the streets,” says Sacks, seeing people sharing was a surprise to the South Africans.

Simple surprises were everywhere

Simple, everyday experiences like people of different faiths sitting in the same restaurant and particularly in mixed groups at the same table, was astonishing to them. It was nothing like they had expected.

Their first stop was at Neot Kedumim, a biblical nature reserve between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. They were overwhelmed by walking on stones and soil that was there in biblical times. There were artefacts such as old cisterns that had been used to water gardens that still bear biblical fruits like pomegranates, figs, grapes and olives that were taken to the Temple. The visitors were “overwhelmed” to be where people of the Old and New Testament had been, says Sacks.

They also saw all of the trees mentioned in the Bible, such as Cedars, Cyprus, and Gophers (whose wood, says the Bible, was used to build Noah’s Ark). “There was a deep sense of religion,” says Sacks, that the religious sites they were to see were a reality, and not just pages in a book.

The South Africans thoroughly enjoyed visiting the New Testament holy sites such as the Garden of the Tomb, where Jesus’ first resurrection was said to have taken place. It reduced one of the clergymen to tears and he gathered his associates for an emotional prayer session.

Pastors KotelThey saw WIZO’s Ironi Careira youth centre in Tel Aviv, a place of safety for children from all backgrounds at risk, who are offered a new lease on life by gaining skills that enrich them forever.

LEFT: The group visited the excavations at the Wailing Wall

While they were amazed that anyone was able to go to the Western Wall, which has no religious restrictions, for example, the Temple Mount is blockaded by Israeli police who allow only Muslims to go there “out of respect to the Muslims and safety for anyone else”.


ABOVE: Some of the visiting clergymen silhouetted against the backdrop of the view of Jerusalem from the exit of Yad Vashem holocaust memorial - see more pictures below

“Their emotion was palpable,” writes Julie Berman in a report to her SAZF executive about the SA clergymen’s visit to one of the great museums of the world, Yad Vashem (the Holocaust memorial).

pastors YV in-text

Pictured at RIGHT is the group at the exit where a beautiful opening looks over Jerusalem and represents the Jewish people putting the past behind them and moving forward.

The clergymen follow a Yad Vashem guide through a purpose-built narrow, dark passage - lit only - and eternally - by candles and leading to the to Children’s Memorial (in remembrance of the 1,5 million Jewish children who were among those murdered). The sombre passageway funnels visitors to a huge underground chamber where all the known names of the dead children are mentioned.

The visit destroyed the myths that some of the South Africans had heard of Holocaust deniers, adding reality and context to the tremendous sufferings of not only Jews, but Christians, Gypsies, gays, dissenters and many other minority groups under Nazi rule.

Yad Vashem was famously built in pyramid shape - and deep into the local rock - topped with an open skylight to allow the souls of the slain to ascend.


Religious experience & disappointment

The clergymen visited Christ’s birthplace, Bethlehem, in the West Bank. Pastor Naeem Kouri, a Christian Palestinian living in Bethlehem, told them how he and his community faced discrimination and had often been threatened.

He himself had once even been shot. He said the tiny remaining Christian community in Bethlehem lived in peril as their mainly-Muslim neighbours saw them as an enemy. The Christian community was dwindling fast. Not long ago it represented 85 per cent of the town’s inhabitants. Today, he said, they were a meagre 15 per cent.

The clergymen were very upset by the situation and some even dipped into their pockets right then and there. The situation in the birthplace of Jesus was a very sad eye-opener for the South Africans. “Christians live in perpetual fear in Bethlehem,” said one.

They found irony in the fact that they were served Jaffa oranges at breakfast in their Bethlehem hotel, while BDS in South Africa calls for the boycott of these Israeli products in SA.



Contrary to what they had expected to find in Israel, the SA visitors were fascinated at what they saw at the two medical facilities they visited. Many of the patients were not Israeli.

This picture was taken outside the Emek Medical Centre in Afula, a sprawling complex close to the borders of the West Bank, Syria and Jordan. The group was hosted by Dr Larry Rich (front row with umbrella) and their guides for the tour were SAFI’s Gavi Sacks (front row extreme left), the Cape Fed’s Julie Berman (front row extreme right) and facilitator Bridges for Peace’s Chris Eden (back row, centre, without cap).

Inside Emek Hospital, says Eden, the South Africans couldn’t stop talking about how the patient-mix removed all semblance of interracial enmity between patients, staff and families. “Everyone interacts with everyone,” says Sacks and the hospital takes in patients from neighbouring territories such as Syria as well.

The other hospital they visited was the Tel Aviv-based Save a Child’s Heart at the Wolfson Medical Centre which has provided life-changing surgery for over 4 000 children. Fifty per cent of their patients come from the Palestinian Territories, 40 per cent from Africa and 10 per cent from the rest of the world.

Both hospitals train people from neighbouring regions in the Jewish belief that tikkun olam includes everybody.


Stretches of desert turned lush green 

They were left flabbergasted at the technical advancements in Israel - in agriculture and pharmaceuticals - and said they now understood why the Jewish community was biblically recognised as being a light unto the nations.

Their biggest surprise had been finding that Israel was a thriving democracy with a bustling economy. Wherever they went they saw development, large stretches of desert which had been turned lush green and for instance how over 50 per cent of the country’s drinking and agricultural water was desalinated seawater.

“The prophecy is coming true,” said one waiting to board the return flight to SA, “G-d is walking with the Jewish people.”

Other important religious sights they visited included Caiaphas’ house, the Garden of Gethsemane, the Mount of Olives, Masada and the Dead Sea.

Sea of Galilee was spiritual highlight

Pastors4One of the most collective emotional experiences for the SA group had been an early morning boat cruise on the Sea of Galilee.

The clergymen went to the place where Jesus is said to have walked on the water.

This picture was taken at the exact moment when they reached the point - they raised the South African flag and spontaneously broke out in singing of the national anthem.

They then took communion on the boat, recalls Gavi Sacks, before singing and sharing the spirituality, BELOW, of being at what is considered the exact place where Jesus had been.

pastors6That morning they had woken to falling snow - and looked over Syria from the Golan. An Israeli Druze family hosted them for tea and the day ended back in Galilee where the project co-ordinator, Chris Eden, SA national director of Bridges for Peace, gave the visitors his analysis on the geopolitical situation - from biblical times up to 2016.

Palestinian Israeli Bassem Eid addressed the group on the life of his people living under Israeli rule and expressed gratitude towards Israel for the quality of life he and his community had been afforded. He expressed the view that no peace could be achieved if the Palestinians themselves (Hamas and the PA), did not first achieve peace between themselves.

Feeding the 5,000 on the hilltop

The group visited the Mount of Beatitudes (Har HaOsher), the hill where Jesus is said to have delivered the Sermon on the Mount and where he was said to have turned five small barley loaves and two small fish into enough food to feed 5 000 hungry people.

The South Africans found Haifa amazing. They couldn’t quite believe what a tech hub it was, and were amazed that multinationals like Google, Intel, Microsoft and many more, operated such massive business units there.

Haifa University was a wonderful stop, as was the Bridges for Peace regional distribution centre which keeps food and essentials on hand for emergencies which it distributes to all who are in need. “No wonder Jews win so many Nobel Prizes,” said one of the clergymen.

The overall take-away by the South Africans were overwhelmingly spiritually positive

They had expected from the media hype they had been exposed to that they were going to travel to a war-torn country. To the contrary, they constantly spoke of the development and infrastructure and couldn’t believe it had been achieved in a mere 60 years of Israel’s existence.


  1. 14 nat cheiman 10 Feb
    Now this is heartwarming
  2. 13 Marsha Pretorius 11 Feb
    Everyone who has been to Israel has been amazed. Saving my pennies to go back.
  3. 12 nosipho 11 Feb
    What an inspiring story. 
    Dear clergymen 

    I would love to visit Israel  and experience  what you have experienced, could you please sponsore my trip to Israel . I stay in the rural areas and there are no jobs here bt I love Christ and I would like to walk where He has walked .

    Thank you  
    Nosipho  in kzn Harding  South Coast
  4. 11 abdullah 12 Feb
    lets flip the coin ad show them the other-side of the coin.
  5. 10 Joshua Grigst 12 Feb
    Abdullah - have you been there and seen another side of the coin. If you have, why don't you enlighten us. If you haven't, why don't you shut up. I've been there four times and I concur with these observations
  6. 9 yitzchak 13 Feb
    All children of Abraham(aka Ibrahim) are welcome in Israel,Abdullah my brother in peace.
    I will personally accompany you to Israel,
    I hope you will reciprocate by taking me to Medina.
  7. 8 nat cheiman 13 Feb
    I agree with Abdullah. He should pay and sponsor people to see the other side of the coin. A good start would be Syria and then there is Lebenon. Yemen and Libya are also great tourist attractions. Iraq and Iran. Abdullah, you have a winner on your hands. 
  8. 7 yitzchak 16 Feb
    So Abdullah,you have grown silent.
    I would like to send you a coin from the Israeli mint.
    Flip it over,and the genie is out the bottle!
    It says Israel in Hebrew,English,and yes also in Arabic.
    That's a good thing and I wouldn't want anybody to change (oops a dirty word these days) anything in recognition of Jews and Arab citizens of Israel.
    Suggest the same for your beloved Palestine when they get their own currency,but wait the Shekel has appreciated   against the Pound, Dollar ,Rand and of course the Zimbobwian Dollar,so they're in no hurry to have the Gaza mint mint their own coinage.
    How ironic, Palestinians using money of the Zionist Entity!
  9. 6 nat cheiman 16 Feb
    yitzchak, your humour with these idiots is like feeding strawberries to chazzer.
    Their coins will have a vest on it ( suicide)
  10. 5 Gary 17 Feb
    Yitzhac, not only all the children of Abraham are welcomed in Israel but all the Children of noah, therefore including the children of Japhet (Europeans) and Ham (Africans)
  11. 4 Jonni 19 Feb
    Abdullah is a product of the racist teachings of insane fundamentalists.
    He doesn't have the intellectual honesty to see through the anti Israel propaganda and think for himself.
    Perhaps he should flip his mind and the coins will take care of themselves.
  12. 3 yitzchak 19 Feb
    One settler,
    One Pullet.
    Good Shabbos.
  13. 2 Jill 12 Jan
    Well done Bridges for Peace, Cape Fed and SAFI.  We need more South Africans visiting Israel to see for themselves what a wonderful place it is and that there is no discrimination.  Let the truth speak for itself.
  14. 1 Petrus makgahlela 12 Jan
    Israel is better place on earth that I wished to stay with my family there.I saw how people are living in peace no discrimination no separation Palestinian and Jewish leaving in peace.The stories we here in South Africa that Israel is apartheid country is total lie.I will be going to Israel hopefully this year again.i encourage all south african believers and non believer to visit Usrael and see by their own eyes .Peace be upon Jerusalem Shalom


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