So, we’ve arrived in Israel and had an afternoon of tours, then a great day visiting Masada, Ein Gedi, Qumran, and a evening drive up to Tiberias. We had a great night’s sleep at the Golan Hotel and woke up quite early for a full day of touring The Galilee area.
We started at the Mount of Beatitudes, the historically accepted site of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount. In stark contrast to the wilderness around Masada, the Mount of Beatitudes is a verdant series of gardens with colorful flowers, benches among the vegetation, and beautiful views from the hill down to the Sea of Galilee. We toured the Roman Catholic church on the site. The church has mosaic tiles across the floor and images on the dome that show the Beatitudes. After quietly visiting the church, our group looked around the grounds for a nice place to have a short worship service. Settling on a shelter overlooking the Sea of Galilee, we settled in to begin our service. Almost immediately, another group arrived and announced that they had reserved the site and we needed to move along. Members of this group grumbled and shot us sideways glances, as if to imply “How dare these Protestants try to use this shelter”. I couldn’t help but chuckle a bit. As I’ll discuss later, some of the biggest conflicts in the Holy Land aren’t between different religions, but between different sects of the same religion. What a boost to ecumenical relations if our Catholic friends would have invited us to share their worship.
In spite of this, we continued our stroll around the grounds and found a small garden area with a few benches and paused to reflect on the Sermon on the Mount and the lessons contained therein. Leaving the Mount of Beatitudes, our group split up, with a handful of us heading down part of the Jesus Trail to the Sea of Galilee and the remaining group boarding the bus and traveling to the Tabgha, the site of two important churches: The Church of the Primacy of St. Peter and The Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes.
Following a quick visit to each site, we headed to Ali’s Restaurant, on the shores of the Sea of Galilee for a traditional lunch of St. Peter’s Fish. Ali has recently relocated from his old location because his land was seized by the Israeli government, and after a long court battle, Ali lost and his restaurant was demolished. The new location is amazing, though, with a large lawn full of tables and some inside seating. Lunch is served at long family style tables and there is an abundance of fresh salads and fresh bread for all to enjoy. Tilapia is a pretty plain fish, but the presentation of the whole fried fish is beautiful, and the hospitality you will experience here is worth stopping.
After lunch, we traveled to Capernaum, the home of Peter and where Jesus performed a number of healing acts. Capernaum is a historical and archeological treasure, with Peter’s house and one of the oldest synagogues in the world. The synagogue is actually two, with two sets of ruins in the same place, though it is clear they were built at different times.
While in this area, we decided to visit the Kibbutz Ginosar and see the Jesus Boat. Now, the boat has absolutely nothing to do with Jesus, save that it was likely built in the 1st Century and likely resembles the boats that the apostles would have used. I’ll admit, I did not have high hopes for a two thousand year old boat that was found buried in lake mud, but this turned out to be a great spot to visit. In addition to the boat, there are some interesting art installations on the site. While the actual boat was interesting to me, the most fascinating information, for me, was the process they used to extract, preserve, and display the Jesus Boat. Truly worth you time.
Our next stop was downtown Tiberias, where we embarked on a cruise on the Sea of Galilee. We had a great time on this sunset cruise, enjoying the cool early evening, the calm seas, and the great company. After cruising for a bit, we slowed to a stop and learned how to dance the hora. After a quick lesson and a few attempts, we decided we might be better off fishing… The captain opened a hatch and pulled out a cast net. My eyes lit up; living in Beaufort, even for a few years, it’s important to know how to throw a cast net. My technique is pretty bad, though, and I didn’t want to embarrass myself. However, a member of our group is a true waterman, so we talked the captain into letting him try his hand. Though Bobby didn’t catch anything, I admit I was moved by the connection that water creates. Here, thousands of miles from home, in a different culture, the waterman’s tools are the same.
Returning to the dock, our group broke up so people could have some downtime. A small group of us visited the Scots Hotel. Beautiful place and absolutely top notch service, though the drinks will lighten your wallet pretty quickly.
Heather had discovered, after some intense searching, a great dinner spot in downtown, so our group finished up and headed to Avi’s Restaurant. Avi’s doesn’t look like much from the street and was a little empty when we arrived outside. An employee invited us in, explaining that had just arrived at the best restaurant in Tiberias. A bit skeptical, but remembering that almost every review commented on Avi’s personality, Heather asked if he was in. The employee found Avi and he made his way to the door, with a slightly confused look. “Are we friends?”, Avi asked. “Well, not yet, but that’ll change quickly.” Avi’s eyes lit up and he started barking orders to the servers to pull together a table for the five of us. Instead of offering us a menu, Avi proposed something unique: “I’ll give you all as much food as you can eat: salads, bread, falafel and hummus, lamb, chicken, turkey…EVERYTHING! If you like it, you pay me 100NIS each. If not, you put it on this table and you don’t pay anything. How does that sound?” It took our group two seconds, tops, to decide we were exactly where we wanted to be. We agreed and Avi started barking orders in Hebrew again. Within seconds our table was covered with over a dozen salads. We had olives, tomatoes and cucumbers, tahini, tabouleh, spicy tomatoes, and more. We probably could have stopped there, but then the falafel arrived. Avi came over, opening a bottle of wine that he comped us and filled our glasses. Then some lamb patties. More fresh bread arrived as the server replenished the salads. As we finished up the salads, and a second and third order of lamb patties, the server arrived with a mixed grill of turkey and chicken. The meal probably took three hours, with small breaks to relax and enjoy our fellowship. As we started to really slow down, Avi appeared again, this time with a bottle of flavored vodka to finish the meal. He sat with us, slowly sipping his drink as we did the same. Avi’s hospitality stood out, even in a culture where hospitality is taken quite seriously. As we talked, Avi shared his story, the story of his family, of how his father fought in the IDF and how the violence and conflict pained him. He spoke about his desire for peace, about how he welcomed everyone into his restaurant, Jew, Gentile, and Muslim and how he desired a peaceful resolution that would allow him to share his hospitality with more visitors. As we finished our meal, Avi invited us to his house for dinner the next night. He was unfazed when we told him we were with a group of 28 people. Of course, he explained, his wife would be mad if he invited 28 people to dinner, but he’d done it before and she hasn’t left him yet. As much as we wanted to, we had to decline, as this was our last night in Tiberias. “Next time” Avi concluded, “next time you will be a guest in my home for dinner.” I know we are all counting the days until the “next time.”