Andy Bretz

I have had the unique privilege of traveling to the Middle East multiple times in my life—five, to be exact. One of those trips was an extended stay in Saudi Arabia during Desert Storm. The other four have been visits to Israel, all in the last six years.

We arrived!

The best thing about taking multiple trips to the same location is that each trip brings a unique experience. Each of my four trips to Israel has been different, all coming together to make it one of my favorite places in the world to visit!

Overlooking the Mediterranean and Tel Aviv.

My first trip was with one of my best friends. The two of us went together and met up with a local who took us around the country. We saw more stuff in one week than most groups get to experience in a month!

We visited a very cozy kibbutz near the Sea of Galilee for a couple of days, touring the region and the kibbutz before heading south to the Dead Sea. We spent a day in that region during which we hiked to the top of Masada, hiked back down again and floated in the salt water of the Dead Sea before heading into Jerusalem. In the city my friend and I stayed at a local hostel, walked around the city, rode the city bus, toured the Old City and visited local markets and restaurants.

Open-air market in Tel Aviv.

Our local friend took us to Bethlehem and dropped us off to tour that city as well. We went through the security checkpoint and caught a cab which took us to the key sites in the city. Before leaving, the cab driver took us to his family's wood shop and we were basically “required” to purchase something before he would drive us back to the border.

The Garden Tomb in Jerusalem.

The second time I visited was a year later when my friend and I took a group of 32 people. The group was incredibly diverse in age with people ranging from age 13 to 82. The trip followed a very similar schedule, beginning in the Galilee region in the northern part of the country and finishing in Jerusalem. Because we had a number of youth with us on this trip, one of the best things about this visit was helping those young people experience the country. Another new experience was riding on the newly launched light rail in Jerusalem. The train passed within a couple blocks of our hotel, so some in our group took the opportunity to explore the city by rail.

The Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.

My third visit was by far the most challenging. I approached my church about organizing trips to Israel and this was the first trip I took as the sole planner. We ended up with 72 people on the trip, so in addition to being the organizer I had the new challenge of keeping up with such a large group. Because of our size we were split onto two tour buses. This was also the first trip I had been on where we had a musician along to lead the group in singing, which was a wonderful addition. One evening we stood on a pier on the Sea of Galilee and sang songs for nearly an hour! We also had nearly 50 people choose to be baptised in the Jordan River on this trip. Finally, a personal highlight was having the opportunity to take a segway tour along the Mediterranean Sea in Tel Aviv.

Waiting to be baptized in the Jordan River.

I made my fourth trip just this past December with 24 people, the smallest group I have taken. With a group that size, one of the best experiences on this trip was the opportunity to get to know everyone well. The last night of this trip was spent visiting host homes of local Israelis, meeting their families and making connections.

Dancing in the streets of Jerusalem with local children.

When I tell people that I have been to Israel multiple times I nearly always get the same questions: “Did you feel safe?” and “Why do you go?” I can say, without hesitation, that I have always not only felt safe, but have actually been safe. Israel is actually a very safe country.

Admiring the synagogue in Capernaum built circa 200 C.E.

I go because I love the history and the people in Israel. It sits as a pivotal site in three of the world’s main religions, and a melting pot for cultures from all over the world. Not even New York can rival the diversity that is found in the tiny country of Israel. If you haven’t been I highly encourage you to put it on your bucket list!

Sunset over the Mediterranean in Tel Aviv.