We are all up for breakfast at 7:00. Some of us slept soundly all night while others awoke as early as 3:00 or 4:00am. I lay awake from midnight ‘til I finally got up at 6:00am. Jet lag! At 8:00 we walked through the parking area where groups of school children were gathering for their day’s classes. Our guide for the morning was Michael Chacour (Micha), executive director at Mar Elias. He is justifiably proud of the accomplishments of the school and its students. (Michael is the nephew of the visionary founder of this educational institution, Elias Chacour.)
The elementary school, which meets in the first three floors of the building where our group is staying, opened in 1982 with 18 students. Now there are over 1500 students. Likewise, the high school now has 1252 students, who come from 65 Arab, Jewish and Christian villages in Galilee. Students excel in English, computers and communication.
The campus also includes a middle school, a kindergarten and even a childcare center for the children of teachers here at these campus schools. About 70% of the students are Moslem, and 30% Christian, and a few Jewish. There is a staff of 250, including some Jewish teachers, Micha tells us that 75 to 80 of the staff have Ph.D. degrees, and that the Christians are the highest educated minority in Israel.
Micha next led us to the recently constructed church. He had planned on our helping with the final painting, but perhaps realized our mostly senior-citizen group couldn’t work on the ladders and scaffolding?…in any case, instead of putting us to work on a painting project, he chose to spend the next two hours touring us through the church, pointing out the numerous icons pointed on the walls, and discussing the focus of the church. It is called Church of the Sermon on Mount, follows Eastern Orthodox traditions, but is a Greek Catholic church…a Melkite church (a new term to some of us)! The liturgy is spoken in Arabic…a Greek Catholic church, under the umbrella of the Roman Catholic church with Arabic worship services! Quite ecumenical!
We were all relieved to hear Micha say that it is more important for us to learn about the church and the school than to do the ‘work’ projects. Most, if not all, of us appreciate the emphasis of the church on nonviolence.
But we did do some hard work for an hour this morning – a sweat-inducing cleanup project involving shoveling rock and gravel that slid down a rock cliff behind the elementary school, scooping it into buckets, pouring the contents of those buckets into large canvas bags, toting those bags to a grocery cart, pushing that cart up a steep sidewalk and dumping it into an area in need of fill…some spreading of the material after depositing also.
After lunch, we met our new guide, Rami, who is one of only 43 Palestinian guides authorized to operate in Israel. We went by bus into the Galilean countryside, past rolling hills, citrus orchards, olive groves, rocky fields, small villages and even a farm with cattle.
We spent about two hours at a national park, called Sephoris in Hebrew and Zippori in Arabic. The name means “birds-eye-view”. This is the area where Mary, mother of Jesus, grew up. It is also a Roman archaeological site. The sons of Herod the Great built Sephoris. We walked into a huge cistern which stored water brought from springs 4 – 5 km away by aqueduct. It is thought that perhaps Jesus and his father Joseph participated in this massive building project, as builders.
In the ruins of a Roman bath house are beautifully maintained mosaics from the first century A.D. One large mosaic depicts an ancient celebration of the Nile River rising above its usual high water mark…our guide called it the Nile-o-meter!! We walked higher on this hill to the partially restored ruins of a Roman mansion which featured a huge room size mosaic, including the face of a beautiful woman, referred to as the Mona Lisa of Galilee. This fancy Roman home of a wealthy family overlooks surrounding farms, orchards and village. In this vista, Rami pointed out a kibbutz built on the site of a Palestinian town destroyed in 1948 when Jewish settlers came. At the very top of the hill we explored a Crusader fortress, built from Roman ruins, including sarcophagi, used as cornerstones and as blocks here and there in this stone citadel.
As had Micha in the morning, Rami spoke of discrimination against the Palestinians who live in Israel. For example, 15% of the available water is allotted to Palestinians and 85% to the Israelis. There are many additional challenges for Arab-Israelis regarding building permits, school qualifying exams and other differences in treatment between the Jewish population living in Israel and these Palestinians, both Muslim and Christian.
Heavy traffic caused us to postpone our planned trip to Bir’in in Upper Galilee and we returned to Mar Elias as the sun was setting. We’ll get Bir’in tomorrow… we are anticipating a day on the Sea of Galilee!
Our food, again today, was tasty, homemade fare cooked and served by Esmahan, the caretaker of this building and us, while we are in her care! Beef kebabs, seasoned with cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice, mashed potatoes, cabbage and parsley slaw with the lemon juice/ olive oil dressing that is so common here, and barekas (cheese filled, savory bites of phyllo) filled us up at dinner. Lunch and breakfast included the local pita, yogurt and zat’ar flavors…authentic of the neighborhood. Most of us are already addicted to the Arabic coffee, served after every meal…some of us hope to find some to share with you when we get home!