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West meets East under the tent

I was pinching myself Sunday night because for a moment, I couldn’t believe I was doing what I was doing.

Our Rotary Group Study Exchange team met with a combined group of Rotary clubs under a Bedouin tent … in an Arab village … in an Israeli city … far from home.

Our presentation went off without a hitch; well, maybe one — we’ve had some audio trouble with one portion of it, but we’ve learned how to improvise. It’s the same one we’ve been presenting ever since we arrived in Israel on May 10. We’re getting pretty good at this. Our team — Katt Krause of Amarillo, Aida Almaraz of Amarillo, Shirley Davis of Levelland and Fernando Valle of Lubbock — tells our hosts a little about themselves, their occupations and their families. They sprinkle their presentation with just the right amount of West Texas color, which our hosts appreciate very much.

We’ve also been blessed to be traveling with an engaging team from The Netherlands, who are conducting a simultaneous exchange right along with us. So, this GSE team is getting a double dose of cultural exposure — from our hosts as well as from our traveling companions.

But this event Sunday night was quite special. We had Jews and Muslims and Christians sitting under the same tent, eating a wonderful assortment of food prepared by our hosts living near Karmiel. Many of the folks were familiar, as we had met them the previous day.

The first two weeks have rocketed by, as I look back on it. The next two likely will fly past us even more quickly. Everyone keeps telling us the same thing: Wait until you get to Jerusalem.

Jerusalem is our final stop. We’ll deliver our final presentations to the Rotary District 2490 conference before a crowd predicted by our hosts to exceed 600 people — by far the largest room we’ll “play” on our journey.

With all due respect to The Beatles (who helped raise me during the ’60s), the “Magical Mystery Tour” had nothing on this adventure.

We ain’t all cowboys, pahdnuh

Our Rotary Group Study Exchange team was strolling through the old market place in Nazareth, Israel the other day.

Fernando Valle, a team member from Lubbock, was asked by an elderly gentleman, “Where are you from?” Fernando responded, “The United States.” “Where in the States?” the man asked. “Texas,” Fernando answered.

“Ah, Texas,” the man said, smiling.

He then began twirling his hands, as if to be spinning six-shooters around his trigger finger.

Therein lies the prevailing image that Texas — and Texans — seem to have in the Middle East. We’re all a bunch of gun-slingers.

It’s not entirely clear to me whether rank-and-file Israelis believe that about Texans and our state, or if they’re just speaking to the stereotype just to get a rise out of us.

We laugh it off — and continue to have the time of our lives.

Flashback, of sorts

I grew up in the Greek Orthodox Church. I was baptized in my hometown as an infant. The church to this day is the center of a communitywide festival in Portland, Ore. It’s become a huge event.

But I moved away from the church as I became a teenager. Then I married the girl of my dreams in 1971 in a Presbyterian ceremony — and became a Presbyterian.

However …

Sitting in Greek Orthodox sanctuaries in Nazareth, Israel, was one of the most personally moving moments of my trip through the Holy Land. Nazareth is now a mostly Muslim community, but it certainly honors its long-standing Christian tradition. The Church of the Annunciation is where Christian believe the angel Gabriel informed Mary that she would be the earthly mother to the Son of God. It is a beautiful church building in the middle of the old part of the city. Nazareth is not far from the Jordan River, or from Galilee.

But I so truly enjoyed sitting in these Orthodox sanctuaries, taking in the sight of the icons and the depictions of Jesus and Mary, and the apostles. I even could smell a bit of the incense, very similar to the aromas of the church I attended in Portland all those years ago.

For the first time on this extraordinary visit to this equally extraordinary place, I felt at home.

Bigger in Texas? Boy, howdy!

As our Group Study Exchange team has coursed its way through Israel, we’ve been giving presentations about ourselves, our professions and our communities.

The one element of our presentation that almost always gets a rise out of our Rotary Club hosts deals with an item of food: a Texas steak.

Katt Krause, one of our team members, reminds our hosts of the saying that “everything’s bigger in Texas,” and to illustrate the point, she talks about the Big Texan Steak Ranch, and the monstrous 72-ounce steak one gets for free if he or she can choke it down in an hour — or less. You have to eat the steak, plus all the sides, she says.

Of course, when she converts the ounces to pounds, and then back to kilograms (it’s about 2 kilos), then our audience members’ eyes really light up.

And this occurs is in a country that, based on our experience during the past two weeks, seems to thrive on the consumption of food — and lots of it.

Yes, it’s a whole other country

“Texas, it’s a whole other country.”

Isn’t that how the state promotes itself? Well, our Rotary hosts in Israel seem to think we’re on a par with at least one other nation. Our Group Study Exchange team has been introduced from Nahariya to Eilat as the “team from Texas,” while our traveling companions from the Netherlands have carried the national banner of that western European nation.

We’re proud of the designation, and to be frank, we haven’t dissuaded our hosts from using it as we present ourselves to them.

So much of our PowerPoint presentation talks of Texas tradition: big steaks, rodeos, cattle and oh yes, football (American style, of course).

We’re enjoying our budding relationship with our Dutch GSE partners as well. I’ve chuckled just a little as they refer to us occasionally as “Texans,” rather than “Americans.”

Since Rotary International doesn’t want us talking politics or religion during this exchange, I keep my mouth shut over the recent dust-up regarding Gov. Perry’s remarks dealing with whether Texas should secede from the Union. We won’t go there — you know?

But that’s all right. For now, we’ll carry the Texas banner high and with great pride. And we’ll let our hosts continue to portray us as a “whole other country” — which, of course, at one time would have been entirely accurate.

Family time: the real deal

Shai and Daphna Ronnen love their family.

The Tel Aviv couple demonstrated family bonding in a way that moves the soul. These are my Rotary hosts in Tel Aviv; we’ll part company for a few days until we meet again at the Rotary District 2490 conference in Jerusalem.

On Friday, as the sabbath (or “shabat) is set to begin — the Ronnens bring their three children over for dinner. The children — Hagit, Gil and Guy — are the parents of four children among them, with another one due in July. They meet every Friday for dinner at their parents’ home. They sing the same three songs they’ve been singing for years, and which the Ronnens’ grandchildren sing right along with the adults.

And they did the same thing they always do this past Friday, with three visitors from Texas: myself, Aida Almaraz and Fernando Valle, all of us taking part in the Group Study Exchange tour of Israel.

It was a beautiful sight, to be sure. I don’t know yet whether this kind of family togetherness is the norm or the exception in Israel. I sense it is far more normal in Israel than it is in the United States.

It felt good — no, great — to be a part of it, if only for an evening.

A big, and growing, family

As you know, I’m writing this blog while traveling through Israel as part of a Rotary International Foundation Group Study Exchange. I’m traveling with four fabulous young professionals from West Texas; we’re moving through the country with another great group of young folks from The Netherlands.

A big part of the program’s success is the friendships it develops between the GSE participants and the hosts who put them up in their homes and care for them.

This is my way of setting up a marvelous moment I witnessed this morning in Be’er Sheva.

We drove from Eilat in southern Israel to Be’er Sheva, where we had spent the first few nights “in country.” Our bus pulled into a gasoline station, where we were to change buses for the ride to Tel Aviv.

Out of a car came a couple, Shlomo and Liora Blieberg, who had hosted several members of our GSE team when we arrived on May 10.

Aida Almaraz of Amarillo spotted them first and fell into Liora’s arms, saying something like, “I feel like I’m seeing my own mother.”

Then someone stuck his head into the bus to tell two more members of our team, Fernando Valle of Lubbock and Shirley Davis of Levelland, that “there was someone out here they need to see.” Fernando hollered “Papa Shlomo!” Shirley came running out of the bus giggling like a schoolgirl at the sight of this marvelous couple, embracing them both tightly. Shirley had sprained her ankle early in the trip and Shlomo, a physician, took very good care of her.

We had been away from them only for three days!

The point, I suppose, is that the beauty of a trip such as this are the relationships we can develop in such a short period of time. Staying in people’s homes, partaking of the contents in their refrigerator, sitting around the table talking to each other like family makes us, well, like family.

That moment this morning was one for the books.

And, oh yes: I embraced them, too.

What’s a treaty worth?

The southernmost point in Israel is close to the country’s former enemies: Jordan and Egypt.

It’s so close, in fact, that you can drive to either country in a matter of minutes. The nations all have gone to war during Israel’s 61-year history. But now they’re at peace.

But what’s the treaty worth? A video telling the story of a December 2001 interception of a vessel loaded with weapons of terror, to be used against Israel, tells quite another story.

Israeli commandos departed from Eilat to intercept the freighter that was headed for the port of Alexandria, in Egypt, where it was going to disgorge its contents to be used by terrorists against Israel.

So, here’s the question: If Egypt has a peace treaty with Israel, why would it allow the cargo vessel to dock in Alexandria and then watch the distribution of the weapons to terror merchants waiting in the shadows?

Commerce, it seems, overrules bilateral treaties any day — and that makes the peace agreements worth little more than the paper on which they are printed.

Church and state separation, sort of

The judge in the Israeli courtroom made quite a point about how his government does not integrate religion into government affairs.

Our Group Study Exchange delegations — our West Texas team and our Rotary partners from The Netherlands — all noticed the same thing, however, as the judge made his point in his Be’er Sheva courtroom.

It was the presence of the menorrah engraved in the wall behind him. The menorrah, of course, is the enduring symbol of Hannukah, one of Judaism’s most revered religious holidays.

I couldn’t help but think what might happen in a Texas Panhandle courtroom if a judge engraved a carving of Jesus being crucified. Given that our Constitution speaks directly against such a practice, a judge shouldn’t be so brazen.

It apparently isn’t so obvious for an Israeli judge to speak so directly about the secular nature of his government while sitting under such a recognized symbol of his own religion.

Come to Texas, see the world

You have to love a kid who wins a Rotary-sponsored speaking contest and then declares to a visiting newspaper editor that he wants to come to Texas and “see the world.”

Nir Lifsitz spoke to the Rotary Club of Be’er Sheva/Omarium Tuesday night about the environment and the need to protect the planet. He gave his five-minute talk in Hebrew — which, of course, was “all Greek to me.” But my Rotary host, Alon Bendet, asked me immediately after the competiton, and before the results were announced, which one I thought won. I said the young man mentioned here was the clear winner. Alon agreed.

But as we were taking a break, Nir approached me and asked me about Rotary in Texas. We visited for a few minutes. “Have you been to Texas?” I asked. “No, but I intend to come, because I want to see the world,” he answered with the same self-confidence he demonstrated in giving his talk. How do I know of his self-confidence? His body language spoke universally.

“What is the capital of Texas?” he asked. I told him Austin. “Why isn’t it Dallas?” he wondered. Well, he knew about Dallas because of the Cowboys and the Mavericks, so he figured that Dallas needed to be the capital. I reminded him that Dallas isn’t even the largest city in Texas; Houston and San Antonio are larger.

He also figures that it’s a daunting challenge for American students to learn the capitals of all 50 states. He rolled his eyes and wondered how any American kid can accomplish such a thing.

I was ashamed to admit that many of them never learn the capital of, say, South Dakota (which is Pierre, by the way).

Still, I have a hunch that the young man will knock the socks off most Texans he meets when he finally arrives.