BKD Life

Finding Faith in Israel

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A Middle East vacation provides pleasant surprises for Steve Gresh.

When Erie Manager Steve Gresh chose Israel as his next vacation destination, some questioned why he wanted to visit the seemingly volatile region.

Television and internet viewers may associate the Middle Eastern country with conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, but last December Steve and his wife Julie discovered a friendly, diverse community there with a deep devotion to faith. “There are preconceived notions of what you will see. But after we got over there, we didn’t see that tension,” Steve says.

“For the most part, everyone was very harmonious. I learned that as people we’re more alike than different. We all want peace and prosperity for our children.”

Different religions welcome to practice faith in Jerusalem

Sightseeing throughout the Muslim Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem.

Sightseeing throughout the Muslim Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem.

The Christian couple wanted to experience a different culture after some trips to Europe, with Julie particularly interested in Israel’s religions.

After a 12-hour flight from the U.S. to Tel Aviv, the couple took a bus to Jerusalem, where they spent most of the nearly weeklong trip.

They visited religious locations such as Temple Mount—a holy site for multiple faiths—and the Western Wall, an ancient structure on Temple Mount’s western side where Jews are allowed to pray. The couple toured markets and stayed in a hotel inside Old Jerusalem, a walled area within the modern city that’s divided into quarters (Muslim, Christian, Jewish and Armenian). Residents of different religions would pass each other in the quarters with no difficulties, Steve says.

As a BKD trusted advisor, Steve says it’s important to understand what motivates people. His Israel visit showed him people can have incentives beyond material possessions. While many Americans are occupied with their careers and finances, “over there, everything is run by their faith,” he says of Israelis.

For example, Muslims there will pray five times a day and stop what they’re doing to devote time for it, Steve says. One can see the profound effect the Western Wall, which is thousands of years old, continues to have on Jews who pray there, he says.

Julie, who loves history, appreciated Jerusalem’s connection to the past.

"Standing on Temple Mount was humbling—to know what great miracles they have claimed to occur on that hallowed ground and to know the bloodshed and wars that have occurred in pursuit of it. I have learned so much more than what a history book can teach you,” she says.

View from Temple Mount, overlooking the Western Wall and the Dome of the Rock.

View from Temple Mount, overlooking the Western Wall and the Dome of the Rock.

Manager Chelsea Geibel says the Erie office was excited for Steve to visit Israel and share his pictures, as he and Julie had wanted to travel there for some time. Worldwide travel can be a form of lifelong learning for BKD professionals, she says.

“Interacting with people and cultures unlike our own teaches us tolerance, empathy and understanding. Sightseeing and new experiences lend themselves to boosting creativity, and the fun had on adventures abroad can be a way to relieve stress and come back refreshed,” Chelsea says.

Visitors encounter many English speakers in midst of Middle East culture

In addition to Jerusalem, Steve and Julie visited the Dead Sea—one of the world’s saltiest bodies of water and the Earth’s lowest point—and Masada, an ancient fortress on a rock plateau that seems like a mountain to someone from Pennsylvania, quips Steve. While on their own most of the time, the couple took tours at a few locations, such as the Mount of Olives, where Christians believe Jesus ascended to heaven. Weather in the low 60s with no rain provided pleasant traveling.

Although they heard some Arabic and Hebrew, the couple had little trouble conversing with Israelis. “Probably 85 percent of people we came in contact with spoke English,” Steve says.

Cityscape of Jerusalem as seen from the Mount of Olives.

Cityscape of Jerusalem as seen from the Mount of Olives.

They encountered a lot of falafel and chickpea-based food, and cuisine such as pizza topped with eggplant and chickpeas—but ate none of the abundant olives, which Steve was determined to avoid. However, he did savor the freshly squeezed pomegranate juice sold on street carts in Jerusalem.

Despite interacting with many English speakers, the couple saw few signs of Western influence in Israel, where international chains such as McDonald’s and Pizza Hut can still be found. “You see it when driving through Tel Aviv—a little,” Steve says.

Long-lasting memories made among Jerusalem’s friendly residents

Steve and Julie Gresh in front of the Dome of the Rock.

Steve and Julie Gresh in front of the Dome of the Rock.

When the couple first considered visiting Israel, they researched safety precautions to take while there. They avoided large crowds, gave the turbulent Gaza region a wide berth and used GPS on their phones.

Steve says he was wary of how people in the region might react to him being an American, but received no negative receptions. “Both Jews and Muslims were very, very friendly,” he says.

One of Steve’s favorite memories of Israel was witnessing Hanukkah celebrations in the Jewish Quarter, where some residents distributed free snacks to passersby.

Steve was open to possibly visiting Israel again, since a week wasn’t enough for the couple to see all they wanted. Julie wished to visit the Sea of Galilee, a lake in northern Israel where Christians believe Jesus performed miracles, but that would have added a day to their trip.

Americans interested in touring Israel should research what to do and where to stay, Steve advises. Most importantly, form your own opinion, he says.

“Take TV and the internet with a grain of salt.”

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