Janice and Bob Zark struck a deal. If she would agree to accompany him on a tour of the Holy Land, he would agree to retire when they returned to California.
As Bob explains, his wife was “very apprehensive” about taking this trip. Not only would it be her first to Israel and her first outside the United States, as it would for him, it would also be the first time Janice, 63, had ever boarded a plane in her life. As a veteran engineer at the U.S. aerospace giant Northrop Grumman, Bob, 69, could at least say he had already been inside a plane or two.
Strolling through the alleys of Jerusalem’s Old City this week, after fulfilling her end of the bargain, Janice seemed to have overcome her travel fears. “I can tell you this: I am definitely coming back,” says the retired preschool teacher, her husband beaming beside her.
Israel finally reopened its doors to tourism on Monday. That gives the Zarks the distinction of being part of the first batch of foreigners to visit the country in more than 18 months.
It has been a long-anticipated trip.
Registration for the pilgrimage tour organized by Grace Chapel – the large evangelical church they belong to in Lancaster, California – had opened in June 2019. According to the original plan, they were supposed to have started this two-week trip in June 2020. But in between, the coronavirus pandemic struck and Israel barred entry to foreigners. The trip was later rescheduled for June 2021, but postponed again because of coronavirus-related issues. Indeed, up until a week before their arrival date, the participants were still unsure it would happen.
And it almost didn’t, because five church members who had registered were forced to pull out at the last minute after failing to obtain the required COVID booster shot.
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“We needed a minimum of 15 participants to pull this off, and it looked like we might not get there,” recounts Brad Hayen, one of two pastors accompanying the group. In the end, they had 18 participants.
Israel may have officially welcomed back tourists this week, but that doesn’t mean they are banging down the doors to get in. Indeed, a day after the new policy took effect, Jerusalem’s Old City, normally a magnet for visitors, still felt like a ghost town.
Hayen and his group, therefore, had the whole country pretty much to themselves – and they were clearly enjoying the situation.
“I couldn’t have imagined coming to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre or the Church of the Nativity and being the only ones there,” says Hayen, who has already been on three previous tours of the Holy Land. “At some of the places we visited, like Masada and Beit She’an, we were the only bus in the parking lot when we arrived,” he notes.
John Panus, a retiree on his second trip to the Holy Land, describes the experience as “kind of a blessing.”
“When you don’t have the big crowds, it’s not as stressful and you learn a lot more,” he says.
The first stop on their itinerary Tuesday was the Temple Mount. As members of the group make their way through the security check, Ashlynne Lewis can hardly contain her surprise. “I can’t believe how nice the security guards are in this country,” exclaims the 22-year-old, who is on her first trip outside the United States. “They even spoke to me in English and wished me a nice day after checking my pouch.”
Matthew Churchill, the guide accompanying the group, explains that this is not typical behavior. “That’s the advantage of touring Israel when there are hardly any tourists around,” he tells her. “Everyone is nice.”
For Hayen, it was obvious from the get-go that he and his group would be in for a very different type of reception this time.
“When we arrived at the hotel from the airport, there were representatives there greeting us in the bus,” he relays. “That’s something I’ve never seen before. It says to me that Israelis are really happy to see tourists around again.”
Their two-week trip was organized by Pilgrim Tours, a large travel agency based in Pennsylvania, in partnership with Sar-El Tours & Conferences, which specializes in the evangelical market and is one of Israel’s leading tour operators. Their itinerary is heavy on religion, history and archaeology, with most of the sightseeing focused on Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth, Caesarea and Masada.
The oldest participant is 80-year-old Alan Brown, who describes it as his “first and last” trip to Israel. “I knew it was either now or never,” he says. “If I delayed this any longer, I’d miss the opportunity.”
While he’s enjoying every moment, he concedes that, physically, it’s been a bit taxing: “I’m not as young as I used to be.”
At 17, Claire Pohle – who has joined her parents Joe and Susan – is the youngest member of the group. Since Claire is homeschooled, her father explains, there was no problem having her join them at this time of year. “We had just begun studying ancient history, which turned this into a great field trip,” says Joe, a retired engineer.
For Lewis, the trip was a college graduation present from her grandfather. But she almost didn’t make it.
“I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to get my booster shot in time,” she recounts. “But because I work with special needs kids, I managed to cut the lines.”
After their tour of the Temple Mount, the group heads to the Western Wall tunnels, and from there to the Church of St. Anne. The following day will be devoted to retracing Jesus’ last steps.
This is not the ideal time of year for a high school teacher to get away, but Karmae Shiplett – who had originally planned on taking this trip in the summer – got lucky with her choice of destination. “Fortunately, I’m blessed to work at a Christian school,” she says. “So when I said I was going to Israel, they told me, ‘If that’s where you’re going, we’re not going to stop you.’”
Were it not for this trip, she adds, she would not have agreed to have the COVID-19 vaccine. “But I wasn’t going to miss a trip to Israel because of a vaccination,” she says.
Indeed, Grace Chapel originally had 120 members registered for this trip. According to Hayen, at least 30 dropped out over the past two years because they refused to be vaccinated.
Anti-vaccination attitudes are more prevalent among white evangelicals than the general population. Shiplett says she resisted getting vaccinated because she saw it as a violation of her freedom of choice.
This is the first trip Israel-based Churchill has guided since mid-March 2020, when the country entered its first lockdown. After exhausting his unemployment benefits, he started working as a server at a local steakhouse a few months ago.
“When I got the call asking if I could guide this trip, I was literally dancing in my living room,” he says. “I immediately called the restaurant and gave them two weeks’ notice.”
At that point, he says, he didn’t even realize what a treat it would be to guide some of the first tourists to arrive in Israel.
“Who would have thought we could go to Jesus’ tomb in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre without having to bump shoulders with thousands of other tourists and without having the monks stand around ordering us to wrap it up,” asks Churchill, who immigrated to Israel from Cleveland, Ohio. “It’s just another world these days.”
Hayen points out another upside to coming at this time of year. “We usually come in June,” he says. “But it tends to be so much hotter then. You really can’t beat the weather now, so having the trip postponed might not have been such a bad thing after all.”