When you finally get to Israel, you realize you're someplace special.
Israel is at the heart of thousands of years of history, the bedrock of Judeo-Christian thought, and, many would argue, Western civilization. (Well, along with the Greeks, the Romans and the generous contributions of others.)
This is the place that serves as the setting for all of the stories in the Bible (for Jews, the Torah).
This the place that birthed two faiths - Judaism and Christianity - and includes sites (such as Jerusalem) held sacred by a third, Islam.
So you do get the feeling that you're visiting somewhere extremely significant, whether you're religious, spiritual or just a student of history.
Everything there is old - I mean, OLD.
Rabbi Aryeh Azriel, the Omaha spiritual leader who joined us on the trip, remarked to me that back home, when someone unearths a fragment of glass from the 19th century, it's a big deal.
In Israel, that's like fishing yesterday's newspaper out of the trash.
You've got to remember, in the Middle East, people have been bumping around for 10,000 years, making written, recorded history for maybe 5,000 of them and witnessing the rise and fall of empires like the passing of seasons.
It makes an impression on you, walking through the ruins of Assyrians, Persians, Romans ... all empires that thought they would last forever.
It gives you a sense of the vast expanse of human history - at least in this part of the world - and just how short one human life span really is. Kind of humbling.
Israel, top to bottom
Our trip was busy, our itinerary packed - when people travel that far, they want to get their money's worth.
We traveled by air-conditioned tour bus (good thing, as it's HOT), and we covered a lot of ground.
We went as far north as the Golan Heights bordering Lebanon and Syria, and as far south as Masada (an ancient Jewish fortress) and the Dead Sea (the lowest elevation on Earth).
Here are some of the places we visited:
- Acco, one of the oldest cities in the world, dating back to about 1,500 B.C.
- Tiberius, one of the four holy Jewish cities in Israel; Maimonides, one of the foremost philosophers in Jewish history, is buried here.
- The Jordan River, where most of our group took a short inner tube ride; I chose to keep my bottom dry.
- Several kibbutzes, communally run farms started by Israel's Zionist founders; the kibbutz movement is ebbing, as young people leave them for the cities.
- Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust museum; our tour guide, Eliezer Ayalon, survived internment at several concentration camps as a child and went on to serve as an adviser to Steven Spielberg on the filming of "Schindler's List."
- And, of course, Jerusalem, which was our home base for much of the trip.
As with any journey, some places we visited were more meaningful - or, in some cases, simply more fun - than others.
The Dead Sea was a nice break from all the ruins and temples and history.
It's famous as the saltiest body of water on Earth, so salty and buoyant that you float like a cork in it. You can't sink. In fact, you can stretch out on your back and read a newspaper, if that's what you want to do, as if you were on an inflatable raft.
One note of caution: You might not want to go in the water if you have any recent cuts or sores that haven't healed - because the Dead Sea is salt, and it stings as if someone has poured jalapeÃ±o juice in your eye.
The day before our visit to the Dead Sea, I had tripped and scraped my knee on some gravel, so I speak from experience.
Jerusalem was at the center of our trip; everything we saw and did beforehand seemed to build up to that emotional climax.
Right when our group got there, our bus stopped on the Hebrew University campus, on Mount Scopus, which has a panoramic view of the city.
It's amazing - everything seemed to be made of white limestone. The gold surface of the Dome of the Rock (located on the Temple Mount) glinted in the sun, and I could see the onion-shaped domes of an Orthodox Christian church in the distance.
And that's when you realize that you're really in Jerusalem, the place whose name ("Yerushalayim" in Hebrew) you've said so many times in Jewish prayers. It gives that word a lot more meaning, seeing it for yourself.
After we dropped off our things at the hotel, we went right to the Old City and the Western (or Wailing) Wall, a remnant of the First and Second Temple complex. It was Friday, right before sundown, with the start of the Sabbath (Shabbat) approaching, and if you're in Jerusalem at that time, that's where you want to go.
This is a very special place for a Jew to be, particularly a Diaspora Jew (one who lives outside of Israel) and even more so for a Jew who's never been there.
It's like coming home.
A student of religion
Even though I can't say that this experience was transcendent, I still knew deep down that I was witnessing something very important, if only because that place was so meaningful to all the people praying fervently around me.
Since I didn't feel transported by faith, I decided to be like an anthropologist, someone studying the human phenomenon of religion.
So I stopped and slowly turned 360 degrees, using all of my senses to take in everything going on around me: Hasidic Jews dressed in long, black coats, some wearing fur-trimmed hats (called shtreimels); teenage yeshiva (religious school) boys linked arm in arm, singing loudly; men stuffing little folded notes written to God into cracks in the wall; young, Israeli soldiers in olive khaki uniforms, rifles casually slung over their shoulders, greeting each other.
And from that standpoint, it was indeed amazing - a picture of the varieties of Judaism, and of Jews.
I hope I can return some day.