Israel’s accomplishments are the result of living in a western democracy.Amid fields of bluebonnets and other wildflowers that transform the Golan Heights into a scene straight out of the Texas Hill Country, there are stern warning signs: “Danger! Mines!” Through rugged hills where Bedouin shepherds tend their flocks runs an interstate-quality highway. Along the boardwalk leading to Jaffa, old men play backgammon and teenagers enjoy the sunshine, the crisp air, the sparkling Mediterranean. Some of the girls wear low-rise jeans and high-heeled sandals. Others wear camouflage and carry M-16s.

I am one of 265 Houstonians who have just returned from an eight-day journey to Israel sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston. Two-thirds of the group, including me, were first-time travelers to Israel. All returned with a feeling of great excitement and cautious optimism. We experienced the many sights and sounds of Israel, expressed our solidarity with the people of Israel and saw first-hand how funds raised by the Federation have provided a vast network of human services and educational programs in Israel.

Israel is a land of contrasts. From a point overlooking Jerusalem, one can see the Old City with its four quarters (Jewish, Muslim, Christian and Armenian), and the Temple Mount (which many believe is the place where God tested Abraham) with its Western Wall and the Dome of the Rock. There are synagogues near mosques near churches. It seems safe, but there is always the concern that danger could lurk. To some extent, we Americans are learning, post-9/11, the reality that Israelis live with everyday: Life goes on, despite the imminent threat of terrorism. That reality seems much more intense in Israel, given its small size, but the concern itself is really not much different from ours when we double-check our rear view mirror before turning into our driveway to make sure no one is following us.

Twenty-three Ethiopian Jews cross the stage to receive their high school diplomas at the Leo Baeck School in Haifa. Two of them are wearing Israeli Army uniforms and carrying rifles. Picture that in Houston. In Haifa, the audience applauds wildly. The students receive a standing ovation, which they deserve. In the past four years, they have learned Hebrew and English, assimilated into the culture of a modern society dramatically different from their Third-World roots, passed the rigorous exam required for high school graduation and joined the Israeli army to serve their country. The universal commitment to public service in Israel is impressive and so different from America.

At Hadassah Neurim village, at-risk students chow down in the cafeteria, then entertain visitors with a tour of their new bomb shelter. In Yoseftal-Dado, 55 low-income families celebrate 25 years of partnership with the Federation by welcoming us into their homes for dinner and conversation, even if they speak little English and we speak little Hebrew. Most have taken the day off from work to prepare multi-course meals for their guests. But it’s the experience of sharing a moment in their lives, their hospitality and generosity, that we will remember. We walk away, filled with plans to send our family books, toys – whatever we can to show our appreciation for their outpouring of affection.

While in Israel, I did what every first-timer does: I saw the sights. I toured the Golan Heights by jeep, climbed Masada, floated in the Dead Sea, touched the Wailing Wall. But because our trip was underwritten by the Federation, I connected with the people of Israel in a direct and personal way far different from the ordinary traveler.

The last time a large group of Houston Jews visited Israel was in February 2003. Then, on the eve of the war in Iraq and with continuing violence in Israel, it was a time of anxiety and despair. Yet, despite concerns, that group = half the size of ours – visited Israel without incident, returning with an enhanced understanding of their religious homeland. This visit, on the eve of a potential new breakthrough in reconciliation with the Palestinians, we saw a country of faith with multiple futures, now dependent on a multitude of internal and external variables. When we arrived in Israel, we found ourselves in the midst of these historic events events that are dramatically changing the landscape.

Why did our group travel to Israel? And, what did we actually see?

First, we saw how the apparent end of the violence and a possible permanent accommodation with the Palestinians is generally reflecting itself in optimism among the people of Israel. While the optimism is significant, it is not universal, and there are those in Israel who are concerned that an environment has developed similar to that which existed just prior to the 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. We saw that Israelis visualize completely different futures for the country, depending on the outcome of this latest peace process.

Second, we bonded with our fellow Jews in Israel. We visited ancient sites and came face-to-face with the history of the Jewish people – past, present and future. We found not only the roots of our Jewish faith, but also those of the other great religions. Israel is a source of spiritual revitalization for visitors of every faith.

Third, we reinforced the strong relationship between Israel and the United States. We saw and experienced a thriving, vibrant democracy with numerous newspapers, political parties and opinions. We saw many of the same leading high-tech companies in Israel that we see in California’s Silicon Valley, plus Israeli institutions focused on technical and scientific advancements in medicine, engineering and agriculture.

We saw the Hadassah hospitals and favorably compared their state-of-the-art medical facilities to the Texas Medical Center, while being impressed that they treat all individuals needing medical attention. It was clear to us that Israel’s accomplishments are the result of living in a western democracy, as contrasted to the lack of advancement in neighboring countries with their theocracies and totalitarian regimes.

We also saw a country of diversity, a country that in the last decade has successfully absorbed more than a million immigrants from the former Soviet Union, Ethiopia and other countries. Just as it has in the United States, the arrival of determined immigrants has strengthened Israel.

Finally, we experienced the indomitable spirit and compassion of the people of Israel. We noted that Israel, despite its own daily challenges, is always among the first countries to send aid and support to victims of tsunamis, earthquakes and acts of terror, wherever they occur.

No longer will I wonder why so many of my family and friends return time and time again to Israel when there are so many other places to explore. I understand now the magnetism of this tiny country, its invincible spirit. And I’m already planning my next trip.

(Reprinted from the Houston Chronicle)