From Mississippi to Israel ’23: An expanded view (Part 3)

Published 11:15 am Monday, June 5, 2023

By Cara Scott, Grove City College (Penn.) ’24

(Ed. note: Oxford native Scott, a freelance writer on a trip to Israel, is sharing this oversea adventure with us.)

The five days I spent in Jerusalem at the end of my time in Israel were, as promised, very different from what I had experienced thus far.

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My group spent most of our time in the Old City of Jerusalem, enclosed by ancient walls and accessible only by ancient gates. There were bazaars, holy sites and ruins at every turn. Everything was built out of beige stone. In many ways, the Old City felt like a busier version of the small European towns I’ve visited.

But what set Jerusalem apart? Whenever I leave the U.S., I’m enamored with the cultural differences I experience: different languages, different mores, different food. Every time, I expect these differences, but they still surprise me.

What set my experiences in Jerusalem apart was the fact that these cultural differences were so much more pronounced because of the religious differences that accompanied them. Jewish men wore hats or yarmulkes, black coats and tassels, while women wore long skirts, leggings and wigs.

Being from Mississippi and thus never having encountered a community of practicing Jews, this was unfamiliar to me. I was more familiar with the hijabs and burkas I saw Muslim women wearing, but the melodic calls to prayer I heard issuing from mosques several times a day were totally foreign. So were the eerie green lights that illuminated the minarets around the city at night.

The Christian churches, too, were unlike anything I had seen before. I’ve visited my fair share of ornate cathedrals, but the Eastern Orthodox and Coptic churches here in Jerusalem were far more mesmerizing with their incense, icons and hundreds of hanging oil lamps.

I tried to immerse myself as much as possible. I sat at the Western Wall one night, deeply moved as I watched the Jewish women around me weep, sway and press their faces into their prayer books.

Although I could not enter the Dome of the Rock or the Al-Aqsa Mosque as a non-Muslim, I was able to enter Temple Mount with my college group to observe them from the outside.

I visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre three times, spending the most time in the Orthodox chapels which were new to me.

When I left Israel, I had as many questions as when I arrived, but their nature had changed. I arrived curious about Israeli culture as I had learned to be curious about secular cultures: What are typical Israeli family traditions? What is the political climate in Israel? What do Israelis my age do for fun?

After seeing the nation for myself, I am now curious about the interactions between Judaism, Islam and Christianity, three religions that began from the same source and exist in such high concentrations in the little city of Jerusalem.

Never before had I visited such a religious society, so I had no way of expecting what I observed. I hope to return so I can continue learning about how Israel’s ancient religious past informs its contemporary religious present.

I travel so that I might be changed by the new environments I experience, and never has the way I think about religion been so challenged and changed as it was by experiencing Israel.

Go back to Part 2

Go back to Part 1