As I place my note in the Western Wall, I’m overwhelmed by an atmosphere of utter devotion. That air of calm, of space, of serenity and intimacy. Around me, people are writing messages that you know come from deep within their soul.
The experience is as emotional as it is spiritual. The impact of standing there at what is essentially the crossroads of all the continents and faiths is difficult to put into words.
I’ve been to the Vatican in Rome, I’ve been to cathedrals, I’ve been to the Süleymaniye Mosque in Istanbul — but the impact of a visit to the Kotel is unique.
This was my first time visiting Israel, much to everyone’s surprise. I have an enormous affinity with the Jewish community because my upbringing — with an Italian Swiss dad — was also centred around the family. (It felt as if a bit of Italian-Swiss blood helped me get through the queue at Ben Gurion airport.)
When it comes to the big issues involving Israel, I call it as I see it. But what I was so keen to see with my own eyes was this country that so many of my radio show callers have been telling me about with such great affection, for so many years.
I had planned to visit Israel twice before. The Intifada stopped me the first time. On the other occasion, Boris Johnson, who was then the Mayor of London, changed our travel plans. However, when I met ORT UK trustee Mark Mishon and CEO Dan Rickman, they offered me a proposition I couldn’t refuse: a spot of R&R in Tel Aviv, a tour of Jerusalem and a visit to one of ORT’s unique schools near the coastal town of Ashkelon.
Touring Jerusalem was something I’d always wanted to do, but the reality beat any expectations out of the park. There’s a sense of spirituality throughout; an extraordinary sense of being. It was quite incredible as a Christian to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where Christ’s body was laid.
And my biblical education even continued in the shuk, where I was handed a fresh pomegranate juice (despite ordering a Sea Breeze) and learnt from the seller about the 613 seeds, corresponding to the commandments of the Torah.
While still trying to process all that I’d seen, I met local resident Arieh Hauser, a Holocaust survivor originally from Poland, who credits ORT with making his entire livelihood as an electrician possible.
He told me that in 1947 he joined an ORT school in the Displacement Camp in Wetzler, Germany, where he studied electrical engineering. He then moved to Israel to fight in the War of Independence and continued his studies with ORT in Tel Aviv.
Following that encounter, I was keen to see what an ORT school looks like today. I was taken to World ORT Kadima Mada’s Kfar Silver Youth Village, which lies on a huge area of agricultural land 30km from the Gaza Strip.
Having been educated in the UK and having had kids in schools here and the US, I was expecting a conventional school. What I wasn’t expecting was greenhouses, cow sheds, chickens and goats! One minute these children are milking cows, the next they’re learning about quantum physics in the classroom.
The campus is tremendously high tech. The idea is that the kids have a vocational training option that will guide them towards economic independence. What struck me was that the ones who struggled in the classroom came alive when they were with the farm animals. They loved riding the horses — all of which arrived in a terrible condition and have now been rehabilitated and look like grand national winners.
All the kids had individual stories to tell of how they arrived at the youth village. A lot of them are from Russia, the former Soviet Union and Africa. Many were there without their parents, some waiting for their parents to come.
But there was a tremendous kinship. All were absolutely determined to better themselves and make the most of the opportunity. One of the children told me he felt like he’d been in a concrete jungle until he came to the youth village. Being in an open space liberates you not just physically and emotionally but intellectually too.
As I left the school behind and headed to the airport, I had time to reflect on my 48 hours in Israel. The trip had delivered more than my greatest hopes. I had travelled from historical sites and monuments that leave you breathless with excitement and spent time with young people who are so dedicated and motivated.
I’d been given an insight into a country that I’ve always admired and I now revered because of what it has achieved. And I’d only scratched the surface.
If you’d like to hear more about my incredible experience and watch exclusive footage from the trip, join me at the ORT UK Annual Dinner 2019 (email here).