We’re marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of Israel with a year-long celebration! Keep an eye out for “Memphis Celebrates Israel at 70” branding at your synagogue, at events around town, and online. In this series, we’re asking Memphians to tell their personal Israel stories. Do you have a story to tell?
I stood in awe in that small conference room, where on May 14, 1948, David Ben-Gurion, as head of the Jewish Agency, declared to the world that, by proclamation, there was now The State of Israel and the world had better get used to it.
On that very same night, U.S. President Harry Truman declared the unrelenting support of the United States for Israel’s security. Behind Ben-Gurion was a picture of Theodor Herzl, the father of political Zionism. I felt as a nobody, standing and viewing the the very podium from which the State of Israel was born.
My story does not begin here, nor does it end here. As a Christian, I feel a closeness to Israel and its citizens- there in Israel, here in Memphis, and across the world.
My ‘baptism’ in the faith that the Lord God protects His own began in December of 1988. I have completed seventeen study and archaeological trips to Israel, but this trip was one of the most memorable. I was a ticketed passenger with a reserved seat for my return trip to the U.S. on Pan Am flight 103, but I had a real desire to spend another Christmas in Bethlehem. I had been invited by the personnel of the Eye and Vision Hospital in Bethlehem to attend a Christmas tea with those British Medical folks, so I cancelled my return reservations for December 21 and moved my flight to December 29. I paid Pan Am the $50 penalty for a reservation change.
I usually rent a KIA automobile by the month when I am covering the Land with my shovel and camera. So, on December 21, I was in two feet of snow on the top of Mount Herman in the north of Israel. I had been warned by the IDF soldiers manning the watch station over the border that I should not leave my auto during the night. So very cold- I would run the car’s heater for fifteen minutes of each hour to nip some of the frost- and to guarantee staying awake, I would rely on the radio.
Nothing but Arabic language broadcasts, until I found the BBC from London. They kept giving news about a plane being blown up over Lockerbie, Scotland. It took several of the fifteen-minute broadcasts before I realized that Pan Am 103 was my reserved flight. I knew that I MUST phone back to the States to assure my family that I was alive and not one of the 270 people killed by that terrorist bomb. I later learned Rabbi Micah Greenstein reported that a congregant of Temple was one of the casualties.
How do I get to a phone to make an international call? I carefully left Mount Herman and crossed the northern Galilee by night. I knew that I could find a hotel in Haifa and could make a call from there. No luck- it was wintertime and the hotels were closed as there were no guests. I was turned away.
Remembering back in Nazareth, there was a convent and I had seen a guest room there, so I proceeded to The Sisters of Nazareth Convent where I was warmly received. After proper documentation, they allowed me to make my call. Overhearing my conversation, they gave me that room for the night and they went into a special prayer session glorifying God for my safety. All 23 of these little Italian nuns praying for me- that will lift your spirits.
On my way back to my favorite place to stay in South Jerusalem, The Ecumenical Study Center at Tantur, I saw in the distance off the road a radio broadcast tower which had brightly colored lights wishing a “Very Happy New Year.’ I had held up very well until I saw that greeting- after all I was a Marine combat sergeant who had survived bloody battles in Korea. I then broke down, pulled off the road, and cried like a baby.
When I arrived at Tantur, I told of my deliverance and they asked me to lead Vespers that night. Surely I did- my friends, all those priests. When I left for home, I asked what I could do for them. They asked for a pulpit bible and some hymnals. When I got back to Memphis, I went to the Baptist book store at Cloverleafe Center. The pulpit bibles were priced at $110.00, slightly above what I had expected, but I noticed a 10% sign above the table and price below $100 was a little more attractive, so I checked out and was astonished that the price was 10% of the original, not 10% off. So, I got a beautiful bible for $11.00.
For the song books, another story. I asked at Kirby Woods Baptist Church, where I had been a Deacon for three decades about some used hymnals, and none were available. I then asked at Christ United Methodist Church and sure, they had as many boxes as I wanted. 50 brand new Methodist hymnals. I mailed these two heavy boxes to Jerusalem. They had to go through the Arab Post Office in the Arab Quarter, and there my Catholic friends could pick them up.
Can you imagine: as we celebrate Israel’s 70th birthday, that a Baptist Deacon could supply a Catholic institution, owned by the Vatican, with a King James Pulpit Bible and 50 Methodist hymnals, all going through an Arab Post Office in the Arab Quarter of East Jerusalem? A year later, I checked and they were gratefully using the bible and hymnals. Glory to our God!