Heading Home

imageimageIt is the last day of our Senior Project. After saying goodbye to our Friends in Ramallah, we drove down to the west, to Jericho. A sign at the entrance to the city announces that Jericho is the oldest city in the world, 10,000 years old. Overlooking it is the barren, steep mountain where the story of Jesus’ temptation by the devil occurred. There is a monastery perched on the mountainside. We hiked up as far as we could, to an ice cream shop (yes, this is a land of contradictions!) overlooking Jericho and the Jordan Valley down to the Red Sea. We visited the ruins of Hisham’s Palace, which was destroyed by an earthquake in 749 AD, and then drove south Continue reading “Heading Home”

Ramallah Friends

On Sunday we left Jerusalem and drove to Ramallah, in the West Bank. I was very excited to arrive at the school with which we have had ImageImage a strong connection for decades. We arrived in time to attend Meeting for Worship, which gave us a rare opportunity for quiet reflection in the beautiful Meetinghouse in town with members of the meeting and several visiting Friends. We were greeted warmly there by Jean Zaru, Clerk of Ramallah Friends Meeting and a longtime Palestinian peace activist. While the Meeting is small, its witness and outreach are very large. After meeting, Jean shared some inspiring reflections with us on the importance of recognizing the interrelatedness and interconnectedness of all people. She emphasized that the spiritual basis of peace work is the “indwelling divinity of all people,” or that of God in all persons. This inclusive spirituality is not only a gift for the individual – it gives each of us responsibility to recognize the face of God in every human we meet, and to ensure that their human rights and dignity not be trampled. She pointed out that compassion is found in all religions, and urged us to look for things that unite us and give us a way to act together. “If we know what we are standing on,” she said, it leads us to action. “I commit myself to the otherness of the other.” Continue reading “Ramallah Friends”

Living Stones


We returned to Jerusalem this evening after two days in Beit Sahour and Bethlehem, in the southern part of the West Bank. We are inside the walls of the Old City, which is becoming famiIiar as I begin to get my bearings on our third time here. It was also nice to be able to take a hot shower here in the guest house after two long days on the road! I continue to be impressed with the cohesiveness, engagement, and positive spirit of our group and the visionary planning and organization that Jon and Melissa Graf Evans have done in organizing this Senior Project. Our days have been packed with meetings, conversations, lectures, tours, and visits to holy sites and museums.  I have been wanting to see Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, for a long time. Seeing and hearing the portrayal of the persecution of the Jews and the personal stories from the ghettos and death camps, realizing that the accounts that we can hear are an unimaginably small fraction of the victims, was heartbreaking. I was thrilled to dip my toes in the Sea of Galilee; and standing in a circle  outside the church on the Mount of the Beatitudes and reading from the Sermon on the Mount on a beautiful sunny afternoon was  simply breathtaking. I have been excited to see the Dome of the Rock and the churches in Jerusalem, Galilee, and Bethlehem. I have been struck by the walls:  the Western Wall, the walls of churches, temples, and mosques…I have seen pilgrims touch or kiss the thresholds of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Church of the Nativity, and the Wailing Wall, and a Druze Temple with great devotion…I have seen the “Security Wall” covered with graffiti as it cuts across Palestinian neighborhoods and refugees camps. There are walls that divide and walls that connect.

On our first night in Beit Sahour we met with a group of Palestinian students and shared a delicious dinner. Some beautiful traditional Debke dancing was followed by lively participation by the whole group and a birthday cake for Nate. Afterwards we split up for the first of our two homestays. We were welcomed with warmth and generosity by our host families, and had the opportunity to talk on a personal level about their lives and what we’ve been learning and experiencing. One of our hosts said to me, “Many people come to visit the holy sites, but they don’t take the time to meet and connect with people. Beyond the stones of the church itself – what about the people who worship there – the living stones?”

Our Senior Project is affording us amazing opportunities to see the sites and the rugged beauty of the land, and to get to know and hear the stories of people who live and work and struggle and celebrate life and seek peace and justice here. I believe that education like this, in which we connect with and learn from people who live halfway around the world and on both sides of this enormously complex conflict, who sometimes even can’t or won’t talk to each other, can make a difference. Tomorrow after breakfast we head to Ramallah to attend Meeting for Worship, visit Ramallah Friends School, and stay again with host families.

From a poem by Maya Angelou that was spray-painted on the Wall outside the Palestinian  refugee camp in Bethlehem:

“Love recognizes no boundaries

It jumps hurdles, leaps fences.  penetrates walls

To arrive at the destination of hope.”


imageHere is our group on the roof of a mosque in Barta’a, a town in the West Bank that is divided in two by the “Green Line,” the border which differentiates between areas administered as part of Israel and those administered by the Israeli military or the Palestinian Authority. As we are seeing, this is both a place where the holiest sites in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are literally on top of each other and a pivotal battleground of global issues of peace and human rights. If that sounds like a paradox, it is. We are being exposed to a mosaic of views, each person telling us their truth, each one important. After our visits to the holy sites Sunday we took a bus tour of East Jerusalem, and saw “Where the Sidewalk Ends” – along with the public transportation, garbage collection, and many other services – in Palestinian neighborhoods. We saw “the Wall” that our Jewish hosts on our first night in Israel call a necessary anti-terrorism measure, but which has divided neighborhoods and families, impoverished, and humiliated Palestinians. At the end of the day our guide said that “finding a just peace between Israelis and Palestinians is about as easy as driving a bus in East Jerusalem.”

The next day Lydia Eisenberg, who works with Givat Haviva, an Israeli peace education organization, gave us a tour of her kibbutz,  Mishmar HaEmek, and its museum and took us to Barta’a. She told us that her goal was to get us to put ourselves in the place of the other. She did a good job – and so did our students. They are knowledgeable, inquisitive, engaged, and prepared. All of them have studied World Religions, and many have studied the Middle East conflict in their History and Current Events courses, and they are enjoying learning about them first-hand, and so am I. Their wisdom and compassion are remarkable. The most powerful part of our experience with Lydia for me was meeting at the Holocaust Memorial at the kibbutz, looking at the sculpture of a mother reaching down to protect her child. The sculpture itself has bullet holes in it from the war in 1948 which have intentionally never been repaired. Lydia shared her own experience as a mother during the Six Day War, and then reflected on the pain of both the Jews and the Palestinians – “Two nations that the world didn’t want…you’d think they would get together and create peace.” She urged us to do all we can so that no children will have to go through what her children and Palestinian children have experienced.

Time for bed- tomorrow is another big day. We are getting up at six am to go to the Dome of the Rock, and after checking out of our hotel, to the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, Yad Vashem.

The Holy City

imageI woke up yesterday morning in Jerusalem to the sound of doves cooing outside. It was the start of a stunning day in the Holy City. Sitting here again in the quiet hotel with everyone I their rooms, it’s hard to believe all that we have already experienced, and difficult to conceive of what we have to look forward to. After breakfast (we’ve been eating delicious hummus at every meal!) walked to the Old City from our hotel, passing through Herod’s gate. When I first set eyes on the Wailing Wall was I felt that we had truly arrived. We could see the Dome of the Rock over the Western Wall, and our guide pointed out that we were in the midst of the most sacred and sensitive places in the world.

We split into male and female groups to approach the Wall, and I made my way up  with a group of boys. Each of us donned a kippa, and we wove our way gingerly through throngs of  fervently praying men and boys. We each wrote a note on a page torn from my journal; I wrote a prayer and put it into a fissure as high over my head as I could reach: “Let there be peace on Earth, and let it begin with me.”  Stepping back from the Wall, I sat in a plastic chair to take it all in.  I closed my eyes and was engulfed in all of the sounds surrounding me –  passionate praying and loud chanting and the singing of the birds perched on the Wall. I opened my eyes and an elderly man in Orthodox garb smiled at me. I no longer felt like a stranger or a tourist – I felt a connection. The rest of our morning included walking the Via Dolorosa (Way of Sorrows) and visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, as well as King David’s Tomb and the Upper Room on Mount Zion. There is so much to see and to absorb- and to do so in the company of such a fine of seniors and adults is truly a gift. More to come!


Our dog, Io, is worried. He has seen the duffle bag come out of the closet. What’s happening? I am getting ready to head off with a wonderful group of twenty members of the Class of 2014 on a Senior Project in Israel and Palestine. In my twelve years here I have been on one other Senior Project, to New Orleans to do relief work after Hurricane Katrina in 2006, and I loved it. Senior Projects exemplify the action-based, experiential learning we do at Westtown, and ever since this trip was conceived and approved six years ago, I have wanted to go. But it has never seemed quite the right time. Each time I’ve considered it, I ended up saying, “Next year in Jerusalem.” But this year, with the support of the Head of School Advisory Committee of the Board, and of my administrative colleagues, I planned to go, and I have been attending the planning meetings, along with my wife, Aminda, for the past two months. A former religion teacher, I am fascinated by the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim sites we will see in the Holy Land, by the opportunity to learn about the contemporary political, cultural, and religious situation, and to visit our sister school, Ramallah Friends, in Palestine. I have so much to learn from the people we will meet, and from the students in the group, and our leaders, Jon and Melissa Evans, who lived in Jerusalem for five years and have a wealth of friends and contacts in the region, and History Chair Deb Wood.  This morning in Meeting for Worship, I was moved by the Upper School choir’s beautiful singing: “I want to be ready to walk in Jerusalem, just like John.” Yes, I want to be ready, mentally, spiritually, with a open mind, open hands, and an open heart. I’m sure it will be a life-changing experience for all of us. Now I’ve got some packing to do. Don’t worry Io, we’ll be back soon!  John Baird