Pre-Pilgrimage Letter 3 of 3
Departure Date: June 12, 2012
Greetings!

Greetings in the Name of our Risen Lord.  

This is the last of three Pre-pilgrimage letters we will be sending before you leave to join us in the Holy Land. If you have missed #1 or #2 please let us know. This final letter is intended to give you pertinent information about meeting the group in the New York Airport, who you will meet when you arrive in Israel, and what to expect on your pilgrimage.  
At the New York Airport
You will be flying into the JFK airport in New York. It is a very large place. You will want to make your way to Terminal 4 and keep your eyes open for Tom Sofio, the representative from Franciscan University. CalendarHe will want to meet you at the departure gate beyond security and make sure everyone has arrived safely. If you see him please go up and introduce yourself.

Tom will have your official name tag and your Franciscan Program Book.

Placing the WHITE "Franciscan University Pilgrimage" luggage tag on your carry-on bag will help Tom to recognize you. The IVORY tag "Corporate Travel Service" can be placed on your checked luggage.

You'll be departing on El Al Airlines flight number 2 to Tel Aviv.
Wearing Name Tags
Just a reminder, after Tom gives you your name tag in New York, PLEASE wear it out in the open for the entire trip. This way you can spot your fellow pilgrims and meet them--it will be fun to see how many other people from your group are with you on the plane and in the airports. We have purchased very nice name tag holders and we think you will really like them.

The name tags help us to recognize each other, stay together, remember names, and most importantly: they are your ticket to meals, into holy sites, hotels, etc. If you forget to put them on, we will help by reminding you.

The name tags have a nice little pouch for carrying small items, but we suggest not carrying any valuables in them.
AirportArrival at Tel Aviv Airport
To arrive in Israel in the best condition possible-sleep well before leaving. Drink plenty of water.  Only drink alcohol in moderation on the plane. Don't hesitate to take a sleeping pill or something to help you sleep on the plane. You will have plenty of time to sleep the first night, but you may suffer jet lag, and we will begin early the next day.

Remember to make sure your luggage is checked through to your final destination. Put a copy of your name and ticket information inside your baggage (in addition to your luggage tag on the outside). Keep important items like medicine, money and one change of cloths in your carry-on baggage, just in case. 
At the Tel Aviv airport a "Smile Agent" will be holding up a sign reading "Steve Ray Group". They are the only ones (other than fellow travelers) allowed in the baggage claim and customs area. If anyone has problems or questions, you can can gather around him/her for assistance in getting through customs. The whole process is quite simple. You will:

1) get off the plane and take a long walk,
2) go through Passport Control (no sweat),
3) then to the luggage claim for your suitcases.
4) After that, walk effortlessly through Customs and
5) out into the Arrivals Hall. Go to the right as you exit Customs and you will see us waiting for you with our local guide, Amer.

We will be waiting for you in the Arrivals Hall. If you want to, smile and wave to our cameras so that your family and friends can see you on my blog later that day on a youtube video.

My Israeli cell phone is 054-212-6724, if you have any problems and need to contact me. The escort will have Amer's phone number too. If for some reason your flight arrives early and we are not there yet, just wait and we will be there in a few minutes.
PeoplePeople You'll Meet


Our Local Guide is Amer Shehadeh. He is one of the few Catholic local guides in the country and is undoubtedly the best. Amer, [ah-mare], will be one of the people you will meet at the airport. He lives in Nazareth and his family can trace their lineage back more than 400 years in the Holy Land. He is a gentleman and a scholar, with a real talent for sharing the knowledge he has in a fun and interesting way. Having him with us is a real blessing.


The bus driver will be Essam Malouf. He was handpicked to drive for us because of his skill, safety and professionalism. Essam is an excellent driver and a Catholic family man. People always comment on how smoothly he navigates the bus in all conditions, and how friendly and affable he is.

Fr. Bradley LePage will be celebrating daily Mass and prayers, providing opportunities for confession, renewing our baptismal vows, and so much more. A priest has a lot of important work to do, especially on our pilgrimages. Be sure to thank him for being a Catholic priest.

Fr. LePage has been to the Holy Land before, and we heard through the grapevine that he is a lot of fun to travel with. We even found this video on youtube of him leading a song on the bus during a previous trip.

 

Our local Escort is Philip Shehadi. He is Amer's son and is studying to be a dentist. He has helped us many times with our groups. He knows three languages (Arabic, Hebrew and English), but he is a very humble young man and doesn't speak much unless you have a question or need help with something. He may take a little while to warm up everyone, but is very friendly and ready to help. Be sure to introduce yourself.

You will meet many other people along the way. The people in Israel are generally very friendly, especially when they find out you are traveling with us. We have developed many friends in the Holy Land, so don't be surprised if people go above and beyond to make you feel comfortable and welcome.

Lastly, you should know ahead of time that Janet and I are terrible at remembering names. Please do not be offended. I even get the names of my kids mixed up. It is a mental block that I live with, so, again, please don't be offended. There will be a group of us all, including escorts, drivers, pilgrims and others. It will be impossible for me to come even close to remembering names. The name tags will be a big help for all of us (especially me)! 

Bus3On the Bus
We will load your luggage and take you on the 2 hour ride up to Tiberias -- to the Sea of Galilee! You will be very comfortable. It even has a refrigerator in the dashboard for cool bottles of water. Just drop $1 in and take your bottle of cold water out.  (You'll want to bring lots of single dollars to buy water during the day because it may be hot.)

Amer and I will introduce ourselves on the ride up to Galilee. We know you will be tired and will get you to bed as soon as possible.
Hotel4Arrival at the Hotel
Here is the procedure when we arrive our hotel:
  • The hotel will provide keys for your room and tags with room numbers for your luggage.
  • Please make sure your original luggage tags remain, and add the hotel's room tags on your luggage as soon as it is unloaded. 
  • The porters will take your luggage to your room as you relax.
  • Shortly after arrival, we will have dinner and a Mass and announce plans for the next day. This might fluctuate based on the arrival time of the last flight and what time the pilgrims arrive in Galilee.  
  • We will have a wake up call set for you the next morning, but set your own alarm too--just in case. We have an early start the first morning.  
For those who are interested in swimming, take advantage of the outdoor pool at the Galilee hotel, or even a dip in the Sea. In Jerusalem there is no pool in the hotel, but there is a nearby YMCA. The next opportunity for swimming will be towards the end of the trip in the Dead Sea...but that experience will be less like swimming and more like floating.
Meals11Meals and Water
You will not go hungry--that I promise! Meals are INCLUDED in your package along with some drinks. We will also have some very special dinners outside the hotels and many authentic and delicious lunches. Everyone is always very pleased. Remember that while the meals and tips are covered in the price, extra drinks are not. Also, if you felt the service was good or the meal exceptional, the servers feel appreciated if you leave a little extra tip as a thank you.

The lunches will be at some of our favorite restaurants. You will get to experience a wide range of fresh foods, including St. Peter's fish, Falafel, Schwarma, Druze bread, Middle Eastern Salads, and more.

As we mentioned earlier, you will have access to lots of water, and we encourage you to drink plenty because it will be warm. Take advantage of the $1 bottled water on the bus. Also, keep an empty bottle or two while in Galilee for gathering water from the Jordan River. This is also a nice souvenir and useful for adding to baptismal fonts back home.
Flexibility5Flexibility with Schedule and Itinerary
We have not provided a detailed itinerary for a reason. Record crowds are pouring into Israel this year. We will have other tour groups to contend with and we need to be flexible to work around them.

Thanks in advance for being flexible and allowing us to adjust the schedule as we go. We will maneuver the events to help you see as much as possible, in the most relaxed manner possible.  We will share the schedule with you as soon as we are able, and most nights we will post the following day's schedule in the hotel lobby for you to review it if you wish.
Promptness6Promptness - (Important)
Moving our group around is very easy with our system when everyone cooperates. We usually will leave each morning around 8 AM, though some days vary depending on the itinerary.

We will notify you of the wake up time at dinner the night before and have it posted in the Lobby. Everyone is required to be on the bus and ready to go a few minutes before the specified time. We leave right on time.

On the morning that we celebrate Mass at the Tomb of Christ, we wake before dawn. Many people say this special event is the highlight of their trip. Because of the early hour, we suggest you bring a small flashlight to brighten your path as we walk through the streets of Jerusalem in the starlight.

Late arrivers are left behind! If anyone is late they will have to catch up with us in a taxi--we have a tight schedule and don't want everyone to suffer because of lateness on the account of a few. We will always notify the front desk where we are going, so that anyone who misses the bus can call a cab and catch up with us.

This is also the case for everyone arriving late to the bus after visiting each site. Some people like to wander off for shopping or exploring. This holds up the bus for punctual pilgrims and puts us behind schedule. So, I want to emphasize the importance of promptness while touring. There will be time for shopping in Bethlehem and free time in Jerusalem. You will see the benefits of our schedule as the pilgrimage progresses.
Shopping10Shopping
PLEASE bring plenty of $1 and $5 bills. This will be extremely helpful to make exact change for many things. Water on the bus is available for $1, while many of the simple souvenirs you will want are $1 each.

We recommend you not carry large sums of cash or valuables. There are pickpockets, like in any other country, including our own. We will be constantly vigilant on your behalf and will warn you of places especially prone to pickpockets. But is it best to travel light.
We know that many people want to shop for Holy Land souvenirs and gifts to bring home memories, buy for friends, and to help the Christians of the Holy Land.

During the trip we will We will provide plenty of time for shopping and will take you to trusted shops with Christian owners, genuine products and reliable shipping. It is best to be cautious when buying from unknown shops and street vendors. We may tell you some horror stories of experiences that we try to help you avoid.

We reserve most of our shopping for Bethlehem for several reasons:
  • The are honest, reputable and have good products
  • Buying from them helps support 65 Christian families
  • In Bethlehem you do not have to pay the 17% tax
  • When they ship things for you they always arrive and they guarantee their services (not found everywhere in the Middle East, believe me)
  • They have good restrooms
  • Efrem will recite the Our Father in Aramaic, the language of Jesus
  • They will take us on a tour of the factory where the olive wood products are manufactured.

We will also have time for shopping in a few other places where you can buy Jewish products, Dead Sea Skin products, Hebron glass, rams horns, books, and much more. We will also make sure you can ride camels if you want to.

Please do NOT wander into shops as we are moving through the holy sites. It causes great loss of time and makes it difficult to find everyone and get loaded for the next site.

We will limit the shopping during the pilgrimage-to save a LOT of time and hopefully get everyone back the hotels with time each day to catch your breath and rest (or swim, or pray, or explore) before dinner. If more shopping is desired, we can provide an optional trip on the second to the last day for those interested. You will have free time to wander through the Old City of Jerusalem at the end of the pilgrimage.

During some free time, many people will wander through the Old City on their own to explore, shop, and to pray at the Holy Sepulchre. It is wise to avoid buying expensive things in the Old City since there are often items which are not what they appear to be. Gold is often not gold, diamonds not diamonds, and icons not authentic. Also, just use cash, since it is not uncommon for "zeros" to be added to checks and credit card forms.

Remember that all the street vendors and peddlers are Muslims. Most of the shops in the Old City are also owned by Muslims.  After Christians buy from Muslim peddlers they often curse us and Our Lord as we are walking away. We tend to avoid buying from the vendors for several reasons which we will explain on the bus. We are here to support our fellow Christians as much as possible.

Another note: It is wise to contact your credit card provider to warn them if you will be using it overseas and give them the exact dates. Otherwise, it is common for them to de-activate your card when they think someone else might be using it.
BuesSeats8We Don't Reserve Seats on the Bus
Each morning all the seats are "up for grabs" or "first come, first serve". Most people like to rotate seats and move around on the bus during the pilgrimage.

Once you have chosen seats in the morning-they are your seats for the rest of the day. But all seats are again open to everyone the next morning.

The only exception is that we need to keep  the 8 front seat open for the leadership team.
Whisper7Whisper Sets
These are like radio headsets with one earbud and a volume control. We are the only group that I know of in Israel that provides these for everyone. I will carry a small transmitter and microphone which will be clearly heard on your earphone. With this cool system, we will not have to shout over other groups or gather into crushing huddles to hear. Plus it will allow me talk to you even in places where we are not allowed to talk. It helps me direct you through the streets when we are walking.

Each pilgrim is responsible for their headset and will sign for them on the first day. Please guard them jealously, we rent them and the replacement cost for your lost or damaged headset is $100.
Rosary8The Rosary, Singing, and Catholicism
If you want, we provide Rosaries for you to purchase for $30 a dozen on the first day so you can touch your Rosaries on all the Holy Sites starting at the Mountain of the Transfiguration early the first morning. The Rosaries are made of olive wood by nuns in Bethlehem. 

We encourage you to carry the Rosaries with you at all times to touch each holy site throughout the trip. By the end of the pilgrimage, they will have touched all the sites related to the Mysteries of the Rosary and the life of Jesus and Mary that we've visited. At the end they will be blessed by our priests and you can give them to family and friends as marvelous gifts. They will become 3rd class relics.

Click here to see a tentative list of all the places your Rosaries will touch and the places where we will pray each Mystery of the Rosary.

We encourage prayer and singing along the way to enhance our spiritual experience. We are free to sing in most of our liturgies (but NOT in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre). Our priest will lead devotions, prayers, and the Rosary at the sites and on the bus. We all want you to have a wonderful time and we will do all we can to facilitate a deeply spiritual experience for you all.

I have been known to get choked up with tears in my eyes--still, after all these trips. But, nobody wants me to start singing--if I did everyone would cover their ears and run for shelter. But, there is usually a few on each pilgrimage who can sing well and lead us in song and the Rosary at various holy sites and during Mass.

In your Pilgrimage Handbook, and also in the Franciscan Program Book, you will have many of the favorite songs pilgrims like to sing on pilgrimage. If you decide to request a song in the handbook, please notify everyone, so we can all join in and the song won't trail off when everyone forgets the words.

While everyone is welcome to join our pilgrimages, it should be clearly understood that the pilgrimages are distinctly and unabashedly Catholic. Janet and I are converts to the Catholic faith from the Baptist tradition. Along the way I will share my conversion story, explain the differences between Catholicism and other religions and denominations. While I have respect for other religions and traditions, I do explain their weaknesses and problems--and that I have discovered the Catholic Church to be the fullness of the Christian truth and faith. As long as non-Catholics understand the emphasis of this pilgrimage--to walk in the footprints of Jesus and Mary, and to explain and defend the fullness of the faith in the Catholic Church--and are willing to cooperate and join our adventure, we are glad to have them join us.
Optional13Optional Day Trip
One of the last days of our pilgrimage will be an open day. You'll have some flexibility on this day, but we encourage everyone to join us on a wonderful optional excursion.

During the trip we will visit the Old City Model from the time of Christ, swim in the Dead Sea, visit Qumran where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered, and tour Jericho. There will also be camels in the desert on this day. If you choose to ride one it is lots of fun and a great photo opportunity. The cost for this optional trip is $100 per person which will be collected early in the pilgrimage.

The time for the excursion is usually from about 7:30 AM - 5 PM. If you chose not to take the day-trip, you can do whatever you wish on the free day: hire a cab to visit the environs of Jerusalem, stay in the Old City to explore and pray, sleep, or shop. Most of the pilgrims decide to join the trip and always think it is well worth it, but we want you to have the option to spend more time in Jerusalem if you wish. Once the ticket price is paid, it is non-refundable, since we will have already purchased the tickets and arrangements with our vendors.
Other Notes on Heath & Safety
Israel is a modern, developed country, with good hospitals, pharmacies and better cell phone coverage than we have in the USA. However, when traveling anywhere, there is always the chance that your digestion may not appreciate the new foods or bacteria it encounters.

The tap water in our hotels and the restaurants is certainly safe to drink, but when we are out-and-about it is wise to drink bottled water just in case. Again, not that the local water is bad--it is actually very good, but, like any water, it may have unfamiliar bacteria.
If you tend to have a sensitive digestive system, bring some Imodium just in case. Very seldom do our pilgrims have any problem with diarrhea, and the few times it has happened in the past it was not severe.


Finally, for those of you who may have nervous butterflies, I thought you might appreciate hearing some of the comments from the people who traveled with us to the Holy Land just a few weeks ago. You can see and hear them talk about how wonderful and safe Israel is: CLICK HERE

Janet and I will be in Israel before you making sure everything is in place. If you have any questions please contact Suzanne or Jean  at Corporate Travel Service 1(800) 727-1999 x121 or x150.  Also, my cell phone in the Israel is 054-212-6724.

We are excited to see you in the Holy Land. We will meet you in the arrivals hall at the airport. Remember to turn right as you exit customs.


Shalom,
Steve & Janet Ray

PS: Here are some interesting and helpful websites you may be interested in:
www.Weather.com for weather forecasts in Tiberius, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, & everywhere else.
www.GoIsrael.com travel info
www.Magellans.com for helpful info and travel supplies
www.TravelSmith.com for helpful info and travel supplies
www.BiblePlaces.com pictures and info for hundreds of sites in the biblical world
www.inisrael.com virtual tours of sites in Israel
www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org Virtual Jewish Library