Sitting in the comfort of an air-conditioned bus is, I have discovered, a fabulous place from which to watch the ever-changing scenery as it passes by. As we drove south, the countryside gradually became drier and more barren; by the time we neared Masada, it was quite a lunar landscape –Southern Israel’s Judean Desert. There are allegedly nine Hebrew words for desert and this habitat constitutes more than a third of the country of Israel. The desert around Masada is made of rock rather than sand dunes and we heard about the plants’ adaptations to reduce water loss to survive in these harsh conditions. The only crop plants visible were date palms, which we saw were rigged up with net bags to catch the fruit once it has ripened in the sun and falls off the tree. describes Masada as “a natural fortress built on top of a barren, mountainous desert plateau thousands of feet above the Dead Sea”. That sort of height made the cable car by far the most exciting way to travel up to the plateau overlooking the Dead Sea and, given the forecast 41-degree temperature, eminently more sensible than attempting the footpath. We wandered through the ruins of King Herod’s Palace, including a bath house with beautiful mosaic floors and marvelled over the way the buildings have been thoughtfully restored. The history of the Jewish heroes who took refuge in the fortress against the Romans is testimony to the courage of Jews who rather than succumb to the Romans committed mass suicide. Masada is a symbol of Israeli determinism and heroism.  

At the Vert Hotel, we collected our towels and walked a short distance across the beach to the Dead Sea. The temperature had reached 41 by now and the hard sand was hot; even the water of the lake was tepid. The pain of walking over the rocky salt crystals was worth it once you were in the lake itself; it was a very strange feeling to be immersed in such a dense liquid, which felt oily and warm. I was stunned to find that even I floated! For someone who has always had negative buoyancy (the second I stop swimming, I find myself sinking to the bottom of any pool) it was really exciting to actually float. It was the weirdest feeling – as if you were on a lilo even though you knew you weren’t. I’m guessing this is what zero gravity would feel like.

After some photographs, a cooling dip in the standard, not salty swimming pool was welcome, and a lovely lunch concluded our time at the Dead Sea. Driving back to Jerusalem, we had to be on time for once (the group has not been the best at keeping to our schedule) as the time for Shabbat commencing was obviously non-negotiable.

Before the sun went down over Jerusalem, we joined other delegates from America, Canada and South Africa in the park, for a musical Kabalat Shabbat. A fabulous young ‘cellist played, accompanied by a guitarist and flautist. We listened, sang and read from the siddurim provided, sitting on rugs on the grass. It was an evening imbued with atmosphere and feeling. Shabbat in Jerusalem was always going to be a very special time, and this was no disappointment. We walked home via the Great Synagogue and admired the marvelous stained-glass window.

The day concluded with a lecture by Yosef Hada – ‘A traitor or a hero – my double identity’. The young man told us of his story as an Israeli Arab who voluntarily completed his National Service for Israel and how others, Israeli and Arab felt about this. His love of his country was evident, and it was a thought-provoking end to another day in this country of conundrums.