The Bnai Zion Foundation is on a mission to build a more inclusive, healthy and vibrant Israel. Travelling from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, we discover the ways in which travel, interaction and sharing stories can break barriers both real and imagined.
Whether travelling for work, keeping up with friends' destination weddings or squeezing in family time across the globe, I make an effort to understand people and culture of each city far beyond what I read online, scroll on Instagram or watch in the news.
While Israel is deemed one of the fastest-growing destinations in the world, the country has lately received a bad rap. If we take the media at face value, it is a place of geopolitical conflict, ultra-religious pilgrimage and spring-break partygoers.
Earlier this year, however, I was able to experience firsthand a different side to the country when visiting the Bnai Zion Foundation. Located in the port city of Haifa, with clear views of the Syrian and Lebanese borders, this organisation's medical centre aims to help people regardless of religion, nationality, age or race.
In 2006, rockets struck the heart of Haifa, just a few feet from the hospital. It was then that Dr Amnon Rofe, CEO of the Bnai Zion Medical Centre, made it his mission to protect both patients and staff by building an underground, bomb-proof emergency room with a state-of-the-art neonatal unit.
"This hospital is an excellent example of coexistence," Rofe says with passion. "Christian Arabs, Muslim Arabs and Jews work side by side, treating everyone in the city of Haifa." It was a far cry from the Haifa I had read about, and I couldn't help but mentally compare this cohesive approach with the healthcare system in my homeland of America.
I later visited a factory on the West Bank that employed both Palestinians and Israelis. It was refreshing to hear the manager's strict "No politics inside the gate!" mantra as he candidly joked with us and showed me around. "We are like a family here; weddings, birthdays, babies - we celebrate them all." I thought to myself: is all this diplomacy just for show?
Yet each new visit seemed to reinforce this spirit of humanity. Another eye-opening project by the Bnai Zion Foundation is the Israel Elwyn Supported Living Services. I visited its complex in Jerusalem which serves more than 3,000 children and adults with disabilities throughout Israel every day. Unlike most homes for the disabled, Israel Elwyn provides them with tools to gain independence so they can eventually live and work in the community. After spending the morning here, I left with my heart full.
Of all my experiences in Israel, talking to people was the real highlight. From Jerusalem to Bethlehem, those I met were excited to show me their Israel. One of my fellow travellers, Elizabeth Savetsky, a Modern Orthodox Jewish mother of two from New York couldn't wait to take me to the Kotel (the Western Wall) for the first time. While I don't consider myself the religious type, I felt moved as I approached this living piece of history.
It was a feeling that I would experience again and again as I travelled around Israel - and that's part of the beauty of such conscious travel. How we interact with the world and find personal fulfilment are highly individual. As I explored this Middle Eastern country, my eyes were opened to the ways in which travel, interaction and sharing stories can break barriers both real and imagined. I was filled with optimism.