EILAT, Israel (NNS) -- Sailors and Marines aboard the amphibious assault ship USS America (LHA 6) enjoyed liberty during a scheduled port visit to Eilat, Israel October 5-9, a rare opportunity for a U.S. Navy vessel.
Thousands of years of history are embedded in the city of Jerusalem. Its stone walls, erected hundreds of years ago by King Solomon, still guard the city today. Although the city has evolved and been modernized throughout the years, its history and heritage have remained intact. Its past holds meaning worldwide. Its streets are packed with thousands of tourists grasping at the opportunity to experience the city's culture and analyze its historical significance.
More than 1,500 crew members had the chance to visit the city of Jerusalem and tour its many, churches, synagogues, mosques and other significant historical and religious sites. Crew members also visited the Dead Sea while on tours provided by the ship's afloat recreation program.
Others took advantage of an opportunity to profess their faith by being baptized in the Jordan River.
Lt. Cmdr. Jim Myers, the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) chaplain aboard America, conducted 18 of the baptisms, October 7, to help Sailors and Marines recommit their faith.
"For a long time, I wasn't sure if being baptized was a promise I was ready to make," said Chief Religious Program Specialist Maria Loza, assigned to the chaplains office with the 15th MEU. "However, this was a special opportunity, and after speaking with one of the chaplains, I decided I was ready to make that commitment."
The Jordan River is said to be the place where Jesus Christ was baptized and taught the gospel. For this reason, thousands of people are baptized in the river each year. It has become a holy monument that has stood through the passing of time, allowing patrons to walk in the same places they have only ever read about.
"The Jordan River is the vertex of many Christian teachings and traditions," said Loza. "When Jesus was baptized there it created a tradition that has almost become a necessity for Christians. It's not very common for our ship to be able to visit here, and some of us may never have another chance to see this place."
Following the baptism, the crew members packed up and boarded their buses to begin the second part of their pilgrimage. A local tour guide came over the bus's loudspeaker system telling them about the rich history of the land and what was in store for the riders in Jerusalem.
"When I tell you that it's a meaningful day, I mean it is a meaningful day," said the tour guide. "You are about to do something that the Christian world has only dreamed of doing for the last 2,000 years. We're going to see Jerusalem as Jesus saw it from the Mt. of Olives."
Before entering the city, they made a stop along the outskirts where they were given the opportunity to snap photos of the panoramic, majestic views of the city from afar.
They then returned to the bus and proceeded as closely as possible before trekking on foot into the city, where crewmembers were able to interact with local people and explore the city's vibrant history and culture.
The locals wore both traditional and modern clothes in a manner that can be perceived as a mix of old and new traditions and values. The culture of Jerusalem is vibrant with sculptures and architecture expressing all manners of faith.
"It was unlike anything I had ever experienced before,'" said Cryptologic Technician (Technical) 3rd Class Marcos Olivarez, a Sailor assigned to America's command, control, computers, communication, cyber and intelligence department. "It was surreal to see and walk through buildings that were hundreds of years old. Some of the buildings were filled with decorations and murals that have endured for thousands of years."
Crew members followed in the footsteps of many iconic historical figures, getting to see and experience the same city that many have only read about. They visited many of the sites documented in the Holy Bible including the room of the Last Supper and the final five stations in Jesus' crucifixion.
"When I was a kid, my mother used to take me to church every Sunday to receive teachings from the Bible," said Aviation Maintenance Administrationman 2nd Class Eliza Veliz, a Sailor assigned to America's aircraft intermediate maintenance department. "I never thought I'd ever end up in the same places I read about all those years."
While the visit impacted each crew member in different ways, the journey was not over. The most impactful experience for many was during the tour's stop at the Dead Sea, a place where the water is fabled to have miraculous healing properties and is a location also mentioned in chapters of the Bible.
The banks and the surface of the Dead Sea are 1,412 ft. below sea level, making it Earth's lowest elevation on land. The sea itself is another 997 ft. deep, the deepest hypersaline lake in the world. When it rains, the waters run down the mountains surrounding the valley, pulling down all the nutrients from the land. Because of that, the sea maintains the densest concentration of salt in the world. Consequently, the only living organisms inhabiting the waters are microscopic, but people from around the world still stop by for a swim.
"The Dead Sea is considered a holy place of healing," said Olivarez. "I remember reading about it a long time ago. It was unreal getting to visit and actually swim in it. I made sure to collect some to take home with me."
Israel's capital city, Jerusalem, has repeatedly been a target of conquest by different cultures and religions over the course of history. Blending together over time until it became what it is today.
In addition to Israel's unique cultural diversity, it is also unique for being the only democracy located in the Middle East. It is the only place where people are free to express their own religion and express themselves in a manner similar to America.
"When I spoke with one of the locals he told he spoke not only English, but Hebrew, Farsi, Spanish and French," said Aviation Boatswain's Mate (Handling) 2nd Class Joseph Glass, a Sailor assigned to America's air department. "Everyone here is a part of Israel, and just like America, there is so much diversity. You can find so many different people no matter where you go."
The city itself has served as a connection from the past to the present, becoming modernized while, at the same time, retaining the memory of the people who lived there long before. It has allowed the crew members to also bridge gaps in stories they learned as children while also connecting with a culture they would otherwise not have been exposed.
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