Education, faith expand for school staff on Mideast trip

During their seven years as Hillsboro residents, Phil and Debbie Oelke have developed a reputation as being exemplary citizens and role models for the students they work with in the Unified School District 410 system.

As Christians, the Oelkes’ reputation is just as strong. From April 4 through April 15, the couple literally walked in the footsteps of the historical Jesus when they embarked on an eight-day tour of Israel.

“The thing I appreciate the most from a Christian standpoint is now, when I read stories or certain parables, it makes more sense,” Phil Oelke said. “I can envision the Sea of Galilee when Jesus was teaching from the boat to the people on the shore. It’s all so vivid now.”

Phil, who teaches sixth grade, and Debbie, a Marion County Special Education Cooperative social worker, got the idea to travel abroad to celebrate Debbie’s 30th birthday.

“Debbie surprised me with a big trip to Boston when I turned 30 to watch the Red Sox, so I told her I’d take her on a trip for her 30th birthday,” Oelke said. “Her parents, brother and sister had all been to Israel before so we decided to go ourselves.

“In October, Debbie’s dad called us and asked if we wanted to go,” he added. “We were both hesitant to go because of school.”

Oelke said he talked to his administrative and “it seemed like we could make it work.”

The trip was actually designed as a pastoral tour. They were allowed to be included because Debbie’s father is a pastor and served as co-host. Accommodations were issued at cost.

“Most of the other 25 people on the tour with us were pastors,” he said. “Basically, (the tour company is) hoping these pastors go back home and bring others to see their country and they’ll make money off those people.”

Leaving from Kansas City, the couple traveled to Chicago, Detroit and on to Amman, Jordan. Flight time was about 15 hours.

Beginning in Jordan the couple spent the day on the Jordanian side of the Jordan River.

“We just saw a handful of sights because we simply ran out of time,” Oelke said. “Toward the end of the day, we went across the border into Israel, which was quite an experience in itself because of tight security.”

Once in Israel, the next 81/2 days were spent touring the country. The group started at Qumran, where the Dead Sea scrolls were found, then went on to Bethlehem, Nazareth, Tiberous and Jerusalem.

“We also went to Caesarea, which actually sits on the Mediterranean side of Israel, and we saw the Sea of Galilee, which used to be Capernaum,” he added. “In Scripture, they say it won’t ever be rebuilt and it hasn’t been-but they’re trying to make it look as authentic as it did back when it was under Roman control.”

Much of the group’s time was spent on the West Bank.

“Here in the United States you hear about the West Bank and the Gaza Strip a lot on the news,” Oelke said. “Those are the two zones you supposedly shouldn’t be in because you’re going to get blown up in a bus bomb or something.

“As with most big media news, that’s mostly blown way out of proportion,” he said. “We were very, very safe the whole time we were there.”

Oelke said the tension between Palestinians and Jews is a revelation.

“We saw the wall Israel is building to incase the Palestinians,” he said. “It makes you wonder as Americans why we’re sticking so much money into a country that’s basically doing in reverse what was done to the Jewish people here 60 years ago.

“Palestinians have specific colored license plates on their cars and nine out of 10 cars pulled over were Palestinians,” he added. “There’s a lot of hatred toward them and, because they’re such a small population, they catch a lot of flak.”

The wall, Oelke said, is as high as 20 feet in places, topped with razor wire and patrolled by armed guards toting M-16 rifles.

“We don’t see those events on television. All we see is the Palestinian that drove a car bomb into a crowded cafe.”

For the most part, Oelke said his group was treated well, although some sects didn’t welcome them as well as others.

“The Palestinians treated us awesome,” he said. “The Jewish community was about 50/50, depending on which sect they were with.

“The strict Jews weren’t very happy about us being there,” he said. “The Muslim group varied, but welcomed us for the most part.”

Being from the United States didn’t cause any problems for the group.

“One of the things they kept talking about was our government,” Oelke said. “They basically said they don’t have a problem with the people of the U.S., but the government itself.”

Israel, Oelke said, features many of the accommodations found in the United States, including McDonald’s and Pizza Hut.

“The majority of the people spoke English and the American dollar was of great value-about 4 to 1,” he said. “Much of their economy is based on tourism and diamond mines.”

As part of the tour, each day was preceded with information detailing the sights that would be viewed that day.

Oelke said that “helped a lot.”

“The food was fantastic too,” he added. “Morning and evening were buffets with lamb, beef, chicken, duck. Obviously I didn’t lose any weight on the trip.”

Food seasoning was similar to Mexican spices and most of the milk came from goats.

Various fruits and vegetables were available, harvested from fertile valleys serviced by an intricate irrigation system.

“They’ve built a dam on the Jordan River and they’ve done a fantastic job with irrigation,” Oelke said. “They have gigantic soaker hoses and they’re very versatile.”

That versatility comes in handy in a region that receives no rain from April until November.

“The climate is basically the same as Dallas,” Oelke said.

Favorite sights for Oelke included:

— Bet Shean: “It’s Roman ruins were awesome.”

— Jericho: “It had only been open for two weeks since 2001 and the people cheered our bus because they’re happy to have the tourism dollars back into their city.”

— Qumran: “It was a fabulous place because it’s where they found the Dead Sea scrolls.”

Oelke said walking where Jesus walked was a humbling experience.

“We witnessed the burial site and the tomb of Jesus,” he said. “It’s a tremendous feeling to realize the importance of that.”

Oelke said visitors to Israel should make a point of seeing specific sites.

“You need to see the Sea of Galilee because it’s changed very little and it’s very authentic,” he said. “You also need to see the old city of Jerusalem to see where the actual trial took place and the Garden of Gethsemane.”

Oelke said the trip will provide numerous opportunities for him to teach his class with a more hands-on approach.

“As a history teacher, I teach about the Romans in sixth grade, and I’ll be able to teach geography and the amount of fluctuation there is from one end of Israel to the other,” he said. “I’ll also be able to show the Greek influence that’s present in the region as well.”

Oelke said the availability of his new-found knowledge isn’t limited to his sixth-grade classes.

“Debbie and I would love to come and give a presentation to any church group or any organization in the area,” he said. “With summertime approaching, we’d be more than happy to present a program at absolutely no charge.”

Oelke encourages interested people to call him at his home at 620-947-2244.

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