This whole “broken laptop” thing is getting quite old….but today it was working well enough for me to sort through some photos and at least attempt to update my blog.  So here goes nothing! Enjoy some photos of my siblings’ visits, our YAGM retreat to Haifa and Acko, and the end of the school year!

ImagePetting the family horse and 11 day old foal with the family I babysit!

ImageMy sister Laura in front of Jerusalem.

ImageThe Church of Mary Magdalene in Jerusalem (we were given a private tour since it’s usually not open to the public- it pays to know people!)

ImageHanging out by the Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem.

ImageThe stone where Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, now inside the Church of All Nations, Jerusalem.

ImageLaura in front of the ancient ruins of Herod’s storage halls on top of Masada.

ImageThe Church of the Annunciation, Nazareth.

ImageThe lower level of the Church of the Annunciation.  Where the angel appeared to Mary and told her she was with-child- Nazareth.

ImageUpper level of the Church of the Annunciation, Nazareth.

ImageAncient synagogue ruins in Capernaum.  This is the synagogue where it is said Jesus preached.

ImageMe in front of the Jordan River.

ImageMy brother Andrew arrived just 3 days after Laura left!  Here he is in Jesus’ tomb in the Holy Seplechure, Jerusalem.

ImageHanging out on the rooftops of Jerusalem with Dormition Abbey in the background.

ImageAndrew touching the place where Jesus was born, Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem.

ImageOn our way to the Dead Sea!

ImageTrue brotherly love. Getting covered in mineral enriched Dead Sea mud!

ImageWalking through the Jewish Market, Jerusalem.

ImageBeaches of Tel Aviv.

ImageA night out in Tel Aviv with fellow YAGM Jenna.

ImageMargaret, the Kindergarten’s director, reading a story to the kids.

ImageAmar’s 2nd Birthday party at the cafe across from the kindergarten.

ImageYAGMs enjoying a day at the beach in Haifa!

ImageAnnela’s 23rd Birthday at Fattoush, a very yummy restaurant in Haifa.

ImageJerusalem/West Bank 2012-2013 crew in Haifa.

ImageThe Ba’hai Temple at night, Haifa.

ImageWalking through the ancient crusader city of Acko/Acre/Acco (however you want to spell it…)

ImageTunnels beneath Acko.

ImageLook at all those steps!  And the beautiful Ba’hai gardens.  We walked all 670+ of them on our tour.

ImageAl Mahaba Kindergarten 2013. 🙂

ImageEnd of the year gifts- homemade cards for each of the kids and teachers!


Love in a Hopeful Place

Since February I have spent a few hours most Sunday afternoons babysitting for a family in a neighboring town.  My country coordinator happened to know the mother and knew that she was looking for some assistance and I was lucky enough to have experience and the time available.  So, each Sunday I catch a taxi and head over to play with two of the most adorable little girls I’ve ever met.

While their older brothers, ages 10 and 7, are a little more self-sufficient and not in need of as much care, I shepherd around Carmela, age 5, and Majdel, age 2.  The girls are always so excited to play with play dough, read books, draw and pet the new kitties living on their porch.  It’s a fun way to spend a few hours each week and it’s fantastic to know that I’m really helping their parents have a break and get some much needed time to rest and work on important business- and there is plenty to do since both are lawyers!

From the outward appearance of this lovely family, it would seem that they are a very traditional bunch.  The father’s parents live downstairs and cousins, aunts and uncles live in neighboring homes- a very typical Palestinian setup.  Yet, something is a little unique about this particular one. 

The truth is this family is actually mixed.  And mixed in a way that is very unlikely in this particular place.  The mom is American.  But that’s not the strange part; there are plenty of Americans living in Palestine.  She is also Jewish.

This family, full of love and compassion, is in fact half Jewish and half Palestinian.  Not exactly a typical combination over here.  I’m sure it was quite the scandal years ago when the two began dating and eventually wanted to marry.  Now, you’d never know that there was ever controversy.  Both sets of parents have accepted the other spouse into their family and of course, the 4 grandchildren are the pride and joy of them all. 

Today when I went over to the house the girls were especially excited to play outside in the small patch of green grass with their newly found baby turtle.  After an hour of attempting to build a little home for him in an old ice cream container we headed inside to cool off.  We were walking up the stairs and little Majdel looked up at me and said, “Jen, I love you” to which I quickly replied that I loved her too.  It was the sweetest moment. 

In such a turbulent and violent place it is so great to know that in some homes love knows no bounds.  No matter what the race, religion or background there is always room for a little love.

ImageMajdel and I at her brother’s 10th birthday party


April 15, 65 years ago….

I’ve been slacking on my blog posts lately….my bad.  Life got a little exciting around here with Holy Week #1 (the Orthodox Holy Week won’t be until the beginning of May), our mid-year YAGM retreat to Jordan and then all the excitement afterwards of returning back to a “normal” schedule.  Hopefully you all received my newsletter a few weeks ago, which has my most recent updates.  I apologize if there are any major mistakes in that or in this and future posts and newsletters, my laptop has decided to stop working when I open the screen all the way, so I am currently typing with my screen about 4 inches open and my knuckles hitting it every time I type.  It’s a bit frustrating, hence the major lack of communication recently.

Holy Week was a wonderfully chaotic time and I am so happy to have experienced it here in this place.  It felt like I walked the entire Old City of Jerusalem about 3 times and saw every significant place leading up to and including Jesus’ death and the celebration of His resurrection.  What amazing memories I’ll carry with me for the rest of my life!  My favorite moments included walking down the Mount of Olives and in to Lions Gate on Palm Sunday, processing while singing hymns to the Garden of Gethsemane on Maundy Thursday, and Easter morning sunrise service outdoors on the Mount of Olives overlooking Jerusalem. 

Jordan was full of once-in-a-lifetime experiences as well.  From hiking Petra to camel riding and camping with the Bedouins to singing and dancing with the ELCJHL congregation members in Amman, it was quite a full week!  I was surprised at how mountainous and majestic Jordan is.  It really had many breathtaking views and I would highly recommend visiting if you ever have the opportunity.

School has been going well.  We’ve been able to spend much more time outside lately since the weather has taken a turn toward summer!  The kids love getting to play in the sandbox and slide down the slides and it’s nice that they get to let out their energy and not go stir crazy indoors.  I’m looking forward to many more sunny and warm days to come!

Today, April 15, marks the ever-popular Tax Day in the US…but here in the Holy Land there is a much different connotation.  On this day, 65 years ago, Israel declared their independence and began the occupation of Palestinian territories.  As you can imagine, feelings towards this day are polar opposite.  While Israelis are out celebrating with fireworks and concerts, very similar to the USA’s 4th of July celebrations, the Palestinians refer to this anniversary as the Nakba, meaning the Catastrophe.  It is hard to see such nationalistic pride on one hand and such pain and sorrow about losing one’s nation on the other. 

While peace is still distant, there is a glimmer of hope when I hear people express the desire to reconcile and make amends.  As my kids sing at school, “Pray for the peace, pray for the peace, pray for the peace of Jerusalem.”

Spring Cleaning?

Spring has arrived in Palestine!  We had a BBQ the other weekend at the Lutheran pastor in Ramallah’s house and ate outdoors under the sun.  Such a wonderful day with my YAGM group and a fantastic and hospitable family that welcomed us into their home.  Here are a few pictures of the traditional Palestinian salads we helped prepare!


The salad course.  Traditionally these are like our “appetizers” but are bountiful enough to be an entire meal!


Tabuleh- Salad made from finely chopped parsley, cucumber, tomato and garlic.


The men preparing the grill!


The past few weeks have been fairly routine here.  School provides a very regular schedule for me throughout the week and my weekends have been a time to relax and enjoy a social life in the West Bank and Jerusalem.  This past weekend was the Israeli celebration of Purim, which I can only describe as a cross between Mardi Gras and Halloween.  The streets were filled with people in colorful and eccentric costumes- it was quite a sight to behold.


Besides that, much of my spare time lately has been filled with home repairs and improvement.  Who knew that home upkeep wouldn’t disappear once I moved to a different country?!  For starters, I doctored up the shower head (that’s right…the shower is officially working again and we have hot water!)  It is currently held up with hair ties while duct tape was added in an attempt to keep the lake off our floor after each use.  Not very attractive, but functional and that’s all I care about at the moment.  At least it’s a hot shower!



Desperate times call for creativity!


Two weeks ago I chopped away at a giant ice block forming in our fridge.  It was steadily growing and eating up our space, to the point of engulfing our condiments.  I finally said, “enough is enough” and decided to take a very large knife to it (scissors had already been snapped in half during a previous attempt.)  For about 2 hours I hacked away and broke off chunk-by-chunk of our own little iceberg.  It was about 8 inches thick in some parts!  Finally the last of it flew off and I mopped up the massive puddle I’d created on the floor.  Below are some photos of my attempt at ice carving!


See the bottle shape in the ice?  It really was sucking things in!



 A typical Friday morning…



Action shot thanks to Annela!


The most recent home improvement project was a surprising one that totally caught me off guard.  I’ve had a terrible cough for the past week and didn’t have a clue why it wasn’t getting any better.  Then Monday night as I was getting ready for bed I noticed some small black spots forming in the corner of my room.  I took a closer look and sure enough, mold.  After scrubbing with bleach water it had disappeared, but then I decided to pull back my lovely pink curtains and check the windows.  Yuck!  The entire outer rim and windowsills were covered in black mold.  After a brief moment of panic and few choice words, my roommate Annela came in and the two of us spent an hour scrubbing away at all 3 of my mold covered sills.  Not exactly how I’d planned to spend my evening, but I’m hoping now that it’s gone, (and now that I know about it) I’ll begin to get over this terrible cough.  It’s amazing how quickly that stuff forms- just last week I’d had the curtains open and there wasn’t a sign of anything!


Not pretty.






Monday night fun!


While this post wasn’t particularly insightful or life changing, it does share a bit about the kind of issues I deal with on a regular basis.  Homes here are very similar to those back in the US and basic upkeep is clearly required.  I’m working on another post already, so don’t worry, a more pertinent issue will be discussed soon!!  Happy March!

Scenes from January & February

From a snowstorm to picking oranges in 70 degree heat, here’s a few images from these past few weeks!


Excited for snow in Palestine!


Host brother Nicholas and I (this was the first time he has ever seen snow!)


Snowball fight with the neighbor kids


Nick making his first ever snowman 🙂


Olive trees in winter


Yay snow! 


snow melting 


Snowman outside Jumbo, our grocery store


Annela and I went for a walk and happened upon this impromptu snowball fight.


Beit Jala in January


Teaching opportunity from Jeff and Julie at the Israel Museum


View of Jerusalem


Little Amar covered in yogurt. He was so proud of himself for eating alone!


Sunset over Beit Jala


My best friends


Families enjoying a day of orange picking in Jericho


Paula and her oranges


Picking fresh fruit!


Garden in Jericho


Hangin out in the trees


Derk devoured many juicy treats that day


I even got to hold a baby!


A view from the day- looks pretty tropical right!?


My host family’s newest addition- Princess


Annela playing with the puppy

Disgusting Boy!

Sometimes the simple joys of life are what make an average day absolutely great.  Despite the chaos and uncertainty of the world around me, there is one constant I can always count on- my little kiddos at school will make me laugh. 

For those of you who do not know my family back at home very well, it may come as a surprise to find out that we rarely use our given names when talking to each other or about each other.  We have nicknames and random words that we’ve created over the years to refer to one another instead.  It has been this way ever since I can remember.  Rarely am I called Jennifer or even Jen in my home, instead I answer to a host of names that most people would consider very confusing, but hey, that’s life in the Johnson household.

So, in keeping with family tradition and simply living and building relationships the only way I know how, I have begun giving nicknames to my tiny-tots at school.  (‘Tiny-tots’ is another Johnson creation- it is what I call the preschoolers at my mom’s work, hence it is very fitting to associate with my 1-3-year-olds here in Israel/Palestine as well.)

One little boy, who I have referenced in this blog before, is an absolute B-O-Y.  If you don’t know what that means, you’ve never raised/played with young kids.  He is adorable- with his little smile and gorgeous big, brown eyes that he flashes whenever he knows he’s done something wrong.  One minute he’s a total sweetheart, giving me hugs and sitting on my lap, and the next he’s picking up a handful of dirt and rocks and dumping it directly on another 2-year-old’s head.   So loveable, yet such a stinker!  Hence, he’s earned the nickname, Stinker Faris.  And he knows it too, which is probably the best part.  I look at him and say, “Are you being a bad boy today?” and he looks right at me with his round little face and says, “Stinker Faris” in that charming 2-year-old voice.  And I can’t help but laugh.

And then, of course, there’s the other reason he’s considered a stinker.  Along with singing songs, feeding lunch, playing and putting children down for naps, one of my most important responsibilities is changing diapers.  You all know what a pleasant experience that can be. 

On a particularly frustrating day last week, when little Stinker Faris was being extra “stinky”, he was legitimately “stinky” as well.  So, being the closest adult around, I went over to him, scooped him up with one arm around his middle and hauled him off to the changing table.  (It may sound weird, but this is one of my favorite places at school simply because it is one of the few spots where I get to have one-on-one moments with my little ones.)  So I set him down and said, “Faris, you stink!” as I laughed and tickled his belly.  Then he looked up at me with his huge eyes and a little smirk on his face and said, and I quote, “DIS-GUST-ING boy!”

I lost it.  I practically doubled over I was laughing so hard.  Since when can this toddler say “disgusting”?!  Where did he learn this?!  I looked at him and asked him if his Mommy or Daddy said that to him before and he just giggled.  What a moment.  Who knew a little stinker could make your day with just two words.  Brings a smile to my face just thinking about it.


The Stinker himself


Faris and I on the playground


Fear in this Land

I’ve been totally lost in my thoughts lately.  Ever since viewing the new documentary 5 Broken Cameras, I’ve been thinking about all the injustices and confusion associated with this land.  It really is impossible to explain, it can only be witnessed.  That being said, I highly recommend everyone see this film.  Not because it is a pleasant or enjoyable experience, or even because it was nominated for an Academy Award, simply because it is reality.  It is the truth of the Palestinian people and it must be shared.

Just to give a glimpse into some of my thoughts this past week, I decided to share with you all a journal entry that I wrote the other night…

After watching that documentary, all I can think about is how much injustice and misunderstanding there is in this place.  And it’s all run by fear.  On both sides.  Fear drives this conflict and it’s so stupid because there is no need to be afraid once both sides recognize that each society is just trying to thrive.  That’s all people ever want to do- live.  Work, eat, play, and worship in their community.  How is that so hard to understand, cultivate and allow?   Why do boundaries have to be set and walls built to separate people who are trying to do the same thing??

It’s so sad that fear has led to years and years of turmoil.  Fear has made checkpoints, walls and guns a reality.  Fear keeps Gaza isolated and desolate.  Fear is in the eyes of the women selling spices and the soldiers checking papers.  But there is no need for it.  It’s irrational.  Palestinians are not terrorists and Israelis aren’t monsters.  They are humans.  Humans who have been brainwashed and manipulated to believe each other is the devil himself.

And to think, all this time and money devoted to war and military support is because of this land, land that is essentially treated like a giant garbage dump.  Land that is large enough to support all the people here, but is instead divided so disproportionately that the majority is living on scraps compared to the wealthier minority.

So many thoughts.  So much frustration and confusion.  Yet, nothing I can do here to change it.  All I can do is observe, witness and bring back my experiences to the US to share with those that don’t know.  And there are so many that just don’t know.

I hope that I’ll have the words to express this place accurately.  I pray God will help me when it comes time for me to head back and inform others of my time here in Israel/Palestine.

It’s almost heart breaking, but there is hope.  This wall will come down.  Families will be reunited.  Relationships will build and grow and peace, faith and love will rule this land again.  It’ll happen, it simply must.



Reality Check

I feel like I’ve been glamorizing my time in Beit Jala lately.  While it really is wonderful here and I’ve enjoyed spending time with my families (both real and host) and travelling… the reality is, life here is hard.  And cold.

Here’s a little summary of our last few days.  I’m not looking for pity; I just want to share the reality of living in an occupied land:

Annela and my’s flat has lost power 4 times in the last 48 hours.  We only have 3 small space heaters for our entire apartment, but they barely heat the 2-foot radius around them.   And, of course, they don’t work when the power goes out.  We don’t have hot water.  Let’s be real, we don’t have warm water.  And haven’t in about 2 months.  Our TV has been broken for over 2 weeks, so there’s not even entertainment while we’re stuck inside for going on 3 straight days now- it’s raining nonstop.  I did a load of laundry last night- it’ll be at least 4 days before it all air dries.  And even then, it’s stiff as a board and cold.  I had to take a candle-lit “shower” two days ago.  Boiled water poured cup-by-cup in an attempt to get warm and cleanse. 

So there you go.  Living life in the West Bank in the winter.  Enjoy your warm houses and hot water.  But don’t forget, there are plenty of people out there just struggling to stay warm.

Holiday Greetings!

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!  

What a whirlwind adventure these past couple weeks have been for me!  Once my parents arrived in Israel/Palestine, we spent a week touring and sight-seeing every possible inch of Bethlehem, Jerusalem, and other historical locations throughout the West Bank.  It was a great time and I’m so glad I got to share my new “homeland” with my parents during the Christmas holiday.  

The day they left for home I was also off on my next adventure!  Josh, Jenna, Annela and I flew to Turkey to spend 5 days in Istanbul.  The city is beautiful and we all really enjoyed a little time away from our daily routine.  We walked the cobblestone streets, took a boat ride on the Bosphorus, ferried across to the Asian side of the city, explored the famous cisterns and gazed at the awesome tiles of the Blue Mosque.  It was a fantastic little vacation.

I’ll try to post some pictures below…if the internet will let me.  It’s a little spotty now and then.  Also, I just sent out my second YAGM newsletter! I hope you receive it and enjoy the pictures and highlights of the past few months!  Happy 2013!!


Sight seeing with Mom and Dad!


The family with our cab driver 


My parents and host family on Christmas Eve in Manger Square


Dad taking pictures of famous ruins


Our camel friend


7:30am at the Dome of the Rock


Mom and Dad touring the Via Delarosa (stop #5)


The Blue Mosque at night! 


Jenna and Annela in our hostel room


Streets of Istanbul


Inside the Blue Mosque


Me in front of the Blue Mosque


YAGMs and our friends from the hostel out for a late night walk in Istanbul


Inside the cistern


An image from the Grand Bazaar – I loved all the beautiful lamps!


Happy New Years!