“I fell in love with this country in shock”

25 volunteers sent annually by German Holy Land Association to Jerusalem, Tabgha or Bethlehem. Here they perform a social service and at the same time walk in the footsteps of Jesus. But Corona brought the situation to an abrupt end this year.

Justus Raasch has every reason to be concerned about the Corona crisis. He had prepared himself for a year of volunteering at Bethlehem University’s Office of Public Relations and Fundraising. During this time, he wanted to get to know the country and its people, to explore the cultural, social and political diversity of a region where three world religions have their origins. He had countless questions in his luggage – given the cultural, social and political particularities, as he says. And a big heart for an exciting and in its diversity so rich country.

But from now on, the 20-year-old had to cut short his service and, after six months, leave the Holy Land prematurely – almost like a flight. There was not much time to say goodbye. From one day to the next, Corona destroyed all plans to visit the cities of the West Bank – Hebron, Nablus, Nazareth and Jericho – in the second half of the year abroad, after short trips to the desert, the Red Sea, the Dead Sea, Tel Aviv and the Golan Heights. At least that was the idea. In retrospect, Justus is lucky that he was able to pass through one of the city’s two checkpoints at the very last moment in early March, when the full extent of the pandemic was not yet foreseeable worldwide.

Bethlehem curfews to protect against Corona

Only hours later, Bethlehem was hermetically sealed off from all sides for the next few weeks. For the time being, the young man would have been stuck during the lockdown: without employment – because the university was the first to close – and the prospect of being able to permanently leave the apartment he shared with two other volunteers for anything more than grocery shopping. The accumulation of the first Corona cases had probably nourished the suspicion in the population of Bethlehem that the virus had been brought in by tourists. Which led to a certain skepticism about tourists. This is how Justus Raasch reports it.

"At first, we didn’t take the scope of the danger seriously at all. But the day the state of emergency was declared in the West Bank, we saw a lot of blue lights and health workers were measuring fevers all over the streets, it was clear to us that we had to cross over to Israel as quickly as possible in order not to become completely isolated. Finally the atmosphere became more and more uncomfortable, while the news situation worsened day by day."

"Faith is becoming downright tangible in this country."

With a friend, the high school graduate finally spent a long weekend by the sea in Haifa to tide him over, which at first felt like a vacation. The two, who entered the country last August for a volunteer assignment through the German Association of the Holy Land, are still hoping that they will soon be able to return to their jobs and that the restrictive measures will only apply temporarily. Because Justus loves his tasks at Bethlehem University. Here he looks after groups of visitors, guides them through the building and arranges contacts with the students; a task in the field of public relations that he enjoys.

But the external situation has become increasingly burdensome and was soon impossible to ignore. "It took us a long time to realize the seriousness of the situation."In the meantime, the two Germans are spending more time in the monastery in Tabgha after consulting with the Holy Land Association in Cologne. Two weeks in quarantine followed, which had to be managed in what felt like a ten-square-meter radius, says Justus. They are compensated by the view of the Sea of Galilee and the aura of this magical place full of biblical stories. "The fact that Jesus walked on water or commanded the storm can really be understood here," he says in retrospect. "Faith becomes almost tangible in this land. You can see Jesus walking along the barren mountainsides with his disciples. No wonder that two billion people attach their Christian faith to these sites."

In no other place has he so often and so intensively had conversations about God and his own faith. "The constant presence of Christianity, Judaism or Islam gives this land its special energy. You can’t escape that at all. That does something to you."

Between social commitment, leisure activities and religious life

The desire to spend a year abroad in Israel and Palestine arose for the Lubeck student during a project trip in the 11th grade. "I have never before been able to gain so many impressions during a trip. The richness of differences has totally flashed me. At that time, I fell in love with this country in shock. It was immediately clear to me that I really wanted to go back there after graduation."He had so many questions, and instead of answers, he kept coming up with new questions. "It’s like opening Pandora’s box". I always wanted to discover more of this country. It had something of a pull."

The school-leaver from Schleswig-Holstein feels that he is in good hands with the German Holy Land Association (DVHL), which sends up to 25 volunteers a year to the association’s own and cooperating institutions – for example, to the Schmidt School in East Jerusalem or the Dormitio Abbey, to Tabgha in the Beit Noah Youth and Disability Center, to Kiriat Tivon in the "Village of Hope" or to Bethlehem University. Because in the daily volunteer life between social commitment, leisure activities and religious life, the DVHL volunteers gain valuable experiences, which are often formative for their future life.

Political education and international understanding

Susanna Schuller, who is responsible for international volunteer services at the DVHL, is able to arrange about ten different locations for those who are interested. Despite the political conflicts that keep erupting, Israel is among the "top five" popular destinations for volunteering, she explains. "Our goal is political education and to fill a concept like international understanding with life. The many impulses that the volunteers get from working with people from the Middle East, but also from accompanying seminars held by their sending organization, enable them to broaden their perspective and promote understanding for this region."

The German Association of the Holy Land must receive applications by November of each year from those who wish to begin their year of volunteer service the following summer. Before that, however, there will be a weekend of getting to know each other, with extensive interviews to ask about the motivation of the applicants, but also to find out which area of work of the wide range of offers might suit whom best.

The speaker also has an exciting time ahead of her due to the corona. In the spring, the DVHL had to fly a total of 30 volunteers out of Israel in a return action that is unique in the history of the association. Every day, the Cologne office was busy checking the constantly changing travel regulations of the German Foreign Office and, above all, maintaining close contact with the volunteers on site so as not to leave them alone in their uncertainty and to make organizational arrangements – also with the help of the German representation office in Ramallah.

Participation in a major fundraising campaign

For Justus, his stay in the Holy Land was a dream come true. Even if the thought of his hasty departure still fills him with melancholy months later. As soon as he can, he wants to go back to Israel and then make up for everything he has missed. "To really say goodbye to my temporary living environment, in which I was totally happy for six months, is a deep need for me," he says and imagines that in any case all the experiences in the Holy Land will one day benefit him for a possible political engagement in NGO work, which he envisages as a long-term perspective.

At the moment, however, he considers himself lucky that he can now use his time at Corona for a three-month internship in the association’s public relations department in Cologne, where he is working on a major fundraising campaign for scholarships awarded to Palestinian students at Bethlehem University. "It is a gift to be able to participate in counteracting the high unemployment in the West Bank with the topic of education and to create job prospects for young people there after their studies," he emphasizes.

Love at first sight, even in times of crisis. For Justus, after a rollercoaster of emotions during the last quarter, this is perhaps one of the most essential experiences he owes to this so unique country.

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