As Magdala volunteers we live in a church compound that is frequented on Fridays by a small group of local Christians. It is not uncommon for volunteers to encounter strangers browsing the contents of the refrigerator or using private bathrooms. The first experiences with this type of interaction felt like a total invasion of privacy! But as we learned more about local culture, we realized that if a local person invites a friend to his house, it is because he considers the person family. The guest should have full access to the refrigerator to eat whatever he wants and be able to plop down on the sofa to watch TV if he wants to. He should feel and behave as if he were in his own house and part of the host’s family. With this explanation, seeing parishioners exploring the contents of our refrigerator makes much more sense.
While the first exposure to this style of hospitality might be at the volunteer house, it does not stop there. We quickly pick up on warm welcomes that await us around every corner.
We experience warm hospitality in the smile of the man pumping gas and in the handshake of the supermarket security guard that recognize us by our t-shirts.
“Where are you from? Oh, America? Beautiful! Welcome, welcome!” is a conversation that happens daily. The words for welcome, baruch haba in Hebrew or ahalan-wasahalan in Arabic, ring in our ears as we fall to sleep at night. In fact, these words are often the first phrases volunteers learn while in Israel. Our daily experiences speak to the hospitality that is deeply ingrained in this region of the world. It is a contagious part of life in this land, and it quickly becomes a part of our lives as volunteers.
As a result of experiencing hospitality firsthand, it becomes our joy and responsibility (but far from a burden) to treat all visitors to Magdala as if they were family. In fact, they truly are our family because everyone who interacts with Magdala – whether visiting, volunteering, working, planning, praying, or giving for the project truly belongs to the family of individuals that are building Magdala.
The smiles that spread over volunteers’ faces as they welcome a tour group are an outward sign of the inner joy of welcoming complete strangers to this family. It is amazing to hear how many volunteers even find joy in the daily routine of keeping Magdala pristinely clean so visitors have a sense of peace and serenity as they visit the Holy site. They care for Magdala just as if they were having a relative visit their own home.
Volunteering at Magdala is filled with learning about the history and culture of the Holy Land, the joys and challenges of living together, and the importance of biblical archaeology. But hospitality is the lesson that silently reaches deep into the soul and overflows in so many different ways. It is a volunteer’s true joy to let the lessons we learn in hospitality overflow upon our visitors every day.