Bethlehem, West Bank
As we approach this Christmas season, I really wanted to share our most recent visit to Bethlehem this past November. It was magical, walking with our three and one year olds around the windy streets of Bethlehem and retelling the story of Jesus’ birth to the boys. Dylan, our three year old, loved pretending with us that we were Mary and Joseph looking for a place to sleep for the night. He even changed the name of his favorite stuffed animal, who came with us on the trip, from “Jonathan” to “baby Jesus”. The best part: going down into the cave where historians say that Jesus was born. It was special for our family to experience this place so significant to the Christian faith and has definitely reiterated the true meaning of Christmas for us: Jesus’ birth.
Going to Bethlehem as a day trip from Jerusalem
It was our second time visiting Israel, (because, yes, Israel is THAT amazing) and we really wanted to go to Bethlehem as a day trip. The first time we came to Israel, we were on a Holy Land tour (which we would DEFINITELY recommend to everyone at least once in their life). Unfortunately, because Bethlehem is in the West Bank, the tour would not permit us to go, due to political tensions. We were really disappointed to miss it, so Bethlehem was high on our priority list this time.
Getting there was easy. Our hotel in Jerusalem directed us to local bus station, right outside of the Damascus Gate, which really just looks like one big open parking lot. It was an easy five minute walk from our hotel, Notre Dame Guest House. Buses leave regularly for Bethlehem throughout the day; and you can just buy your 8ish dollar ticket when you load the bus (cash only). So, we folded up our stroller, stuck it under the bus, and had the boys sit on our laps for the bus ride. We all had fun looking out the windows at the very different desert landscape.
Bethlehem is only five miles from Jerusalem, however, between the traffic getting out of the city and traveling around the desert hills and valleys, it takes about 45 minutes by bus. As you drive, you notice the walls separating Israel from the West Bank and you need your passport and visa (the card you receive at the airport when you arrive into Israel) to return back to Jerusalem.
Safety in Bethlehem
Of course, we would have never gone if it was at all dangerous for our family! But the more Matt researched the whole thing, he discovered it would be very doable and safe. We definitely look more like “locals” anyway having our kids with us sitting in their double stroller. The typical tourist looks much different than us with their camera around their neck and wide brimmed canvas hat & sneakers flocking behind their tour guide. We try to blend in (although I’m not wearing a burka) by hiding our camera and guide book in the stroller and wearing every day westerner clothing and toting OUR KIDS. In fact, a store vendor was shocked we were actually visiting from America and assumed we were visiting from Tel Aviv or another town nearby because he never sees tourists with small children.
We personally believe that we can’t live our life in fear and need to trust that God will protect us. Obviously, we aren’t going to be dumb about it and will use our good senses. But no matter where you go, whether it’s Bethlehem or New York City or anywhere else in the world, there will always be a slight concern for safety. If you act confidently and are aware of your surroundings, you will be less of a target for common petty theft and whatnot. (Stay tuned for our post on this topic soon) J
Experiencing the Culture in Bethlehem
Unlike the Old City Jerusalem, which seems very similar to what I would have imagined Jesus walking around in, Bethlehem is nothing like I originally pictured to be the town of His birth! We sing the song, “Oh Little Town of Bethlehem” and the real thing couldn’t be more different. When we arrived, we definitely felt a bit of culture shock. I sort of felt like I was back in the Bronx of New York City, where I taught third grade ten years ago. We walked around, avoiding torn up roads and construction sites and squeezing past the bustle of predominately Muslim people & shops whose merchandise overflowed onto the city’s sidewalks.
One thing we loved about Bethlehem was how inexpensive everything was in comparison to Jerusalem. Food was significantly cheaper and so was the merchandise. I was pretty easily persuaded to buy a gorgeous scarf for $3 and winter hat for under $5. The West Bank uses the same currency, shekels, as Israel so no need to exchange money while you are visiting!
Obviously the main attraction for Bethlehem is to see where Jesus was born. The Church of the Nativity marks the spot. You can enter through the door of humility (a small entrance where you literally have to duck to get in, signifying our humility as we enter the area of Christ’s birth). It is interesting to explore the church, but of course everyone is really there to see where Jesus was born and you will most likely find a very long line (about an hour wait). You go under the church to the cave where there is a big gold star marking the spot where they claim Jesus was born. Fortunately, because we had the boys with us, a guard let us enter through the exit and quickly take our picture and leave. (Another reason why we love traveling with our kids… special privileges!) ;-)
A short walk from the Church of the Nativity, you find the Milk Grotto, which they believe is the area where Mary and Joseph stopped before they fled to Egypt. To be honest, I didn’t even enter the church, because there were SO many stairs, so I waited up with the boys in the stroller and Matt went down quick to get a look. If you enter, you will see white rocks, which they believe is where Mary nursed baby Jesus and her milk touched the rocks. They say that if you kiss the white rocks, your fertility and lactation will increase.
Church of the Nativity
Milk GrottoPS: How cute are the boys outfits for our trip to Bethlehem? Urban Kids Apparel sent us these for our trip and they were so comfortable to travel in!! You can shop for more trendy pieces on their etsy site here.