By Ben Tinsley
A dip in Israel’s Sea of Galilee on a warm Thursday night in October.
For a group of Latino visitors from Fort Worth, this was heaven on earth.
Almost immediately after checking in at the nearby Nof Ginosar Hotel, Tarrant County Justice of the Peace Sergio De Leon, Fort Worth City Councilman Sal Espino, Espino’s district director Pilar Candia and a fourth person, a colleague from Houston, quickly made their way together to the beach.
Their mission: to pray and immerse their hands and feet in the Sea of Galilee.
“It was crystal clear, very quiet and calm,” De Leon said. “All you could hear was a few waves on the water. The moon was shining, and from our vantage point you could see the entire city of Tiberias reflected on the water.”
The group recited both private and public prayers, including the Lord’s Prayer.
“We prayed for our friends and family back home,” De Leon said. “It was the calmest and most peaceful experience of my entire life. I cannot put into words the tranquility I felt.”
It was a glimpse into the wonder of Israel, Espino said.
Espino, De Leon and Candia were joined on the trip from Fort Worth to Israel by Fort Worth Independent District School Board President Jacinto “Cinto” Ramos.
This group traveled to Israel Oct. 17 through Oct. 25.
They were joined by other Latino leaders from Texas, New Mexico and Colorado as part of a special program by the American Israel Education Foundation (AIEF), which funds educational seminars to Israel for members of Congress and other important leaders.
These journeys help educate elected officials and leaders from many different communities across the United States about the importance of the U.S.-Israel relationship.
Trip participants have the opportunity to experience Israel firsthand, receive briefings from experts on Middle East affairs, and meet with senior Israeli officials.
“Our trip was eight days that forged a lifelong bond — not only with our colleagues from the states but the new friends we made in Israel,” Cinto Ramos said.
Pilar Candia said it was astounding to actually be there in the Middle East — to see things she had only witnessed and learned about in her studies.
“To be there, in the moment, was very special for me,” she said. “Unfortunately, we weren’t able to visit every place because of safety issues.”
Sal Espino went as far as to describe the visit as “transformative and life-changing.”
Espino said he developed a much more profound understanding of the security challenges facing Israel, how narrow the country’s borders are, and its enemies.
Espino said attending Spanish Mass at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and praying at the Western Wall combined with what he learned about Israel has had a transformative effect on him.
“You can’t come away from that without it being life-changing,” he said. “It was incredible, being in Israel, the Holy Land. … We visited many historic religious places.”
Espino brought along on the trip a “City of Fort Worth” flag that he posted in Israel.
“We put it up at the Israel-Syria border,” he said.
Ramos said it was fantastic to be able to view Israel through his own eyes.
“The trip gave us a really good feel for the culture and the families and the environment,” Ramos said.
Sergio De Leon said the trip was a huge success to him, from both an educational and a spiritual perspective.
“I believe I am a changed person,” De Leon said. “And not just in a religious sense. I am now far more knowledgeable about Israel and its many complexities and realities — such as security. … I know the history of what they have faced in Israel. There are groups that want to harm Israel and it is frightening.”
However, De Leon said, he is a firm believer in what the United States has done to support Israel.
“I believe we really need to make sure we maintain that level of support,” De Leon said. “In some cases, I think we need to increase it.”
In addition to the Sea of Galilee and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the group toured precarious areas — including the West Bank.
However, group members say they were well-escorted by security personnel and felt safe — while they were, for instance, walking the streets of Old Jerusalem.
In the long run, Ramos said, he has nothing but good wishes for residents who live in the more dangerous areas of Israel.
“I have heard stories about the terror that Israelis are living through day to day,” Ramos noted. “It speaks to the courage of the people who are willing to continue living there.”
De Leon said it is important to note the group traveled to Israel during a very turbulent time — while a surge of violence erupted in recent weeks in Jerusalem.
But the people from Israel the Fort Worth group met were very cordial, friendly, warm and hospitable, De Leon said.
“Their leaders really welcomed us,” he said. “They were appreciative we did not cancel our trip because of the violence going on. They really rolled out the red carpet for us.”
Incidentally, Candia said she was a big fan of the Israeli cuisine during the trip.
“Oh my God, it was so impressive,” Candia said. “I say this having studied culinary arts. It was just perfect.”