Vicky Wood's Middle East sympathies have always been with Israel, but the events of the past two weeks previously might have left her "calling for a U.N. cessation of violence."
Yet after spending 10 days earlier this month on a joint Presbyterian-Jewish mission to Israel, the member of Rockville's Saint Mark Presbyterian Church said her outlook has changed.
Now, Wood said, "I feel strongly that Israel is trying to do the right thing" and "feel even more strongly pro-Israel."
The Bethesda resident, 65, was one of 18 people, two-thirds of them Presbyterians, who participated in the mission led by Rabbi William Rudolph of Congregation Beth El of Montgomery County in Bethesda and Saint Mark's Rev. Dr. Roy Howard.
Co-sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington's missions department, the trip grew out of a two-year, 10-person Presbyterian-Jewish dialogue group that formed after the July 2004 vote by the Presbyterian Church (USA) to begin a process of "selective divestment" from Israel.
Rudolph had believed that the vote pointed to a need to reach out to neighborhood Presbyterian churches. He did so, and Howard, who was a vocal opponent of the divestment resolution, returned the call.
The group has been holding monthly 90-minute brown-bag lunches. Discussions about the divestment issue expanded to cover a variety of topics � from evolution and intelligence design, to the Terry Schiavo right-to-die case to whether America is a "Christian nation."
The divestment resolution itself was hardly mentioned on the mission, said participants � partly because PC (USA) had rescinded it just a couple of weeks before the group's July 4 departure date, but also because Howard and the other Presbyterians on the trip had opposed divestment and were already supporters of the Jewish state.
Like Wood, though, others said their appreciation of Israel had deepened.
June Colilla of Bethesda said that while she does have a "little bit of a hard time" watching the loss of civilian life in Lebanon, she understands "what the Israeli army is trying to do" and feels a stronger affinity for the country.
"I have a greater kinship and feeling for the Jewish people and the Jewish homeland," she said, adding that she now better understands the "Jewish desire" for a state of their own.
Saying she was not sure of individual opinions on Israel when the trip began, Beth El congregant Marsha Rehns noticed that difference.
Explaining, she pointed to an evening discussion that followed a Muslim speaker who criticized Israel. "It was remarkable how everybody in the group was critical of what he said," she said.
Like Wood, Howard noted that simply encountering everyday Israelis makes a huge impact.
Talking to Israelis on the street, "we heard a viewpoint from Jewish eyes and Israeli eyes" that "really was compelling" on the security fence and other political questions.
"It wasn't people ignoring the Palestinian" view, but it was "balanced by the Israeli point of view," Howard said.
He believes that the lack of such balance on trips by some other Christian tours is a crucial reason why members of the national Presbyterian church would believe a divestment resolution is warranted.
"If you go to Israel, and you only talk to people on the West Bank side of the security fence, only hear from Palestinian Muslims and Christians and never talk to ordinary Israelis, you get a very distorted picture of life in Israel," Howard said.
By the trip's end, Rudolph said, the Presbyterians were "yelling at CNN on the TV screen" and truly had "acquired a love of Israel."
Not only did they learn about Middle East politics, the rabbi said, but the Presbyterians also did a pretty good job learning and singing Hebrew songs at Shabbat dinner.
But the mission did not just educate Christians about Israel and the Jewish people, it was also a lesson for the Jewish participants.
With visits to Christian sites such as the Garden of Gethsemane and the Mount of Beatitudes, Rehns said she learned a lot more about Jesus and his history from Howard and her fellow travelers.
"We had marvelous discussions about what it meant for them to be Christians," said Rehns. "I think I have a better understanding of what Jesus means to [them]."
Howard said he was impressed by the "level of understanding and candor" in those discussions.
Not only was it a chance for Jews to hear about Christianity, he said, but also an opportunity for the Presbyterians on the trip to explain and grapple with their own beliefs.
"When you're asked to put something you believe into words, it's a helpful way of focusing on it, making it more real," said Jane Stevens, 49, of Potomac.
"The communication going on, the manner in which... [we were] free to ask questions about each other � it was just wonderful," said Jerry Lowrie, 71, of Potomac.
The group was not far from the violence in the region. On the first week of the trip, as they tasted wine in Beit Shemesh, Rudolph said they could hear cannons being fired by the army in Gaza � a "quite surreal" experience.
The final two days of the trip came after Hezbollah had kidnapped two Israeli soldiers and the Jewish state began its response, but the travelers managed to stay "one step ahead" of the terrorist group's Katyusha rocket attacks on northern Israel, said Colilla.
For instance, they had dinner on a rooftop in Sfat one evening and returned to the kibbutz where they were staying near Tiberias. The next day, they learned that a Katyusha had hit Sfat.
Following their return home, Howard and a number of the Presbyterian mission participants attended the community Israel solidarity rally on Wednesday of last week.
Thus, a resolution that angered Israel supporters two years ago has indirectly led more people back to the Jewish state.
"Out of bad can come good," said Rudolph. "What Israel does to anyone who goes there � it's hard not to love it."