Virtual tourism: The next best thing to being there

NEW YORK & JERUSALEM — “You’re standing at the Dome of the Rock, one of the holiest sites in Israel,” you hear a tour guide say. As that voice explains the significance of the place to people of Muslim, Christian and Jewish faiths, you can see the golden roof glistening in the sunlight. You imagine it’s a warm day in the Holy Land, but you can’t feel the sun on your skin. Perhaps Muslims are entering the Dome of the Rock, or the nearby Al-Aqsa Mosque, to visit the site and pray, but you can’t see or hear them. You can move around the site in all directions, not by turning your head, but by using a computer mouse.

This is the virtual pilgrimage experience.

“For every person who goes to Israel physically, there are hundreds of people who can’t,” said Gary Crossland, the founder of the Octagon Project, a non-profit that produces live-action, virtual tours of Israel and posts them online.

The cost of travel, lack of mobility, and family obligations are just a few factors that might keep people from making the trip, said Crossland, a Texas native, who has traveled to Israel 30 times.

Gary Crossland preparing video for virtual tours at the Judean Desert in Israel. (The Octagon Project)

Virtual tourism is nothing new. Pilgrims have always brought back “holy water,” a chunk of earth or a relic to hold on to and share the experience of the journey. Once photography was perfected, tourists brought back pictures of the holy places they’d visited. The embrace of video cameras, gadgets and social media to help people feel closer to the Holy Land is more recent. For years, there has been a 24-hour stagnant live feed of The Western Wall, one of the most religious sites for Jewish people. A few sites accept prayers via tweet to place in the cracks of that wall, an old tradition. On YouTube, there are thousands of traditional video tours, some with photo montages and some narrated.

But with more high-tech devices comes a more immersive experience. Organizations like the Octagon Project use virtual reality to offer that, along with a free, all-access digital pass to Israel. With the help of 360-degree cameras, online tourists can “visit” churches, historical locations, and get a glimpse into the country without a passport, luggage or a plane ticket.

Twenty years ago, Terry Modica, who is Catholic, actually made the 15-plus hour journey from her home in Florida to Israel for a pilgrimage. She saw the Church of the Annunciation, one of the most sacred places of the Christian faith, the Nativity site, where Jesus is said to have been born, and the Dead Sea, the lowest point on Earth.

With a few clicks, you can experience Modica’s journey, too. Back then, she did not have the devices to create a high-tech experience like the Octagon Project, but the 1990s-era photos she collected during the trip are now on her website, Good News Ministries, in the form of a virtual tour. To see the inside of the church, click on the doors and after the webpage loads, you’re inside. Or click for a closer look at the loaves and fish mosaic at the Church of Multiplication, where Christians believe Jesus multiplied enough food to feed a large crowd of followers.

“People once looked at my low-resolution photos and thought ‘oh wow,’” Modica, 63, said. “Now I look at them and say ‘Oh crap.’”

Modica saves the notes from people who still appreciate the virtual journey.

“Although I am a born Catholic,” one virtual pilgrim wrote, “my knowledge of the places where all the miraculous and painful events took place were only imaginary…until now.”

Modica wants to return to the Holy Land to capture the trip for those behind a computer screen. This time, using virtual reality for a more immersive experience.

But some say a virtual trip to Israel won’t do.

“For me, I had to come back,” said Bonnie Bergman, a Boca Raton, Florida native who is Jewish.

On a warm Sunday in Jerusalem, she was back in the Holy Land for the first time in 40 years to meet long lost family members. Bergman stood on the outskirts of the Western Wall in awe.

"It’s emotional,” said Bergman, who is a retired teacher.

That type of meeting is something that can’t be done online. That, and walking into the crowds in the women’s section of the Western Wall to touch what’s believed to be the remains of the retaining wall of an ancient Jewish temple.

While Crossland’s virtual tour company also offers 10-day physical excursions to Israel, he does not think the emergence of the type of technology that may allow virtual travelers to engage other senses — like sight and smell — will have any impact on that business.

“We’re on the bleeding edge of that technology,” Crossland said. But there’s “nothing like being there.”

"When you can actually have boots on the ground and feel the heat on your skin, the packing, the anticipation — it’s a totally different feeling.”

The type of news no one ever reports

HAIFA — If we started our journey through the Holy Land with a look at ethnic minority refugees in South Tel Aviv, we continued it today with a visit to two of its smallest minority religions, the Bahá’i and the Ahmadi Muslims.

Our first stop: The Baha’i World Center. There are not many Bahá’ís – only about five million around the world – but, according to our Baha’i guide, Rodney Clarken, it is the second most widely distributed religion, right behind Christianity.

The Bahá’í faith is a religion of all religions. All beliefs are considered valid and the Bahá’ís see the world’s major religions as chapters in God’s teachings. There are no clergy or churches, but they do have one place that’s especially sacred – this region in the north of Israel, where the remains of two important figures in the faith, the Báb and Abdu’l Baha, lay. Here we were, standing right there, most of us in awe.

Full disclosure: I spent some time with a few Bahá’ís in New York, so I knew anecdotally what to expect in terms of the beauty of the Bahá’í World Center. Like some of the Bahá’ís back in the States, Clarken, a retired professor from the U.S., told us how honored he felt to live and work there as an archival assistant. Clarken, who has volunteered there for six years, did not initially want to do it. In fact, he said he came as a “sacrifice to God.” But now, he says that he’s never been happier.

Clarken will work at the Bahá’í World Center for one more year, then he will leave Israel. None of the Bahá’í volunteers are permanent residents of the Holy Land, nor are they allowed to be. That’s the way the founder of the faith, Bahá’u’lláh, wanted it.

That means Haifa is home to a faith with no community there, and it’s also home to another religion where its only community in Israel is in that city: Ahmadiyya. The Ahmadis – as the worshippers are called – consider themselves to be a sect of Islam, though they do not believe that Mohammed is the final prophet, as orthodox Muslims do. Seventy to 80 percent of the 2,200 Ahmadis in Kababir, a neighborhood in Haifa, are from one clan, the Oudeh family, which converted to Ahadiyya four generations ago. So was the next man we met with: Muad Oudeh, the Secretary General of the Ahmadi Muslim community of Kababir.

Oudeh’s favorite question might be “why?” (really, he should be a journalist). When we arrived at the mosque, he immediately asked us why worshippers come to places like that one to pray. We all guessed: “To talk to God?” “To be with the community?” No, he said. He offered a reason of his own: worshipping at a mosque is coming to meet God.

Oudeh, an energetic man with plenty of stories, tackled another big why: Why the division and hatred between different religious groups?

“We have a huge issue in interrupting God’s words,” said Oudeh. He said the way certain passages are understood (or misunderstood, perhaps) create division.

But when it comes to physical places, there is in fact a line of division for Oudeh. Haifa is the “Holy City,” and it does not belong to Israel, he said.

“The Jewish state is not my state,” said Oudeh, who identifies as Palestinian. “The anthem, the flag…I am not inside.”

Oudeh said he often meets with leaders of different faiths to talk about the differences they have. But he’s tired of talking. He said that once, on a visit to Jerusalem, he proposed walking down the street with a rabbi, holding hands. A Muslim and a rabbi in unity, he said. Think about the example that would set! The rabbi wasn’t ready yet, but Oudeh said that he is.

But the unlikely sight of a rabbi and imam embracing is a common occurrence in a city that is just a 30-minute drive from Haifa, the city of Acco. During our visit to Acco this afternoon, we gathered in a local theater to meet that rabbi and imam. When Imam Samir Assi entered the room, Acco’s Chief Rabbi, Yosef Yashar, rose from his seat. The two men embraced with hugs, kisses and handshakes, like two long-time friends who hadn’t seen each other in years. They truly are friends – best friends, actually, if you ask Yashar. They serve as an example in Acco – where Arabs make up more than 30 percent of the population – that Muslims and Jews can be neighbors peacefully.

“There is no secret recipe,” the rabbi told us in Hebrew, with Professor Yarden serving as a translator. If everyone respects “basic humanity of our neighbors, we can live together.”

Assi, who until recently was the imam of the second-largest mosque in Israel, agreed. “I need to understand people who are different from me,” he said, also in Hebrew. “It all begins with showing respect to one another.”

While there is still tension between the communities and incidents of incitement in Acco, Yashar and Assi believe their city can be a model for coexistence.

“This type of news, no one ever reports,” Assi said.

For a room full of journalists, this was a good lesson. Later that night our group drove to the northern Israel city of Tiberias where we set up our pop-up newsroom in the Restal Hotel. Among the pictures and stories that we posted on our website, Godland, were the images and words of the rabbi and the imam of Acco.

Photos from day 2: