Like most Americans, and practically any Jewish American, Dave Mont, 65, had heard stories about Israel his whole life.
He had heard about the wars between Israel and the Arab states that border the New-Jersey-sized country. He had heard about terrorist attacks, and about the ongoing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.
But when Mont arrived in Israel for his first-ever visit on June 12, what struck him most wasn't hardship, fear or conflict.
"It was the normalcy," he said. "The everyday life. People doing their thing and persevering."
Mont was among a group of 12 congregates from the Keys Jewish Community Center in Tavernier who traveled to Israel in June for a 10-day journey that, attendees said, was spiritual at times, cultural at other moments and eye-opening throughout.
Over the course of their week and a half in Israel, the group sped through the country, spending time in the ancient city of Jerusalem; Tel Aviv, Israel's largest city; and its third city, the Mediterranean port of Haifa.
Along the way, they visited historic sites, such as Acre, near the Lebanese border, which dates back to 1,500 B.C., making it one of the longest continuously inhabited cities in the world. Acre's alleys, tunnels and stone walls were used by the Persians in their campaign against ancient Egypt. The city saw fierce fighting during the Crusades. And it was the site of an ignoble defeat for Napoleon at the hands of the Ottomans.
In Jerusalem, the group held a service at the iconic Western Wall, where, like many other spots in Israel, history and religion meld. Two millenniums old, the wall is a remnant of the Second Temple of Jerusalem and sits immediately below the Temple Mount, where according to Jewish and Christian tradition, Abraham took Isaac to offer as a sacrifice to God. Today, the Western Wall is the holiest spot in all of Judaism.
"I'll never forget the warmth from the ancient stones flowing into my hands and forehead," trip-goer Gloria Avner said of her experience at the Wall.
Led by guides Richard Agler, a rabbi and Key Largo resident, and Mike Rogoff, an Israeli, the KJCC group also took time to explore the modern political dynamic that dominates the American consciousness when it comes to Israel.
South of Tel Aviv they visited a trauma center that treats victims of war and terrorist attacks, as well as soldiers who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.
In Tel Aviv, they visited the public square where, in 1994, a Jewish-Israeli zealot assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to thwart his effort to forge a peace deal with the Palestinians.
And further north, they journeyed to the strategic and disputed Golan Heights, which rise between Israel and the south of civil war-ravaged Syria. From there the group could see the area from where United Nations peaceskeepers recently retreated due to the Syrian conflict.
"When you go on the Golan Heights, you really see that things are not so simple," KJCC members Joyce Peckman, 66, "When you see Israel spread out before, you get a real sense of why this is a zone of contention."
Near Jerusalem, the group visited a segment of the 400-mile-long security fence and wall that the Israelis have built over the past decade to divide Israel-proper from the semi-autonomous but Israeli-occupied Palestinian West Bank. There they spoke with a representative from the group Rabbis for Human Rights about Israel's security concerns, but also about the hardships that the barrier has caused for Palestinians.
Agler, who has visited Israel dozens of times, said his mission as a guide was to give the KJCC group a multidimensional look at the country that draws so much one-dimensional international attention.
"My hope was that the group would learn what Israel is like in real life, as opposed to through the lens of the mass media," he wrote in an email from Kenya last week, where he traveled after Israel to visit a girl's shelter that is named in honor of his late daughter Talia.
"At the same time, it was my goal that people would enjoy the educational, historical, political and spiritual dimensions of a country that is very rich in all them."
From the sound of things, he accomplished his goal.
"I'm totally delighted, enthralled and enthusiastic," Mont said. "I am thinking of our next trip to Israel."
Added Mont's wife, Georgia Landau, "No matter how much you try to ignore the news [about Israel], your impression is that people are always under attack and things are tense, and it's just the opposite."