CULPEPER STAR-EXPONENT, ALLISON BROPHY CHAMPION
Aglobal citizen from Culpeper who has spent his adult life promoting cultural understanding experienced a harrowing journey home after getting stranded in Israel last month when the war started.
Brad Baldwin, whose professional life had focused on strengthening ties between the U.S. and India, left America on Sept. 21 for Jordan and traveled Oct. 1 to Israel, his second time visiting the Holy Land.
The trip coincided with the digital launch of his new book, “Alignment: An Unlikely Road to Bethlehem,” published Oct. 15, as “a 21st century weapon of nonviolence.”
It would take an act of a congresswoman’s staff to bring Baldwin safely out of the warzone, to Europe and back to America. Strangers helped along the way and the Culpeper man, an experienced traveler, was making his own plans to leave following the Oct. 7 terrorist attack by Hamas.
“It had been an exhausting week,” he wrote in an email about his experience abroad to the office of U.S Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-7th.
“I was having breakfast at a convent in Bethlehem when the sounds of explosions rocked the building. All morning long there were off and on air raid sirens and more explosions, many distant and a few very close. War had just been declared and I was in the middle of it.”
A former citizen of India and Gandhi Ashram, Baldwin has visited 33 countries and all 50 states, but never a war zone. The trip started peacefully, recounted Brad’s father, Don Baldwin, in an email to the Star-Exponent. “He was at a convent in Bethlehem with a group from Sweden,” he stated.
Brad sent an email to his father on Oct. 7. “He was safe and at the convent,” said Don Baldwin. “It had been a beautiful week.”
Founder of Taj Global Understanding, a nonprofit promoting global exchange, Brad Baldwin is a 1993 graduate of Culpeper County High School and University of Southern California film school.
He is president of Project 10-15, a new organization seeking to build bridges between communities and nations, create more responsible global citizens and inspire personal transformation, according to project10-15.org.
Baldwin was in Bethlehem for his new book and to finalize details of the hardcover, available Dec. 5. He was at a quiet pre-launch party at the convent with a small group and eight hours later, there were explosions outside, Baldwin said in a phone call Monday.
He made sure he slept close to his passport, glasses, inhaler and wallet in case he had to leave quickly. Baldwin said it was much different than his time living at the ashram in India, a mecca for nonviolence. He surmised India needed to export some of that nonviolence.
Baldwin described seeing missiles intercepted in the sky above Israel and three very loud booms outside the door where he was staying.
“All of the soldiers in the military put their lives in wars, deal with these sounds and stressors, triggers and traumas. It is a very small thread, a glimpse of that and it is jarring psychologically,” Baldwin said.
There were five sisters at the convent, he said.
“Their first reaction was sort of like, this happens, take it easy, it’s OK, these things happen, this conflict has been going on for thousands of years,” Baldwin said. “As the story unfolded, by the evening, there was even more of a concern and a worry on the faces of the sisters at the convent. One of them had lived there 21 years.”
The convent was beautiful, in a thousand-year-old building connected to a Swedish group, he said. Four of the nuns were Indian, Baldwin noted.
He had planned on staying in Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, for three weeks, but decided to depart from the West Bank once the war started.
“All morning there were air raid sirens. He did not want to stay in Bethlehem because Israel controls the border crossing and you never know if you can get out of the West Bank. It was very silent in Jerusalem,” said Don Baldwin.
Getting through the border crossing into Jerusalem turned into a four-hour ordeal, Baldwin said, describing a “Mission Impossible” scenario.
He arrived to the checkpoint in a car driven by a Palestinian man whose father kept calling him worried he was going to get shot. Baldwin got dropped off at the end of the line, on the road with his wheeled suitcase, and invited into another vehicle at the checkpoint line occupied an elderly Jewish couple.
“They asked us to get in, three of us walking, sat with them in the car for an hour and a half, they were strangers,” Baldwin said.
He finally crossed into Jerusalem in a third car and hunkered down in a hostel. Baldwin made a quick foot trip back into the Old City and there was nobody there except for police and military, he said. It was like a ghost town, the militarization of Jerusalem, Baldwin commented.
Baldwin began the arduous task of trying to reschedule a flight, cancel a flight, organize a possible land crossing into Jordan, always wondering if another air raid siren was about to go off, he recounted.
“Plans were made, canceled, made, canceled, every day,” he said.
Baldwin filled out a crisis intake form through the State Department along with 20,000 other Americans trying to leave Israel at the time.
“I contacted the State Department’s hotline set up for the emergency in Israel and when I called, the very pleasant woman on the other end had no information about travel, about land crossings, about Jordan, no information. I was simply told ‘Stay safe.’”
Baldwin began planning a flight out of Jordan and booked a taxi. This would be a big challenge since he did not know if he would be allowed to cross the border out of Israel. There was a machine gun attack at one of the Old City gates, Don Baldwin said.
In a moment of general frustration, Baldwin sent an email to Rep. Spanberger. He received a personal return phone call from Natalie in her office. It was the moment when Washington became human, he said.
“Someone cared. Someone was going to try to get me some answers.”
Within 22 hours, Baldwin received an email from the U.S. Embassy instructing him to come to the Tel Aviv airport, a 30-40 minute drive away.
“I went to the airport without a ticket or without knowing where I might be going. A few hours later, I was on a no-name charter flight, along with nearly 200 other Americans on flight out of Tel Aviv headed to Athens, Greece.”
The flight took off after midnight.
“It takes about 20 minutes to take that left hook over the Mediterranean, it’s the middle of the night and you are hoping the plane doesn’t get hit by a rocket,” Baldwin said, describing moments of fear and unknown.
Rumbling of planes outside the airport caused anxious expressions, including from another Jewish couple Baldwin traveled with heading back to Minnesota. There were human connections made, he said of the shared experience.
“My sincerest thoughts and prayers go out to the people of Israel and to the people of Palestine, the innocent, every day human beings holding on to hope that one day peace shall come,” Baldwin said.
The tragedy of the war is that there is humanity on both sides, he said.
“I have friends in Israel and the West Bank. You see the humanity of the situation,” Baldwin said.
The reality actually enhances the message of the his new book about his journey through India. “A lot of times problems cannot be solved by bombs and weapons,” Baldwin said.
His time in Israel was different than what he envisioned, but the experience speaks volumes to the last three years of his work on “Alignment,” he said.
Baldwin was supposed to be working with cover designers during his recent trip for the book launch and attend meetings and other events. The Hamas attack changed everything.
“It really was like a 9/11 moment, the emotions of Americans at the time, the a shock and awe, that’s what the Israelis were going through … it is a heavy emotion to deal with,” he said.
Baldwin thanked Natalie, Spanberger and the men and women of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem at the airport in Tel Aviv for doing an amazing job in a complex and chaotic situation.
“Often it feels as if the government doesn’t work for the people, and so when it does it’s important to recognize and be appreciative of that moment,” he said.
Baldwin stayed a few days in Greece after fleeing Israel. He was in Munich, Germany for his 48th birthday and got to visit a castle in the Bavarian Alps.
Baldwin texted his father early morning a few days later that he was back home in Culpeper.
“His war adventure was over and out of visiting 33 countries, Israel was certainly the most stressful this time,” said Don Baldwin. “His 2019 visit to Israel was much better!”
Connor Joseph, Communications Director with Spanberger’s office, said after Baldwin reached out to them, their team coordinated with Bureau of Consular Affairs to ensure they were aware of his situation.
The Bureau ensured Baldwin had information needed to be manifested on a U.S. government-chartered flight out of Tel Aviv, Joseph said.
“Rep. Spanberger’s office has been in contact with the U.S. Department of State daily on how to best assist additional Virginians who may still be in the region,” he said.
Any Virginians in Israel, Gaza or the West Bank who need assistance getting home should complete the State Department’s crisis intake form at cacms.state.gov/s/crisis-intake, enroll in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program at step.state.gov/step/ to receive information and alerts for the region, and contact the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem at 833/890-9595 or 606/641-0131. Residents of the 7th District should also contact Spanberger’s office and they will do all that we can to connect them with travel.