Visitors centers offer a warm welcome

If you’ve already visited Israel, you know that the hospitality is legendary. Everyone, it seems, has a friend or cousin somewhere that you should look up. But they aren’t the only people who will welcome you. The entire country is host to “visitors centers” from north to south, from the Golan to Ashkelon, that invite you to learn, taste and explore the Holy Land’s resources. In fact, Israel boasts a wide range of these open houses, including spots of historical importance, as well as “foodie havens” for award-winning beer, wine and olive oil. While these sites are open to the public year-round, some of them offer special activities during holiday periods, so check their Web sites before your visit for the most up-to-date information. 

In the Bible, the land of Israel is blessed with seven species of botanicals, including wheat, barley, grape, figs, pomegranates, olives and honey (Deuteronomy 8:8). It’s obvious which headlines at the Eretz Geshur Olive Oil Visitors Center. Here, nine premium kosher olive oils, grown and pressed in Israel, range in taste and aroma. The mild, fruity and gentle oils include the Italian Leccino and Spanish Arbequina. The midrange, highly defined herbaceous Greek Koroneiki is neither pungent nor bitter. These contrast with the bold flavors of Picholine from the French Pyrenees and Coratina from Southern Italy. All are yours for free tasting, sip by tiny sip, during a complimentary tour with a short film screened in both English and Hebrew. Tours at this boutique cold press olive mill, whose products were cited as among “the world’s best extra virgin olive oils” at the prestigious Flos Olei competition in Italy, reveal the story of olive production, from seedling to bottle. The visitors center hours vary during the holidays. To see the olive mill in operation during the annual pressing, plan a visit in November or December. Consider a 15-minute drive from the center to see the picturesque olive orchard.

The cool dry mountain air and the basalt soil of the Galilee — 800 meters above sea level — are ideal for cultivating choice wine grapes. Cabernet sauvignon, merlot, shiraz and more grow at the organic Katidah Vineyards. At nearby Tzuriel, the Saslove Winery has been using this prized fruit to produce award-winning wines for the past decade under the direction of vintner Barry Saslove, a former computer engineer from Canada. Every visit to the winery’s visitors center at Kibbutz Eyal (near Kfar Saba) includes wine tasting (kosher and non-kosher) and explanations of the winemaking process. The visitors center hours vary. (0)9-749-2697. The Saslove Winery in Tzuriel is open by appointment only. Call in advance to schedule. (0)4-997-8304.

Step back in time — and underground — at the City of David Visitors Center. Located minutes away from the Kotel (the Western Wall) and the Dung Gate of the Old City, the City of David marks every holiday with a series of special attractions. A sound-and-light show is projected on above-ground antiquities. Group-sized bike rides and two-hour Segway tours explore other parts of the city. One of the most exciting offerings is the newly opened underground exploration of an ancient water drainage channel connecting the biblical Shiloach Pool in the lowest part of the City of David excavations to the Western Wall. Other attractions include the “Temple Mount Sifting Project,” in which visitors sort Old City rubble from recent excavations. City of David Visitors Center, Shiloach Village, Jerusalem. (0)2-626-8700.

The metal workshop known as “Mechanika” is among the highlights of a visit to Mikve Israel Visitors Center. Israel’s first agricultural school has run continuously since its founding in 1870. It now boasts more than 1,000 students, both religious and non-religious. Its visitors’ center tells the story of the country’s early ideological platform supporting an agricultural-based economy. Founded by Karl Netter of the Alliance Israélite Universelle, this French Jewish organization acquired 750 acres of land from the region’s 19th century Ottoman Turkish rulers and implemented a progressive educational program that continues to the present day. So important was the school in Israel’s national identity, that when Theodore Herzl visited the country in 1898, he arranged to meet Kaiser Wilhelm II, the last German emperor and king of Prussia, at the school’s main entrance. Today, an old palm tree-lined boulevard leads the way. Located south of Tel Aviv in the city of Holon, the school’s many special features include Mechanika, the workshop that produced early agricultural tools, as well as the Davidka mortar, a weapon critical to Israel’s success in the 1948 War of Independence. Other features include an underground sandstone wine cellar, a botanical garden, a historic synagogue, a short film for visitors and the national headquarters of the Society for Preservation of Israel Heritage Sites. Groups of 15 are welcome to schedule tours in English by writing in advance. (0)3-503-0489.

Ancient beer jugs, barley from the Bronze Age and l’chaims of cold beer are all on tap at the on-site pub of the Carlsberg-Israel Visitors Center. Located in Ashkelon, 35 miles south of Tel Aviv, 90-minute tours for adults ($5.75) and kids ages 10 and up ($4.50) include the story of beer production in ancient times. On display are archaeological finds including ancient filters to remove barley grains from beer. Operated by Israel Beer Breweries Limited, the factory produces Tuborg, Stella Artois and Prigat fruit-flavored drinks in addition to Carlsberg, the Danish beer that entered the Israeli market 20 years ago. The center, at 5 Bar Lev Ave., is located 20 minutes from the Ashkelon train station. Sunday-Thursday, 8 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. Call in advance to schedule a tour. (0)8-674-0727.

Journalist Lisa Alcalay Klug is the author of “Cool Jew: The Ultimate Guide for Every Member of the Tribe,” a National Jewish Book Award Finalist. Her next book, “Hot Mamalah: The Ultimate Guide for Every Woman of the Tribe,” debuts October 2012.

Where Have All the Jews Gone?

It was one of those moments that capture a nation’s interest. The Powerball Lottery reached $314.9 million and one person, Andrew J. Whittaker from Hurricane, W.Va., was the lucky winner. As the media descended upon him and his wife, Jewell, asking them about everything under the sun, one question caught my attention. Jewell was asked what she wanted do with her newfound wealth. Without hesitation she responded, "I want to visit the Holy Land and walk the streets where Jesus walked."

Fascinating. She didn’t mention any concern about traveling to Israel during these trying times; rather, she simply expressed her strong desire to fulfill this lifelong dream.

Recently, a friend told me that his brother and sister-in-law flew from Newark, N.J., to Israel. The plane was filled with Christian church groups traveling on a Holy Land pilgrimage. When his sister-in-law got up to walk in the aisles, a fellow passenger stopped and inquired, "And what church are you from?"

When she said that she was Jewish, the lady remarked, "I think you are the only Jew on this flight."

Where have all the Jews gone? Not to Israel.

Take a look at the ads for luxury Passover destinations in any of the Anglo Jewish papers. You will find ads for Palm Springs, Phoenix, Scottsdale, Miami, Orlando, Hawaii, San Juan, Cancun, Puerto Vallarta, Aruba, Barcelona, Budapest, Cannes, Italy and the Swiss Alps. Where have all the Jews gone? Not to Israel. That has to change; we have to demonstrate that American Jews belong in Israel this Passover.

On Monday, Dec. 23, 2002, the West Coast Union of Orthodox Congregations and the Israel Ministry of Tourism honored my synagogue, Young Israel of Century City, for organizing three solidarity missions to Israel during 2002. We went in January, July and November. I was informed of this honor while leading the November mission. I was thrilled with the announcement but asked why we were chosen. I was told that no other synagogue in the city organized so many missions in one year. On the one hand, I was proud; on the other, I felt despair that others weren’t going.

Why haven’t many other congregations organized even one mission to Israel during this period? Why doesn’t our own Jewish Federation organize more solidarity missions throughout the year? Our synagogue participated in a communitywide mission that The Federation ran almost two years ago, but isn’t it time now for many more missions to occur? Is there anything more crucial than helping the State of Israel overcome her feeling of abandonment during these difficult days?

On each mission we found the country empty of tourists. On one trip a member of our group needed to change his room in the hotel. When he inquired about the availability of another room, the clerk laughed and said, "How many rooms would you like? You are the only ones in the hotel."

Jerusalem at night, once a haven of tourists, is too silent to bear. Businesses, once dependent upon the Jewish tourist trade, are closing. On each of our trips, Israelis stopped us in the streets and thanked us for visiting. They told us, "When you return to the United States, tell others to come. This is their home. Why aren’t they here with us?"

On a recent speaking tour of Los Angeles, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel, recounted the following: During the 1948 War of Independence, the great rabbinic figure of Bnei Brak, the Hazon Ish, instructed that no Jews should leave the country, even if they are fearful, since this would harm the nation’s stability. A Jew, the Hazon Ish declared, is morally and halachically obligated to strengthen Israel and may never do anything that may harm her. Relying on this observation, Riskin told his audience that now it is our turn to strengthen Israel. There is no more important act, the rabbi said, than to come to Israel and be with her people.

After delivering one of my many impassioned sermons on this topic, a member of my congregation asked me why I am so driven by this issue. I told him that two factors have influenced my thinking. The first occurred while I was still a boy. It was the Six-Day War. Right before the war began, and as the drums of battle were beginning to be heard, a cartoon appeared in the Israeli press. American Jews in Israel at that time quickly packed and left for safer havens, and the cartoon sarcastically depicted this state of affairs with the caption, "Will the last American Jew to leave Lod Airport please turn off the lights." After seeing that cartoon, I became convinced that no American Jew should ever allow such a situation to occur again.

The second reason is history itself. All students of the Holocaust know that American Jewry did not do enough on behalf of their suffering brethren in Europe. We remained too complacent during those terrible times. When the history of this period will be written I don’t want the same indictment to be lodged against our community. We must literally stand shoulder to shoulder with our Israeli brethren in their time of need.

So, where have all the Jews gone? The answer must be — on a solidarity mission to Israel.

Elazar Muskin is rabbi of Young Israel of Century City.