Get hot: Soothe your soul at Israeli hot springs

That Tel Aviv and Los Angeles are located on almost the same latitude is not the only parallel between these two metropolises. Near both locales, geothermal activity deep below the Earth’s surface reveals mineral-rich thermal waters. Where to indulge in balneotherapy — treating disease by bathing — in Southern California is no secret, but some of Israel’s unique getaways may remain off your radar. Some actually date back thousands of years to the Talmud and the Roman Empire. These hot springs and “wellness attractions” are an ideal way to soothe your soul, from Israel’s north to south, in the brisk temps of winter after a long flight or any time you’d like to relax on a visit to the Holy Land. 


Hamat Gader
Hamat Gader, the site of ancient Greek city Gadara, is home to Israel’s largest and oldest spa complex. Established by the 10th Legion of the Roman Empire as the second-largest bathhouse in the entire empire, second-century Roman ruins stand within this massive 40-acre parkland. Hamat Gader’s 107-degree mineral water is pumped into two massive outdoor hot pools (one shaded, one open to the elements); an outdoor pool with a delicious, massaging hot waterfall; Jacuzzi beds; an indoor facility; and a higher-ticket-price, secluded area within the on-site hotel’s beautiful grounds. Relaxing in these waters is believed to speed up cell renewal, and relieve urinary tract and digestive issues. The young and young-at-heart will love the massive water slide that culminates in a dizzying bowl and lands you with a massive splash into a deep, cool plunge pool (not recommended for guests with neck and back problems). Within Hamat Gadar’s massive grounds, you can indulge in a wide range of spa treatments, seven restaurants (including kosher Asian, fish/meat, vegetarian), hot and wet saunas and a full gym. You can also visit the Hamat Gader crocodile farm, home to 200 beasts of various species, one of the largest in the Middle East. 

Hamat Gader is located on the southeastern part of the Sea of Galilee, a short distance from Tiberius. (4) 665-9964.

Tiberias Hot Springs
Mineral water from a whopping 17 different hot springs flows into the Tiberias Hot Springs. With almost 100 types of minerals erupting from more than 600 feet below sea level, the original location offers separate pools for men and women, and a newer Chamei Tiveria HaTzi’eira across the street offers a family-friendly environment. Known in the Talmud for their curative powers, these mineral waters and the accompanying services are a new twist on the ancient destination famous since antiquity. Complete with a gym, Finnish sauna, and health and beauty treatments, including a luxurious mud wrap, it is located a stone’s throw from Hamat Tiberias National Park. Enter the gardens through the Ernest Lehman/Haman Suleiman Museum (admission charged) and take care to avoid scalding yourself on the channels of steaming water flowing in the open air. Catch a glimpse of the ruins of ancient medicinal baths and the opulent historic Severus synagogue dating from the time of the Sanhedrin. This floor, the earliest synagogue mosaic in the country, features highly detailed images of menorahs and a zodiac calendar.
Located on Route 90 out of Tiberias South. Call the spa at (4) 672-8580,  and obtain more park information at


Hamei Ga’ash
While prospecting for oil in the 1980s, mineral springs were discovered at Ga’ash. Named for the biblical mountain beside the grave of Joshua, this kibbutz-run hot springs and day spa is located about 20 minutes north of Tel Aviv. Five hot springs feed the site and a beautiful, massive pool boasting 40 thermo-mineral water jets complements a water massage center with high-pressure sulfur jets and exceptionally large wet and dry saunas. Spa services include shiatsu, peeling (exfoliation), mud, reflexology and hot stone treatments. Packages are available that include a kosher meat meal, robe service and massage. To extend your visit overnight, bookings at the rural guesthouse, located within walking distance to the beach, include free admission to the spa and a 10 percent discount on spa services and restaurant meals.

Book treatments in advance by calling (9) 952-9404.


Ein Gedi Spa
As the lowest point on Earth, the Dead Sea is full of extremes. It boasts a 23 percent oxygen level in the air, the highest on the globe, and rates of 30 percent salinity, 8.6 times saltier than the ocean. Combine these conditions with the highest levels of calming bromine both evaporating off the sea and concentrated in the water at the Ein Gedi Spa, and a visit here is one serious recipe for deep relaxation. Soak in the sea itself, or even better, one of six intense sulfur pools — pumped from nearby hot springs. Legendary Dead Sea dips are multipurpose, scientifically proven to soothe muscles, joints, skin problems and respiratory concerns with unique healing properties unparalleled the world over. And Dead Sea mud, available in a large unlimited-use vat on the Ein Gedi Spa beach, reportedly absorbs toxins, strengthens hair and boosts circulation. Tram service to the beach, mud and access to single-sex and co-ed sulfur pools are included in the admission price. There is an additional nominal cost for towel and locker service. Located near Kibbutz Ein Gedi, which also offers tranquil accommodations.

(8) 659-4813.

Ein Gedi Spa Photo by Daniel Baránek


True to its name, the Dolphin Reef in Eilat is, of course, home to a pod of beautiful bottlenose dolphins. With paid admission, guests observe their natural activity in an ecological park. With higher-priced bookings, guests also swim, snorkel and dive with these amazing sea creatures. Unbeknownst to many visitors, however, the reef also boasts a lush garden hiding a large wooden terrace. Step inside this multilevel, massive sukkah and you’re treated to a feast for the senses. Tiny white lights twinkle over abundant cushions and couches to create a tranquil, “shanti” vibe, complete with views overlooking the Red Sea. All this is merely a backdrop for one of the coziest escapes in the entire south, if not all Israel. Contained in the lower level of the structure is a trifecta of Relaxation Pools. Although open year-round, these pools are heated just right, making them even more tempting in cooler temperatures. Three stress-reducing flavors provide options to chill out in the shallow fresh water, give yourself an impromptu salt exfoliation in the zero-gravity, complete flotation, high-intensity salt pool or make like a dolphin in sea water. These womb-like pools boast other added features: underwater music, flotation “noodles” and staff to arrange these colorful supports under your neck and limbs and gently guide you through the water. For ages 18 and up, each two-hour visit includes light refreshments and towel service. Advance reservations required, with additional costs for guided flotation sessions. For extra cozy points, book your visit at night. But since the cost includes admission to the Dolphin Reef beach for the day, arrive earlier to catch a glimpse of these amazing mammals.

(8) 630-0111.

Dolphinarium, Eilat Photo courtesy Israel Ministry of Tourism

Calling Israel
When outside of Israel, add 011-972 before the phone number. Within Israel, add a zero before the area code

Award-winning journalist Lisa Alcalay Klug has written hundreds of articles for mainstream and Jewish media outlets, including The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Jerusalem Post. She 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 everywhere books are sold.

Ten years after the Dolphinarium attack, a turning point for Israel’s Russian-speaking immigrants

Faina Dorfman, who immigrated to Israel from Uzbekistan hoping that her only child would have a better life here, walks along a stretch of beach just south of a tattered seaside disco called the Dolphinarium.

Ten years ago, a young Palestinian detonated a bomb packed with nails and bullets as he stood amid a crowd waiting to be let inside for a night of dancing.

The suicide bomber stole away the life of Dorfman’s 15-year-old daughter, Yevgenia (known as Genya), along with the lives of 20 others, most of them teenage immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

“The world is a crazy place where people kill each other and never learn,” said Dorfman, a strong sea breeze blowing as she spoke. “Like everyone else, I never thought this madness would reach me, my family.”

The June 1, 2001 attack, which also wounded more than 100, would become seared into the Israeli consciousness as one of the most infamous of the second Intifada.

For Russian-speaking immigrants, the bombing marked an initiation to the reality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that would bring them into the fold of Israeli society in the most painful of ways.

“It was seen as sort of a right of passage as it is described in anthropological terms,” said Larissa Remennick, a professor of sociology at Bar-Ilan University. “To become one of ‘us’ is to demonstrate participation in a national log of losses, that you too have paid a toll.

“Despite the terrible nature of this tragedy, the Russian community, if it can be called a community, was kind of christened in blood together,” said Remennick, whose research focuses on Russian Jewish immigrants around the world.

In the 10 years since, Russian-speaking immigrants have gone on to pay a disproportionate toll in terms of suffering, some experts argue, as many live in border areas in northern and southern Israel that have been the repeated targets of rocket attacks by terrorists in Gaza and Lebanon.

Ruth Bar-On, founder of SELAH, an acronym for the Israel Crisis Management Center, which assists immigrants affected by sudden tragedy, rejects the sentiment described by Remennick and expressed at the time of the attack that such suffering is a way into the Israeli collective.

Instead, Bar-On points to the outpouring of compassion and support by native Israelis seeking to help the families of those killed or injured following the attack.

Some 600 people volunteered their services within two days after the explosion, she said.

“It was a turning point, this wave of support, compassion and generosity,” Bar-On said.

“It is something that touched everyone … because everyone wants a better future for children, and all the parents repeated this description of this being why they had come here,” she said, referring to those who had lost children in the attack. “It’s something that touched every Israeli.

“And Israelis also simply got to know these families, whether bereaved or of the wounded, and got to know the young people affected because of the massive media attention.”

Dorfman, a museum curator in her native city of Tashkent, who after immigrating to Israel in 1994 cleaned apartments and stairwells to support herself and Genya, said she might not have have survived the tragedy without the support she received from SELAH volunteers and other Israelis.

“If something like this happened in Tashkent I would have been totally alone in coping, but here,” she said, exclaiming, “There was so much support.”

Dorfman remains in touch with fellow members of a support group that SELAH formed of bereaved parents from the Dolphinarium attack. She also traveled with the group for what the organization calls healing retreats.

The attack transformed so much, she said, but it also reshaped her identity.

“Before, when I would say how ‘we’ did things, I was referring to life in the FSU because I did not feel as deeply part of society then. After the attack when I spoke of ‘we’ and ‘us’ I meant as an Israeli,” she said.

With her daughter at the time of the attack was Genya’s best friend, Sonya Shistik. The two had been classmates and neighbors in the Tel Aviv suburb of Bat Yam, their bond forged in a ballet class where both were serious dancers.

Both were critically injured from the bomb and left unconscious for days. Genya died of her wounds 2 1/2 weeks later—on June 19, the same day Shistik, by then conscious, turned 16 and asked what happened to her friend.

Shistik, who spent months in the hospital and had multiple operations, said it was too painful to speak about the attack. But she offered that like Dorfman, she also felt her identity transition from feeling somewhat like an outsider as an immigrant to feeling more rooted here.

“I felt more Israeli after the attack,” said Shistik, who immigrated to Israel from Siberia as a young girl. She added, “It had something to do about being connected to an event so specifically part of the conflict.”

Now 25 and living in Jerusalem, Shistik works doing voice and movement therapy.

Michael Philippov, a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute specializing in the political behavior of immigrants to Israel from the former Soviet Union, said the disproportionate number of immigrants affected by terror and rocket attacks has done nothing to dampen their nationalistic spirit but has made them more likely to leave the country.

“People don’t talk about it, but the fact that immigrants have been relatively hurt more by such attacks has led to various processes,” most notably the decision to make their lives elsewhere, he said, often in Canada, Australia or larger cities in Russia.

According to official statistics, some 90,000 immigrants from the FSU who came to Israel as part of the historic wave of immigration that began with the fall of the Iron Curtain have left the country. But Philippov said the figures do not include immigrants who have left but return annually to visit relatives here, estimating the real figure to be significantly higher.

He cited government statistics that revealed approximately 60 percent of those who emigrated from Israel in recent years were Russian-speaking immigrants.

“When asked why they leave in surveys, they said that they feel more affected more and under threat than sabras,” he said, referring to native-born Israelis.

Meanwhile Dorfman, the bereaved mother, feels that Israel is home. She says she tries to focus on the beauty of everyday life and volunteers at SELAH, where she teaches workshops to other bereaved immigrants on how to harness a bit of that beauty through the art of flower arranging.

Helping others, Dorfman said, “helps me move forward.”

Her dark, almond-shaped eyes fixed on the shimmering Mediterranean, she adds that “I was looking for something that would help me get on with the work of living.”