A vision for an oasis in the desert: Timna Park


Three decades ago, a man from Milwaukee looked out at a lonely stretch of the Negev desert in southern Israel and decided to create something seemingly impossible: a tourism draw.

Avrum Chudnow, a developer and active member of the Jewish National Fund (JNF), knew the beautiful yet isolated region — once a center for copper mining — could benefit from an economic boost. He was also fascinated with the idea of using advances in technology to bring water into the desert. Working with Moshe Rivlin, then the chairman of Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-JNF in Israel, he devised a plan to do just that.

“He said, ‘How can we draw people to this remote, kind of desolate area? It’s beautiful, but it’s not exactly Jerusalem or Tel Aviv,’ ” said David Chudnow, the late Avrum Chudnow’s son and an attorney in West Los Angeles. “So the first thing they decided to do was put in a lake, in the middle of the desert.”

More than 30 years later, that isolated patch of desert is now the 15,000-acre Timna Park (parktimna.co.il). At its heart is a 4-acre artificial lake, the outcome of Avrum Chudnow’s vision, achieved by pumping leftover water from abandoned modern mines. Visitors to the park can also experience historic copper mines that date back to the time of King Solomon, see ancient Egyptian rock drawings, marvel at spectacular rock formations and striated rock, go hiking and camping, ride mountain bikes, engage in rock climbing, rent boats, and see wild animals such as antelope and ibex. 

“It’s one of those rare, special jewels of the world, and when you go, the history comes alive, the beauty comes alive, and the best of what Mother Nature can create comes alive,” said Russell Robinson, chief executive officer of JNF, which continues to sponsor development of the park along with the Chudnow family and others. 

When people visit Israel, “there’s always those must-go places to see,” Robinson said. “Timna national park is one of those you’ve got to put on that list with everything else.”

Today the park, located about 17 miles north of Eliat, attracts about 125,000 visitors a year. That number is expected to grow as Israel constructs a new international airport next to the park, Robinson said. Visitors can come for the day, camp next to the lake or stay at nearby kibbutzim, David Chudnow said.

Continuing Avrum Chudnow’s legacy, David and other family members have poured millions of dollars into the park’s development. In March, the park dedicated the new Chudnow Visitor Center, which provides visitors with interactive exhibits about the park and the historic copper mines; it also serves as an event hall. Numerous events are held in the park throughout the year, including concerts, weddings, bar mitzvahs, chariot races and even a hot-air balloon festival.

Robinson said the Chudnow family’s monetary contributions to the park have been extremely important to its development, but the biggest impact — Avrum Chudnow’s vision — is what made the park possible.

“He dreamed big,” said Robinson. “Where other people would have seen just a vast unknown, he dreamed a big dream and said this is something that was created by something greater than us. We’ve got to bring the public to see it and enjoy it and to experience it.” 

David Chudnow, who attends Temple Beth Am and is a 30-year board member of the Jewish National Fund in the Los Angeles Region, said watching the park evolve since those early days when his father first took an interest in it has been like watching a child grow.

“I think my father would be happy with it,” he concluded.

Interested in visiting Timna Park? Check out these highlights: 

The lake: Here you’ll find shaded seating areas, a playground, restaurant and souvenir shop. Rent pedal boats or make bottles filled with colored sand. You can also visit a reconstructed Tabernacle. A lakeside campground offers large tents with mats and mattresses, or you can pitch your own tent. There are also hot showers, toilets, lighting and water. (Overnight camping requires reservations.) 

Mines: Ancient copper mines, mining shafts and smelting furnaces are located throughout the park. The mines have been linked to Egyptians living in the 13th century B.C.E., but recent radio carbon dating by researchers from Tel Aviv University suggests the mines operated during the time of King Solomon in the 10th century B.C.E.

Rock formations and carvings: Scenic wonders inside Timna Park include Solomon’s Pillars (giant sandstone columns that jut out from a rock face) and the Mushroom (a large boulder on top of a sandstone column). You can also see what are thought to be ancient Egyptian rock carvings of figures in chariots.

Hiking and adventure sports: Numerous hiking trails in the park cater to all experience levels. Mountain biking is another popular option for seeing Timna, and there are six cycling routes in the park. Other adventure activities include rappelling and a small zipline. 

A food tour of Israel’s cities


Mediterranean cuisine is consumed with gusto all over the world. While many dishes commonly enjoyed in Israel originate elsewhere, things like hummus, falafel, kibbeh, and shakshuka have been adopted into Israeli tradition with the recent advent of “foodie-ism” by chefs all over the country.

What’s more, every city in Israel has its own unique approach and local flavors. From the street food of Jerusalem to the haute cuisine of Tel Aviv, the options are endless and sure to offer a unique culinary experience for the discerning epicurean.

Jerusalem

The Holy City is best known for its hypnotic architecture, spiritual effect, and historic significance. Home to a uniquely diverse range of religions and ethnic groups, the city has birthed a composite food revolution marrying the city’s varied flavors and culinary traditions. Not surprisingly, the capital city is famous for having the best hummus in Israel, and possibly the world. Particularly lauded among the city’s hummus joints is Abu Shukri, a little hole-in-the-wall in the Muslim Quarter, for which the Wall Street Journal says: “If you are to consume only one plate of hummus in Jerusalem, this is the place to do it.”

Of course, you can’t do J-Town without visiting Mahane Yehuda, one of the busiest shuks in the country, where you’re guaranteed to get drunk on the scents of fresh bread and aromatic spices. This is your chance to marvel in freshly baked goods. Experience street food like never before with warm za’atar-coated flatbreads and potato and mushroom-stuffed bourekas. To finish on a sweet note, indulge in the dreamlike, chocolate-and-filo-dough morsels known as rugelach for dessert. Don’t forget to stop by the Halva Kingdom to sample the sweet sesame treat in over 100 different varieties, all homemade and ground by millstone.

Tel Aviv

While there’s no shortage of traditional Middle Eastern fare in Tel Aviv, this modern metropolis is home to incredibly diverse fine dining, ethnic, and experimental options. If you’re going international, The Brasserie on Kikar Rabin serves up its French delicacies 24 hours a day, while the atmosphere and Spanish tapas at Vicky Christina in Hatachana will take you to the other end of the Mediterranean. The food at Topolopompo is even more fun than its name. Enjoy an acclaimed, finely-honed menu of Asian fusion dishes. For some of the best Asian cuisine in Tel Aviv, try Taizu – that is, of course, if you can get a table.

Dizengoff has earned its reputation as a cultural mecca, so you can’t go wrong with exploring this central bustling street. The perfect balance of flavors at Sabich Frishman will make you redefine what ‘sandwich’ even means, while Keton will warm your heart with awesome traditional Ashkenazi dishes like chicken soup and chopped liver.

Then, for a sunset stroll on the Tel Aviv boardwalk, absolutely nothing in the world compares to frozen yogurt, Israeli style. Like all culinary feats, the key is to have a strong base. The secret lies in the fresh, creamy yogurt produced from the incredible dairy produced by Israeli cows. Pick from a variety of mouth-watering ingredients to create a mind-blowing frozen treat.

Eilat

If you’re doing the resort thing, Eilat is an absolute seaside gem for vacationers. And with the seaside comes incredibly fresh seafood! High among the heavy hitters is Rak Dagim, a fish joint serving fresh, locally caught treasures. Rak Dagim is also one of the oldest restaurants in Eilat and utilizes characteristic Israeli flavors on their extensive menu.

To juxtapose that, Pastori on Tarshish Street combines locally caught seafood with Italian flavors to showcase a different kind of Mediterranean food. Then, of course, there’s nothing better than ending a meal with seaside gelato.

Haifa

This northern city and cultural hub is set against the beach-lined backdrop of the Mediterranean and caters to foodies of every type and budget. Sitting adjacent to one of Haifa’s central mosques, Abu Marwan is known as the best hummus in town. Must-haves include their hummus with lamb, the mashwasha, and their spicy fries.

For a delightfully carnivorous meal, try Limousine, a famed steakhouse run by two “Israeli cowboys.” Locavores delight in the regionally raised, high-quality meat prepared in a variety of styles and accompanied by beers of both Israeli and European origins.

Go light and flavorful with breakfast the next morning at Café Louise on Mount Carmel. Serving a natural, culinary experience, the café offers both the traditional salad-and-spread ‘kibbutz-style’ breakfast as well as a ‘Western style’ brunch. Louise also boasts a variety of vegan and veggie options, as well as a whole menu of juices that are so fresh, you’ll instantly feel superhuman.

No matter where you go in Israel, the food is unforgettable. The downside? You’ll be craving that Abu Shukri hummus for months afterward.

For more information on traveling Israel, click here.

Navigating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through Airbnb


The first decision an adventurous traveler faces when seeking an Airbnb property in the West Bank is what to type in the search box: “West Bank”? “Judea and Samaria”? “Israel”? “Palestine”? The blinking cursor symbolizes the confusion and controversy surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

On Airbnb’s website, when you zoom in on the map of Israel, you’ll find more than a dozen properties on these contentious lands: in the Jewish settlements of Ma’aleh Adumim, Kfar Adumim, Mitzpe Yericho and Ariel, and also in the Palestinian cities of Bethlehem, Ramallah and Jericho. By this algorithm, Airbnb would seem to subscribe to the “one-state solution.” Then again, “Palestine” also appears in a search — in the West Bank and Gaza. 

Alex and Olga Slobodov rent out a room in their home in Kfar Adumim, a mixed religious-secular settlement east of Jerusalem whose prominent residents include Jewish Home MK Uri Ariel and former MK Aryeh Eldad. Through Airbnb, I arranged to stay with them for one night. 

During my stay, I learned that the couple had no idea that Airbnb efforts like theirs, in Jewish settlements, were making international headlines. But if it were up to some organizations, Israeli properties located beyond the Green Line wouldn’t appear at all on Airbnb. Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), a supporter of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, is leading a coalition to petition Airbnb to ban properties like the Slobodovs’, accusing settlements of being built on illegal, stolen land. (Its petition has garnered about 140,000 signatories.)

“In my view,” Alex said in Hebrew at his spacious kitchen table over a dinner of Russian chicken patties, “we’re in Israel. I’m not something outside. I’m in the borders of Israel. I feel no difference. Actually, there is no difference except that Palestinians also drive these roads.” 

The widow and widower started a new life together five years ago and sought a practical solution for the bedroom that once housed Alex’s now-deceased in-laws. Alex is a Russian Israeli who recently retired as an auditor for the Department of Housing, and Olga is a non-Jewish Ukrainian Israeli who works as a housekeeper. They are only a few months into their Airbnb operation and have already hosted a handful of people from the United States, Belgium, Australia and Argentina.

For $34 (U.S.) per night, the Slobodovs offer what they describe as a “cozy” room, accessed via a private entrance, equipped with a bed, sofa and a newly refurbished bathroom. Their multilevel country home overlooking the Jordan Valley is similar to those seen in many Jewish settlements and rural towns. A drive with Alex to observation points overlooking Wadi Qelt and the Dead Sea on a clear day reveals why the settlement is an appealing option for travelers and Israeli residents alike: the Judean desert air, expansive views and village vibe. 

A 10-minute drive away is Mitzpe Yericho (loosely translated as Jericho Point), a religious settlement where Judith (last name withheld upon request), an olah (a female who makes aliyah) who emigrated from Germany 28 years ago, decided to try her hand at Airbnb after her children left home. Since June 2015, she’s accommodated about two dozen reservations, largely of German speakers. She, too, was unaware that organizations were lobbying against her mini-business. The only guest who was upset about her location was someone she believes should have known better. 

“One came specifically from Tel Aviv, a new olah from the U.S., in Israel for three to four years, and she told me after that it’s too bad that I don’t write that it’s in West Bank,” Judith said in a phone interview.

Judith was dismayed when a group of European tourists recently canceled its reservation, alleging that the group’s car rental company, TUI Cars, didn’t cover travel into the Palestinian territories. She argued that her village falls within Area C, which is under full Israeli control, but to no avail. She said that once in a while, per request, she’ll discuss Israeli politics, but she doesn’t consider herself “right wing.” She chose Mitzpe Yericho decades ago for its quality of life.

Alex Slobodov

In +972, an online magazine that generally hews to the political views of JVP, a reporter going by “John Brown” posed as “Haled,” an American of Palestinian descent, to determine how his requests would be received by Airbnb hosts in Jewish settlements. He was met with mixed reactions. Hosts in Tekoa in the Gush Etzion Bloc accepted his booking, provided he was willing to go through the procedural security check; others declined because of the tense political situation. 

I decided to see how requests to book a room in Ramallah — as an American Jew living in Tel Aviv — would be received. I also inquired of potential hosts whether they believed I would be safe. One person I contacted declined my request, citing unavailability. A potential host in Bethlehem wrote: “It’s safe as long as you don’t say where you’re from.”

But a different potential host in Ramallah was, eventually, more direct: 

“I doubt there will be any security issues, but unfortunately I can’t host you in my house if you are an Israeli citizen.” I revealed my Israeli citizenship and reasoned, naively perhaps, that the issue was legal. “Is the problem from the Israeli or PA side?” I asked, since Israeli law forbids Israeli citizens from entering Palestinian Area A (although during my past forays into Ramallah and Nablus, no one checked my ID).

“Well, you won’t have any problem from any side,” this person replied. “It’s actually a personal issue. I don’t know if anyone else will host you; as for me, I can’t.” 

When asked for JVP’s opinion on Palestinian Airbnb hosts rejecting Jewish or Israeli guests, JVP Deputy Director Stefanie Fox wrote: “Palestinians living under occupation have the right to use nonviolent tools, such as boycott and non-cooperation, to resist the policies and practices that threaten their lives and their rights.” 

But then I found a host from Bethlehem who immediately accepted my request to book as an “American currently living in Tel Aviv.”

When I told the Slobodovs about my interest in visiting Bethlehem via Airbnb, Olga shook her head, fearing for my safety. She also said she would be wary of hosting an Arab-Muslim Israeli, given the threat in Israel — and elsewhere around the world — of Islamic terror. 

Judith told me that an Arab Israeli from Jerusalem once requested to book her Mitzpe Yericho room for four guests under a reservation for one. 

“I thought: What’s wrong with him?” Judith said, figuring they’d feel more comfortable in Jericho proper. She, too, declined out of safety concerns, but told the potential guest that the room was “unavailable.”

In response to questions from me, Airbnb spokesperson Nick Papas sent the company’s standard reply: “We believe in the transformative power of allowing people to share experiences that can come from sharing a home. … We follow laws on where we can do business and we investigate specific concerns raised about listings and/or discrimination.” 

So, when people browse the listings of Airbnb properties, such as “Cozy room in Jordan Valley” or “Guest house in Bethlehem,” they can imagine either conflict or how life could be: a mosaic of coexistence. Ironically, it’s the people who live closest to one another and are most in need of sitting down for a living-room chat — Israelis and Palestinians — who it appears can’t take advantage of Airbnb’s “transformative power” in Israel, Palestine, the West Bank, Judea and Samaria, or … whatever you choose to call these lands.

Multi-generation trip to Israel: Who said only adults get to have all the fun?


Many parents these days are looking to give their kids an unforgettable vacation experience. A family vacation is always about spending quality time together. A family vacation in Israel means spending that quality time to not only get closer to each other, but to also build a lasting love for the land and its heritage and to create memories to cherish over the years.

The best news about traveling to Israel with your kids is that the country is very child-friendly.  Throughout the year, Israel offers dozens of nature park activities as well as museums, sports attractions, water parks, beautiful beaches, relaxing spas and great food.

The Children’s Museum offers a great opportunity for children (and adults too!) to experience the life of a blind person while traveling through a dark room with only your sense of hearing and touch to guide you.  Other museum options appropriate for both children and grownups are the Madatech, the science museum in Jerusalem, as well as the science museum in Haifa and the famous “Mini Israel,” a park located 15 minutes outside Jerusalem.

Exploring Israel’s outdoor activities and beautiful nature are always a wonderful way to spend the day. There are various parks that have waterfalls, amazing flower gardens and stunning views. Other than the cold winter months, 90% of the year family trips can be spent enjoying the outdoors. Although the summer months can be quite humid, it will give you and your kids the opportunity to put the phones down for a few hours. Choosing between different levels of difficulty, Israel offers some of the most amazing hiking trails and walks such as the Yehudia, El-Al Rainfall and David Waterfall in the Dead Sea.   

Another great option is visiting the various petting zoos at some of the many kibbutzim and moshavim, some of which also offer country-style accommodations. And kids never forget their first view of the world from high atop a camel when they visit a Bedouin tent. Some kibbutzim and moshavim also offer special activities based on their produce or special history – one has a honey museum while another shows off its pioneer past by offering a chance for kids to dress-up in costume.

Eilat, Tiberius, Tel Aviv and other major cities offer kid-friendly hotels and resorts with kids' clubs. You can send the kids there for a couple of hours so you can take time to enjoy the spa, sit with a good book at the pool or just relax. Kids’ clubs usually host arts and crafts and other activities with around the clock child care with experienced caretakers. In Eilat kids can swim with the dolphins at a beautiful private beach where the family can spend the whole day together combining water activities and rest.

We recommend making planning your daily outings part of the fun; gather around the computer screen and start building your go-to wish-list with your kids by searching “Israel + Kids”. Even if you planned the trip by yourself without the kids, spend a few moments walking through your plans with them so they will be a part of the trip and have a chance to be more involved in the activities you do together.  Look into the possibility of having your travel planner include a youth counselor on your tour who will work with the kids. Another option is a private tour, where you can communicate with your guide ahead of time and plan all the sites and experiences you and your family will love best. The possibilities are endless! The most important thing is to have fun and enjoy every minute of this beautiful country. Make it a trip to remember!

Visit Israel Ministry of Tourism for more details.

Blurring Israel’s Green Line


There is probably no Israel tour quite like that offered by Lydia Aisenberg, which focuses on the Green Line — the demarcation between Israel and its neighbors set in the 1949 Armistice Agreement after the end of Israel’s War of Independence. Since 1967, when Israel took military control of the area east of it, the Green Line has been controversial. 

“Over the last few decades, there’s been a concerted effort in Israel to blur the Green Line,” Aisenberg said, handing out a map showing the line in green, as well as an orange line marking the security wall and a blue line marking the 1947 boundary rejected by Jordan and other neighbors. Aisenberg said that taking visitors to the Green Line is considered disloyal by some Israelis. On one occasion, when she brought a group of European visitors to a checkpoint near the Green Line, an Israeli military guard called the 69-year-old a zona — a prostitute. 

“That’s when humor kicks in,” she said. “So I tell the guard at the checkpoint: ‘I’m delighted that you think a young man would spend good money to sleep with me!’ ”

Aisenberg’s tour of the Green Line and related locations is offered under the auspices of Givat Haviva, an Israeli-based nonprofit located in northern Israel. Founded in 1949, Givat Haviva (The Israeli Arab town of Barta’a. 

Although the physical barrier is no longer there, another kind of barrier persists: Those who live in West Barta’a are Israeli citizens while the Arabs who live in East Barta’a are not, and are thus not covered by Israeli institutions, such as universal health care. On the other hand, East Barta’a isn’t hampered by Israeli laws. As a result, East Barta’a has turned into a bustling free-trade zone where Israelis — Arabs and Jews — buy cheap goods.

Stylish hijabs for sale in a Barta’a store window

Aisenberg greeted and was greeted by Barta’a residents on both sides of town, Arabs who know her well. Those on the tour got a chance to interact with Aisenberg’s Arab friends, and she told poignant stories the residents have shared with her about their lives. Aisenberg said she sees Barta’a —where families are split by two different citizenships — as “a concrete, potent symbol” for Israel’s condition.  

And that’s when it became clear to Rafi that the aim of Aisenberg’s tour is to ask: How can Israeli Arabs and Jews find ways to connect with one another? The idea of a shared society is fundamental to Aisenberg’s — and Givat Haviva’s — vision for what Israel can become: a place where, Aisenberg said, “Arab citizens feel they have a stake in Israel’s future.”

Aisenberg is not naïve. She knows that she and Givat Haviva, advocating for peace and understanding, are swimming against the tide. But the latest round of violence hasn’t dampened Aisenberg’s — or Givat Haviva’s — determination to educate Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs in the importance of learning each other’s narrative. 

“We talk about the Green Line so that foreigners and Israeli citizens are better informed, so that judgments are based on facts, not on beliefs,” Aisenberg said. “By showing people both sides of the situation, with any luck, we can become neighbors instead of enemies.” 

Amid terror wave, Israel sells over 900 tour packages through Groupon


More than 900 discounted vacation packages to Israel have been sold through the marketing website Groupon.

Some 920 eight-day tour packages had been sold for $999 each on the website as of Thursday afternoon. The trips, marketed jointly with Israel’s Tourism Ministry, include flights, hotels and tours throughout the country. They have been on sale for less than a week and will remain on sale for seven more days.

“As a result of the success of the campaign, I have issued instructions to try and expand the marketing efforts and cooperation with discount sales sites in other countries,” Israeli Tourism Minister Yariv Levin said in a statement Thursday.

The offer comes amid a wave of terror that has affected tourism to Israel, the Israeli daily Yediot Acharonot reported. The package is designed “to project a sense of business as usual and encourage tourism during the months when hotel occupancies in Israel are low,” Levin  told the newspaper.

The best is yet to come in evolving Israeli tourism


Following a record year for tourism in 2013 — when 3.5 million visitors came to the Holy Land — things got off to an even better start in 2014. More people were on track to visit than ever … until the Gaza war last summer. By year’s end, the overall number of tourists arriving was down 8 percent to 3.25 million. 

Still, Israeli Minister of Tourism Uzi Landau remains confident that the best is yet to come. A member of the Knesset for more than 30 years who has a doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he sat down with the Journal at the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza hotel Feb. 27 during a trip to Los Angeles. He spoke about the impact of security concerns, emerging trends in tourism and tourism’s overall importance to the State of Israel’s economy. An edited version of that conversation follows.

JEWISH JOURNAL: What do you think the long-term ramifications of the Gaza war will be?

UZI LANDAU: Usually what happens with such wars is that you pay a price for a number of months, and then things do level off. … We had a Gaza war at the end of 2008 and in the beginning of 2009, and the same thing happened — that is, it took some time, but after three to four months, five to six months, things start to pick up again. … Israel is a safe place, where mothers send their kids, first-graders, to school unescorted. And vis à vis all of the events in Paris — is Paris safe? Denmark — is it safe? … Israel is safe. 

JJ: There’s been a growing anti-Israel sentiment on college campuses around here. What do you think this means for young people who may or may not be interested in coming to Israel as a result?

UL: I think that much of these sentiments are based on two things. One is simply misinformation. People simply do not know what is the reality in Israel. They are fed by a world campaign that is being [created] by extreme Muslim elements. In the West, they go hand in hand with extreme radical left people and extreme racial right people joined by classic anti-Semites. We are trying to reach to well-intentioned people. We are hosting many movers and shakers — just to come to Israel and see for their own eyes and then report what they saw. 

JJ: How important is tourism to Israel’s economy?

UL: Tourism is highly important to Israel’s economy. In fact, today it contributes between 2 and 2.2 percent of our GDP [Gross Domestic Product]. But still the potential to be much higher is there. If I just bring, for comparison, France — France enjoys almost 4 percent contribution to GDP. Spain is 5.6 [percent]. We are the Holy Land, something that no other country can provide to any traveler who is interested in religion. I think we are the only country where one who walks there can listen to the language of the Ten Commandments spoken on a regular daily basis. It is a place where kings and empires — ancient ones — have had their footprint, including their cultural creativity, and you can find there today many archaeological excavations. 

JJ: I was going to ask what the next generation of hot spots will be. 

UL: Eco-tourism is already taking place, and agriculture tours are taking place. Cycling is picking up. And bird watching is there — you have hundreds of millions of birds crossing the country through the Syrian-African rift. 

The Dead Sea — this is something that cannot be matched in any other place. Combine that with desert type of hiking, with desert cycling — cycling in Israel is a quickly developing sport where you can do it in the mountainous Galilee, then descend to circulate around the Sea of Galilee, and you can go to the coastal plains and then to the Negev desert, where you can enjoy either hilly areas or flat areas. 

I don’t know what will be the future trends of people — whether we are going to just combine a lot of different types of niches today. You can use your bike to go through wine trails, or an agriculture type of tour, and you can combine that — start and finish your trips in a village to try and see how people of different ethnic backgrounds still live today. You could do this in a Bedouin village, in an Arab village, in a Druze village or in a kibbutz Jewish village. Again, the sky is the limit. 

JJ: I understand you’re retiring. Are you going to travel? You probably know a few good places.

UL: I do. I still do it in Israel. From time to time, I’m also enjoying my time abroad. 

After flight cancellations, a waiting game at Ben Gurion Airport


Natali Cohen and Snir Shahar discovered via email around midnight that their flight from Tel Aviv to Barcelona was canceled.

They’d been looking forward to two weeks exploring the Catalan city and getting a break from the conflict in Israel. Shahar, 23, had just taken a standardized test to apply for college. Cohen’s brother is an Israeli soldier serving in Gaza; she hoped the trip would let her “air out a little” from the tension.

Instead, the couple sat in a waiting area on the ground floor of Ben Gurion International Airport on Wednesday afternoon, their suitcases in front of them, following a sleepless night spent on the phone with their airline, Vueling, and a few airport officials.

“They’re sending us back and forth,” Cohen, 22, said as Shahar sat with his cellphone glued to his ear. “We wanted to get out of here. It hurts, but it’s impossible. They won’t let us.”

Cohen and Shahar were two of the thousands of passengers whose flights to and from Israel were disrupted after a bevy of American and European airlines canceled the flights arriving in and departing from Israel on Tuesday.

The U.S. Federal Aviation Authority suspended all flights by U.S. airlines to and from Ben Gurion for up to 24 hours after a rocket fired from Gaza destroyed a house in Yehud, a city near Israel’s main airport. Europe’s aviation authority issued a similar order, and many airlines have released their own notices on suspending flights.

Responding to the cancellations, El Al, as well as smaller Israeli carriers Arkia and Israir, increased their flight volumes.

RELATED: Why the Tel Aviv flight cancellations are such a blow to Israel

A screen with a list of canceled flights greeted travelers entering Ben Gurion on Wednesday. Many Israelis consider international travel a vital escape valve to living in a small and often tense country — even when there are no wars happening.

Eyal Satat, 28, was at the airport with his fiancee, Jasmine Granas, 27, flying to Cyprus for their wedding on Friday. Their flight on Cyprus Airways was canceled at 10 p.m. Tuesday, but Satat kept searching until he found an Arkia flight for Wednesday afternoon.

“It was stressful when it happened,” Satat said. “We need to keep living. I feel much better now because we’re about to fly. But I didn’t stop for a minute. I knew I was going to do it.”

Usually full and bustling, Ben Gurion’s ground floor was nearly empty just after noon on Wednesday. Nanu Isaac, an eight-year veteran of the airport’s cleaning staff, leaned against a post and chatted with a co-worker. The floors were shiny and there was nothing to do.

“We came to work and it was empty,” Isaac said. “It’s better when it’s full and there’s work. This is boring, of course, but what can I do?”

Several Israelis chafed at what they viewed as American and European overreactions. Pushback to the cancellations also came from former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who flew to Israel on El Al on Tuesday night and called the flight ban “a mistake that hands Hamas an undeserved victory and should be lifted immediately.”

“This evening I will be flying on El Al to Tel Aviv to show solidarity with the Israeli people and to demonstrate that it is safe to fly in and out of Israel,” Bloomberg said in a statement Tuesday. “Ben Gurion is the best protected airport in the world and El Al flights have been regularly flying in and out of it safely.”

Nathan Booth, 29, an English volunteer at Kibbutz Yotvata, near Israel’s southern tip, thought the short-term cautionary measure of canceling flights wasn’t surprising in light of the recent shooting down of a Malaysia Airlines passenger jet over eastern Ukraine, possibly by pro-Russian separatists.

“If it goes on longer than 24 or 48 hours it will be an overreaction,” said Booth, whose EasyJet flight for a friend’s wedding in London on Saturday had been canceled. “Israel needs to send a signal that it’s still open for business and safe for tourists.”

Through a nearby doorway, Israelis returning home said they felt a mix of pressure in returning to a war zone and relief in being close to family.

“I’m stressed because there are fewer people here, so there’s apparently something to be scared of,” said Guy Tayar, 18, returning from a post-high school graduation vacation with friends in Greece. But in Israel, he said, “I feel they take care of me.”

By mid-afternoon, the airport had grown more crowded as a string of El Al flights took off and landed despite the dearth of other traffic. Tourists were concerned with the usual things — where to get cash, charge phones, find a taxi.

For those hoping to depart, all they could do was wait.

Booth sat at a cafe, phone in hand and headphones in his ears, trying to decide whether to buy a book from a nearby shop. In the evening, an EasyJet representative arrived at the airport to give him a voucher for room and board for the night.

“They’re putting me up in a hotel and paying for my dinner,” he said. “There’s nothing else you can do but kill time.”

U.S. issues travel warning for Israel, West Bank and Gaza


The State Department warned U.S. citizens on Monday against traveling to Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, citing the fighting between Israeli forces and Hamas.

“The Department of State recommends that U.S. citizens consider the deferral of non-essential travel to Israel and the West Bank and reaffirms the longstanding strong warning to U.S. citizens against any travel to the Gaza Strip,” the State Department said, adding the warning replaced a previous one issued on Feb. 3.

“The security environment remains complex in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza, and U.S. citizens need to be aware of the risks of travel to these areas because of the current conflict between Hamas and Israel,” the statement added.

Reporting by Peter Cooney; Editing by Eric Walsh

The beautiful Banias


The first thing you need to know about the Hermon-Banias Nature Reserve in the Golan Heights is that you will have to fight the temptation to dive into the crystal rushing springs or to stick your feet in the cool waters.

Access to the Hermon Stream has been strictly forbidden there since the early 1990s in order to preserve the delicate ecology. Still, you will want to go back more than once, even if you can’t dip your toe in the stream. Banias (also spelled “Banyas”) is one of the most beautiful — and, therefore, one of the most-visited — of Israel’s 14 nature reserves.

The Banias Spring comes out of the foot of Mount Hermon and flows through a canyon leading to the 30-foot Banias Waterfall (“Mapal” in Hebrew), the longest such cascade in Israel. The Hermon Stream meets the Dan River farther along, and together they feed the Jordan River.

In ancient times, the spring gushed from a cave in the limestone bedrock down into the valley and into the Hula marshes. You can still see the cave, though the water now seeps from the bedrock below it.

The site was originally named Panias after the Greek god Pan. There are remains of a temple, some courtyards, a grotto and niches for rituals dedicated to the worship of Pan, dating to the beginning of the Common Era. Because there is no “p” sound in Arabic and the region was long under Syrian rule, the village that grew up around the spring came to be called Banias.

“There are multiple trails through the entire park, and the shortest takes 10 or 15 minutes in each direction, leading to the impressive waterfall,” said licensed tour guide Josh Even-Chen. 

A few years ago, the Israeli Nature and Parks Authority built a suspended circular walkway across the gorge.

“You’re walking on the vertical cliff halfway from the top of the cliff and riverbed, and it’s really cool,” Even-Chen said. The walkway takes just over an hour to complete. 

“I highly recommend it for families, but you can’t take a stroller, so put your toddler in a back carrier,” he recommended.

Another trail runs along the riverbed from one side of the park to the other. You’ll need two cars to finish this hike unless you want to walk two hours back to the parking lot where you started.

Interested in the religious and historic side of Banias? Travel one-third of a mile down the road to the opposite side of the highway to the Springs entrance. The Springs side has ruins from the Roman period, when the village was called Caesarea Philippi after King Herod’s son Philip, who inherited the area and made it his capital. The palace of Agrippa II, grandson of Herod, is among the relics.

According to the Gospels, it was in the Banias that the disciple Simon informed Jesus that people believed Jesus to be the Messiah. In response, Jesus renamed Simon “Peter,” which means “rock” in Greek — the rock upon which his church would be founded.

“For Christians, especially Catholics, Peter was the first pope, so, for pilgrims, the site helps them understand the environment in which this pivotal scene takes place,” Even-Chen said. “Caesarea Philippi remained important during the Christian Byzantine period. It was later conquered by the Muslims and then the Crusaders, then went back under Islamic rule and fell from its heyday.”

From April to September, the Banias is open 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday to Thursday, till 4 p.m. Fridays and holiday evenings. From October to March, it’s open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. (till 3 p.m. Fridays and holidays). Visitors may enter up to an hour before closing time. 

Tourism to Israel reaches all-time high


Israel reported an all-time high in annual visitors in 2013.

A record 3.54 million visitors arrived in Israel in 2013, half a percent more than the previous record year. Meanwhile, some 272,000 tourists arrived in December, a 14 percent increase over December 2012, setting a record for most arrivals in the Jewish state in one month.

The figures were released Thursday by Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics.

Nearly 18 percent of tourists arrived from the United States, with some 623,000 Americans visiting. Russia sent 603,000 tourists, and France 315,000.

More than half the tourists, or 53 percent, were Christian; only 28 percent were Jewish.

Overall, tourism contributed about $11.4 billion to the Israeli economy in 2013, according to the Ministry of Tourism.

“The year 2013 is a record year for tourism, and we are proud of that. Despite Operation Pillar of Defense and the security situation in the region, tourists voted with their feet,” said Tourism Minister Uzi Landau.

Jerusalem’s First Station: All aboard for fun


Jerusalem’s First Station may be more than 120 years old, but its smart new look, trendy shops and daily events have transformed it from an abandoned skeleton of a railway station into a place where young — and young-at-heart — locals as well as tourists, come to decompress.  

The First Station (HaTachana in Hebrew) and its wide plaza, once the city’s hub for rail traffic from all over the country and, until recently, just another example of urban neglect, have been refurbished and expanded. Now they’re one of the city’s newest attractions.

The building’s period architecture featuring Jerusalem stone and graceful curves has been carefully preserved, and so has a section of the station’s original railroad tracks. Following a campaign by local residents, another, much longer section of the tracks was recently turned into an ultra-popular walking/bicycle trail that originates at the Station.

The refurbished venue, where train service ended in 1998, is full of nostalgia for older Israelis, some of whom once traveled from the Station to points north and even Damascus.

“That used to be where we would buy tickets,” said Jerusalem-born Shlomo Levi, 59, pointing to the modern visitors center on the newly refinished wooden platform.

Visiting Jerusalem from Finland, where he now makes his home, Levi gazed at customers enjoying a late-night meal.

“There were benches there that I’d sit on with my parents and wait for the train to take us to Nahsholim, all the way up the coast just below Zichron Yaakov,” Levi said, referring to two beaches up north. “Look how busy it is.” 

The Station is located at the corner of Rehov David Remez, just across the street from the Liberty Bell Park (another great place to bring the kids). It’s close to the city’s major hotels, restaurants and theaters and just a 20-minute walk to the Old City. Parking is available at the First Station parking lot and the Liberty Bell Park parking lot.

Visitors can stroll into one of the boutique shops and restaurants, view the multimedia exhibitions and art installations or buy items at more than two dozen quaint stands selling Israeli-made crafts and ceramics, kids’ clothes, gifts, jewelry, books and fabrics. It’s especially crowded on Thursdays and Fridays, when visitors come to buy fresh produce, baked goods and wines directly from the growers and manufacturers.

“I like the open atmosphere here,” said Laurie Goldberg from St. Louis, on her third visit to the Station in a month during an extended vacation. “I especially loved coming here on Friday, to the musical Kabbalat Shabbat. It was beautiful,” she said of the lively musical performance that, in the summer, takes place a couple of hours before candlelighting,

Goldberg, who lived in Jerusalem until two-and-a-half years ago, said she appreciated seeing Jews and Arabs, religious and secular, all enjoying themselves.

“There are people from so many different walks of life. The atmosphere is nonjudgmental, and that’s something you don’t find everywhere in Jerusalem.”

The Station project is just one example of efforts by Jerusalem officials to create a more progressive, post-intifada Jerusalem. Other examples include the Mamilla shopping promenade, which transformed the abandoned buildings alongside the Old City into an upscale, open-air mall, and the forthcoming Cinema City, a 15-screen cinema complex that is under construction across from the Supreme Court. 

The Station’s management has made a great deal of effort to provide a street-fair environment seven days a week, with special events scheduled each month. In June, it played host to the city’s first international Formula 1 road show, and the following month featured a model train display for train enthusiasts. 

The Station offers a number of restaurants and cafés as well, including Italian-Mediterranean-style Landwer Café, open seven days a week, and Kitchen Station, a kosher dairy restaurant closed on Shabbat and holidays. Vaniglia sells ice cream while re:bar offers a wide variety of healthy drinks, shakes and yogurts.

One store that is always packed is Gaya, where young and old can test their mental dexterity against one of the store’s dozens of wooden puzzles (or buy one and take it home). 

There are many free events, including yoga classes, concerts and the child-friendly Kid Space, where kids can blow huge soap bubbles, play with wooden trains and oversized blocks or just run around and have fun.

Once you’ve experienced the Station, cycle or stroll down the well-lit, well-paved rail trail that winds through the German Colony, Baka and Beit Safafa and links Jerusalem’s original railway station to the city’s sports center at Teddy Stadium, the Jerusalem intercity rail station and the Malcha shopping mall.   

No bike? No problem. You can always rent one from Smart Tour at the visitors center, which offers regular, tandem or electronic bikes — helmet included. Or you can rent a Segway if that’s your speed.

Marilyn Behar, who was visiting the Station for the second time, said her two toddlers love the sense of freedom. 

“The kids can be free to run around here because there are no cars,” she noted.

But it isn’t just the safe space that brought her back. She and her husband, both secular Jerusalemites, said there aren’t enough places in Jerusalem that are open on Shabbat. 

“We want Jerusalem to keep its traditional identity, but we also want the city to promote equality,” she said.

For Goldberg, the Station is one example of how Jerusalem is much more alive than when she lived there. 

“There are more things to do now,” she said. “It’s a more interesting place to live.”

Israeli missing in Los Angeles


[UPDATE: Syril Zimand, aspiring Israeli filmmaker, missing in Hollywood]

The son of an Israeli businessman and philanthropist is believed by his father to be missing in Los Angeles.

Henri Zimand posted on Facebook on Jan 2 that his son, Syril Zimand, 28, has not been heard from for “several weeks.”

Zimand has been reaching out to people and organizations in Los Angeles to help with the search.

“If anyone should come across my son Syril in Los Angeles please advise me urgently,” Zimand wrote online.

Zimand added that his son, in the midst of a six-month trip in Los Angeles, was last seen at USA Hostels in Hollywood, located at Hollywood Boulevard and Schrader Boulevard. It was unusual for Syril to go several weeks without contacting him, Zimand wrote on Facebook.

Brigit Nickol, director of operations at USA Hostels, Inc. confirmed that Syril Zimand was a guest at USA Hostels in Hollywood, having stayed there from Nov. 10-24, the maximum amount of days allowed for guests at the hostel.  Nickol did not have any additional information regarding Zimand’s whereabouts, she said.

Zimand’s father, a resident of Monaco, did not respond immediately on Wednesday to the Journal’s attempts to contact him.  Via social media, he has asked that anyone who has information about his son call the Los Angeles Police Department’s missing-person unit at (213) 996-1800 or (877) 527-3247. The Journal will be updating this story as more information becomes available.

missing

U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv bans non-essential staff travel to the South


Citing new violence between Israel and Gaza, the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv told staff members not to travel to the South and encouraged U.S. citizens “to exercise caution.”

“Non-essential official travel by Embassy staff to the south of Israel remains prohibited,” said the advisory sent Thursday, the second night of bombing exchanges between Israel and the Gaza Strip.

The statement also said the embassy would have low staff on Friday and that embassy families should keep their children home from school on that day.

One of the more than 250 rockets fired from Gaza since hostilities intensified on Wednesday hit close to Tel Aviv.

Israel has not shut down schools in the city, although it has ordered no school within 25 miles of the Gaza Strip.

Sixteen Palestinians, including two children and a top terrorist leader, and three Israelis have been killed in the exchanges. The three Israelis were in an apartment building hit by a rocket in the southern town of Kiryat Malachi.

“U.S. citizens are encouraged to exercise caution and take appropriate measures to ensure their safety and security in light of the escalating level of violence in Gaza and Israel,” the embassy advisory said.

“U.S. citizens should pay close attention to their surroundings and news reports, and follow the civil defense guidance provided by the Home Front Command.”

Haifa a many-faceted jewel


Visiting Americans often compare Haifa with San Francisco for its hilly landscape and trendy, artsy neighborhoods, or Boston for its mix of academia and maritime culture. While this northern Israeli city is a weekend getaway for Jerusalemites and Tel Avivians, Haifa is also worth experiencing as a city of the future, with its expanding international influence as a high-tech center, or as a quaint port town with a rich, 3,000-year history.

Haifa is also a multicultural metropolis, frequently portrayed as a model of coexistence between Arabs and Jews. The third-largest city in Israel, it features six faiths and a variety of ethnic communities living together near the sea.

One of the city’s most popular destinations is the Baha’i Gardens. Located on the northern slope of Mount Carmel, the UNESCO World Heritage site features a staircase of 19 landscaped “hanging gardens” that connect Haifa with the city of Akko, which holds great significance for Baha’is as the final resting place of their prophet, the Báb. The Baha’i Gardens offer awe-inspiring, panoramic views of the city, the Galilean hills and the Mediterranean Sea. 

The Colony Hotel.

Nature lovers may want to head to Dado Beach and Meridian Beach to view rare plants, or venture out on hiking trails along one of the local rivers (Lotem, Si’akh, Ezov and Akhuza). Mount Carmel National Park is Israel’s largest national park, featuring approximately 25,000 acres of pine, eucalyptus and cypress forest.

Planning a trip to Israel around Chanukah? Don’t miss an opportunity to see the city during one of its most vibrant times of year. Extending from Haifa’s Wadi Nisnas neighborhood to the German Colony, the annual Hag Ha Hagim, or Festival of Festivals, is staged every Saturday throughout December. The festival celebrates Judaism, Christianity and Islam through music and dance performances, artistic and cultural events, an arts and crafts fair, and, of course, lots of succulent local food.

A kiss of the grape — and other adult libations — in Jerusalem


Wine bars, a new twist on an old theme, are drawing huge numbers of clientele in most metropolitan cities. What about the Holy City? Although the selection in Jerusalem doesn’t quite compare to that of its American and European rivals, there are enough choices in the Jewish capital to erase the so-called vapid reputation of kosher wine forever. Kosher vintners have long been removing the stigma, but at these establishments, with fine wines available by the bottle and the glass, it is a much more distant memory. An evening exploring these wines, savory dishes (many of them finger foods) prepared by on-site, professional chefs de cuisine, and memorable desserts that pair equally well with certain vintages or spirits, are a definite recipe for relaxation. Check them out while you traverse the spiritual center of the universe at the New Year and all year. 

ADOM

In name and spirit, Adom, Hebrew for “Red,” embodies the pleasure of fine wines and fine dining. Tucked into the hip, bustling alleyway of bars called Rivlin Street, just off Jaffa Road, guests enter the picturesque gated patio. A quick peek at its retaining wall, studded with embedded wine bottles and corks, is a not-so-subtle introduction to what’s in store. An impressive list of 160 wines is paired with three seating areas, whose stone walls and curved arches warm up by candlelight. The rotating wine of the month enables guests to sample new varieties by the glass at a discount. And a menu of international bistro cuisine, including beautifully presented salads, meats, fish dishes and more gives way to a late-night menu of finger food after 11 p.m. Adom is clustered in the only area of Jerusalem where anything close to a wine bar exists, in the tight mix of restaurants between the light-rail tracks and the Mamilla and David Citadel hotels. This restaurant is not supervised kosher but it, of course, relies on Israeli products that are certified kosher and it does offer kosher wines on its extensive list, making it a great option for a stop on your tasting tour. It is admittedly a little tricky to find, but the search is worth it for its ambience and charm. Simplify your search for Adom by entering from Jaffa Road No. 31, near the light-rail stop. Head down an intriguing path lined with many other establishments that draw huge crowds on Thursday and Saturday nights. Pass through this maze of hopping joints and heavy foot traffic to the tranquil Feingold Courtyard. 

Adom, 31 Jaffa Road, Jerusalem. 972-2-624-6242. 

THE WINERY/MIRROR BAR

The gorgeous Mamilla Hotel is one big bite of eye candy. After you enter this modernist retreat, head upstairs to its long and inviting wine bar, simply called the Winery. Sure, there are many other lovely places to sneak away for a romantic gourmet experience in and around the uber-chic Mamilla part of town, but only here will you find a massive slab of beautiful green glass atop a long wooden bar. Behind the counter, the Winery is tricked out with state-of-the art chilled, nitrogen-equipped dispensaries. Request your wine on tap or from the enticing selection along the exposed cellar, facing you along the wall behind the bar. 

The Mamilla Hotel has staffed this unique bar with trained sommeliers who offer curated tasting experiences. About 80 Israeli wines, from larger houses as well as boutiques, are on the menu. If you’re hungry late at night, take note that the Winery serves only small, cold plates of meat and fish from 3 to 8 p.m. After the Winery closes, you’re in for a treat. The green glass functions as a mere navigational device of sorts. Continue past the bar to the inviting entry point of the chic Mirror Bar. After 8 p.m., it opens up to a large, dimly lit area with comfy seats, perfect for viewing the massive flat-screen TV. Or, along small bar tables and chairs, you can take in the sounds of a live DJ working his groove at the internally lit marble bar. Take your party outside on the balcony with a view of the stone-lined pedestrian mall below or slip inside the separately enclosed glass-walled cigar lounge for more indulgence. 

The short bar menu here is heavy on meat dishes — think scrumptious mini burgers on brioche buns. But it also features delicious ceviche with fresh citrus and avocado and focaccia with herbal aioli for vegetarians and those seeking lighter fare. Every option available from the Winery menu remains available here as well. So you’ll have your pick from the fabulous menu-within-a-menu “Cellar” selections. Our favorite was a Katzav’s Merlot, aged in French oak barrels and bursting with ripe, tart fruit. Ready to indulge more? The almond sachlav with coffee truffle is one cup of steaming, hot ambrosia worth every gram of its heavy caloric cost. Kosher. 

11 King Solomon St., Jerusalem. 972-2-548-2211. mamillahotel.com. 

SCALA 

Just in case you had any doubt, this tiny neighborhood is one of Jerusalem’s key centers of gastronomy, spirituality and hospitality. You’re only minutes from the Old City and a host of other fine dining — and drinking — establishments that have long hosted tourists, foodies, gourmands and more. 

As you exit the Mamilla Hotel, head up King David Street to the massive David Citadel. Take the elevator up to the Scala Restaurant for another celebration of the senses. This high-end establishment caters to a clientele made up mostly of non-hotel guests. One taste of its menu, and you’ll understand why. 

Scala boasts the romantic night out trifecta. Its extravagant combination of cocktail bar, restaurant and wine bar all in one leaves little wanting. A stunning glass wall-to-wall wine cellar boasts 60 select Israeli wines, yours for the choosing. The labels range widely in provenance, taste and price, with nearly every imaginable kosher option, including renowned wines from the distinguished label, the Cave, to suit whatever you order for dinner, and high-end spirits, such as top-ticket Johnnie Walker Blue Label, paired with decadent chocolate desserts. 

If you’re not sure which way to proceed, ask the wait staff or Scala’s talented resident chef for their advice on the best way to enjoy whatever libations you choose. Every dish on the menu, from the tapas to the entrees, has a drink-in-waiting. Our selections ran the full spectrum, and each dish, from salad and fish to chicken and beef, was worth a return visit. Ditto for the desserts. Swoon-worthy, surprising blends of flavors included a hazelnut and coffee cream. The Dark Chocolate Delight is an artful ensemble of hot chocolate lava cake with apricot sorbet, served with additional whipped hot chocolate pudding with brandy and rich dark chocolate garnishes. It all went down smoothly with a Yatir 2007 Merlot-Shiraz-Cabernet. Definitely an experience to be repeated. Kosher. 

Scala, David Citadel Hotel, 7 King David St., Jerusalem. 972-2-621-2030. scala-rest.com.

Lisa Alcalay Klug is the author of “Cool Jew: The Ultimate Guide for Every Member of the Tribe.” Her new book, “Hot Mamalah: The Ultimate Guide for Every Woman of the Tribe,” debuts in October. She is online at lisaklug.com.

Ancient Shiloh: A new stop on the tourist map?


Travis Allen was spending three weeks in 2009 driving around Israel visiting historic sites when he suddenly noticed Shiloh on the map and asked his driver if they could go to the site of the archaeological dig. What Allen, a financial adviser from California who’s making his first run for public office, remembers vividly is what was not there. People.

“I went and there was no one there. There was a little station by a gate. I asked if this is Shiloh where the tabernacle used to stand and I was told, ‘up by the hill.’ I walked up by myself and I had the whole place to myself… It was fantastic. There was a viewing platform and nothing else.”

Nestled in the Judean Hills about a 40 minute drive from Jerusalem and closer to Nablus lies the ancient city of Shiloh, the first home of the Tabernacle, the portable sanctuary that for 369 years was the epicenter of religious observance and sacrifices as the Jewish people traveled in the desert.

Tzofia Dorot, a young, modern and passionate woman dressed in slacks, a kerchief—symbolic of the majority of community living in modern Shiloh—covering her head, guided a group of American and Israeli tourists through the Tel Shiloh archaeological site on a hot summer afternoon. She explained to The Media Line why Shiloh was attracting new visitors.

“People are not afraid today; unlike maybe 10-years ago when the situation was different. Today it’s pretty quiet. Usually, you’re afraid of something you don’t know. So many people didn’t cross the Green Line—Israel’s pre-1967 borders with Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon—for years because they were afraid of getting shot, they were afraid of bombs; and today it’s a great opportunity to learn about this place, the sites and the people,” said Dorot.

“Shiloh doesn’t appear so dangerous to me,” offered Ken Abramowitz, a market analyst from New York who helped put the group together. “Shiloh was the heartland of Israel. About 3200 years ago this was the center of Israel, and unfortunately people have forgotten that. It’s good to remind myself, and I invited ten friends to join us in order to remind them, too.” 

Dorot, who now lives in Kida, a community of fifty families located within the Shiloh bloc overlooking the Jordan Valley, adds that “the people who live in Judea and Samaria are shown by the media through a very narrow pipe. The extremists are on television, the normal people aren’t shown.”

When archaeological digs resumed in 2010, thirty-years had lapsed since the most recent previous work. The visitors led by Dorot saw a Jewish ritual bath (mikveh) from the Second Temple period – and artifacts found when archaeologists discovered an entire room containing piles of broken dishes from the time of the Tabernacle. Dorot explained that because people typically keep their dishes with them, the abundance of broken pottery indicates that the inhabitants left quickly, presumably under duress, in flight.

Further up the hill and part of the most recent digs, archaeologists found the big platform believed to be the resting place of the Tabernacle itself.

“People come to Shiloh because it was the first capital of the Jewish nation, it was a spiritual center where the Tabernacle—housing the ark, the menorah (candelabra), the table, and everything needed to serve God)—was sitting. This is where land was distributed to the tribes by lottery; and this is where Tu B’Av the Jewish love holiday—is celebrated every year on the tenth day of the month of Av,” according to Dorot. 

In February, 2012, the government of Israel declared Tel Shiloh an archeological heritage site, and pumped-in an initial $1.5 million, a portion of the $12 million needed over the next five years. This help enabled the recent digs that uncovered the actual area where the Tabernacle rested. 

Dorot says Shiloh is like a “mini-Jerusalem” without the mess and noise of the big city. “A site that has so many layers and is such a big part of our history should be exposed,” she argued. “Today we have all the layers of the history of Shiloh. Basically, we have the story of the land of Israel.”

The head of the Israel Antiquities Authority agreed to establish at Tel Shiloh the first visitors’ center located inside an archaeological site, set to open this year. The ultra-modern glass and metal structure that is designed to evoke an image “that connects the land to the sky,” stands on bedrock in order not to harm the archaeology. Visitors will go from the stones of archaeology up to the tower where, “The tower will help visitors understand and see what their eyes cannot. The first floor will be for guiding and the second floor will showcase a movie projected onto the special glass walls that can be controlled so that cinema merges with the reality beyond. Dorot promises that, “You’ll see the actors in the area and sometimes you won’t know what is real and what is not.”

The Jewish presence in areas Israel acquired in the 1967 war is widely recognized as a key obstacle to the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. The Palestinians regard the land as their future state, while even many Jewish Israelis are willing to cede the land in return for a genuine peace.

Abramowitz faults the Israeli government for “speaking in a mixed message to its people.” He disdains that, “one government will say ‘Judea and Samaria are ours forever,’ while another says, ‘we don’t really want it, it can be a Palestinian state.’ It confuses the population: both the children and the adults,” he told The Media Line.

Despite the divisive political debate surrounding the future of post-1967 lands; and illustrative of Abramowitz’s point about inconsistent policies of respective governments,  Education Minister Gidon Saar announced in early 2011, a program to bring Israeli schoolchildren to heritage sites located in post-1967 territories – including the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron and the ancient city of Shiloh—so that they would know “the historic roots of the State of Israel in the Land of Israel.” 

Marc Prowisor, director of security for Judea and Samaria for One Israel Fund – an advocacy group promoting Jewish ties to post-1967 lands—felt Saar’s initiative was long overdue. Prowisor charged that “it was a crime of all Israeli governments and educational ministries for withholding information from the Israeli public, children and the Jewish people.”

According to Avital Seleh, director of Tel Shiloh, “Two years ago we said it was time to bring Israelis and tourists to Shiloh. 30,000 people have been visiting annually: 50% Israeli and 50% from around the world. A separate program was initiated that brought in young people to participate in the digging so they will remember that they touched Shiloh.” Adding evidence that interest in the area and willingness to travel there is on the rise, Prowisor said referring to an American lobby tied to Israel that advocates ceding post-1967 land to the Palestinians, “Even J-Street recently came.”

Despite the enthusiasm of those associated with Shilo, travel in the territories has apparently not yet become mainstream within Israel’s tourism industry. Nimrod Shafran,  operations manager for Da’at Educational Expeditions, told The Media Line that “A visit to Shiloh was never requested” in the six years he has been working with one of Israel’s foremost tour operators. “The only time I remember adding Shiloh to a program was for a group that included Judea and Samaria in their visit and we took them to Shiloh and a settlement to show them the old and the new.”

Pini Shani, director of the Israel Tourism Ministry’s overseas department told The Media Line that it’s the Evangelical Christian groups who primarily go to visit Shiloh. When asked if anyone has inquired to his desk about Shiloh, his answer was negative.

As the group Ken Abramowitz brought to Shiloh approached the construction site of the new state-of-the-art visitors’ center, participants were surprised to see several Arab workers enjoying a lunch break. Did they have problems with “assisting in excavating Jewish history?”

Dorot offered a story by way of illustration. She said that, “One Arab worker asked me as he was digging, ‘What is this layer and the next layer?’ The deeper we went, he understood that Jewish history is the first layer, then the Christian history, then the Muslim history. I’m proud of all the layers. I think it is great the Muslims wanted to build their mosque here, and the Christians wanted to build their church here. They all came here because the Tabernacle was first standing here. The worker saw it with his eyes,” according to Dorot.

But Prowisor’s take was more reflective of the intensity of the conflict. “In their (Arab) books, there is no Jewish history in Israel,” he argued. “You can’t ignore it. You just see it.” Charging he has “yet to see anything taught in Arab schools about peace with Israel,” Prowisor said “I respect the Arab culture, but expect the same in return.”

Allen, a candidate for the California Assembly, interjected that, “Shiloh belongs to the whole world, not just the Jewish nations. When Christians come here they look through the bible,” a belief Dorot seems to incorporate into her outlook. It also forms part of her answer to the painful question of whether Shiloh will ultimately be ceded to the Palestinians in a future peace deal.

“If I am here now, it’s my job to make sure that the archeology here will be exposed; it’s my job to make sure we have serious research here. I don’t want to lose the artifacts; I want to make sure I write down everything. I think it’s never going to happen, but even if something will change and nobody will be here, I know we did the research, we have the artifacts, I know my roots are deep into this site, we have the history here and nobody can deny it.

El Al dithers on honoring cheap fares


An El Al spokesperson said the airline had not decided whether or not to honor round-trip tickets to Israel that were offered erroneously for prices as low as $330.

On Wednesday afternoon, the airline issued the following statement via Twitter: “Thanks for your patience. Details/decisions re incorrect fares that were briefly sold on Monday are not finalized. We will update tomorrow.”

The announcement came two days after El Al codeshare flights from several U.S. cities to Israel went on sale for bargain-basement prices due to an error by a subcontractor handling El Al’s winter promotional fares. The round-trip tickets ranging from $330 to $460, including all taxes and fees, were for travel between November and March and included layovers in Europe.

On Monday, El Al said via Twitter that it would honor the tickets, which reportedly numbered in the thousands.

“An outside company posted incorrect fares on travel websites, so all tickets sold will indeed be honored,” the company wrote at around 6 p.m., once the inexpensive prices were no longer available.

But on Tuesday, the airline appeared to backtrack, suggesting in a comment to The New York Jewish Week and later in emails to JTA that El Al had not decided conclusively whether or not to honor the purchases.

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. 

KIBBUTZ GESHUR – SOUTHERN GOLAN HEIGHTS
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.
(0)4-676-4169. eretz-gshur.co.il

KIBBUTZ EYAL – NORTH OF TEL AVIV
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. saslove.com.

CITY OF DAVID VISITORS CENTER – JERUSALEM 
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. cityofdavid.org.

MIKVE ISRAEL VISITORS CENTER – HOLON
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 orly@shimur.org.il in advance. (0)3-503-0489. shimur.co.il.

CARLSBERG-ISRAEL VISITORS CENTER – SOUTH ASHKELON
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. cooljewbook.com.

Israelis advised to steer clear of Jordan and Egypt, among other travel spots


Jordan and Egypt, due to “concrete terrorist threats,” are singled out on a travel advisory for Israelis during Passover and other upcoming holidays.

Israel’s National Security Council Counter-Terrorism Bureau in Israel came out with the advisory on Wednesday.  It also called on Israelis in Sinai to leave there immediately.

Passover, Israel Independence Day and Lag b’Omer, according to the advisory, “are liable to provide incentive for terrorists around the world to attack Israeli and Jewish targets abroad.”

In light of several terrorist attacks and attempted attacks this year, the warning said, “Iran and Hezbollah are stepping up their efforts to perpetrate additional attacks.”

It also advises Israelis not to go to the Tunisian island of Djerba in May on Lag Ba’omer to celebrate the yahrzeit of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. Tens of thousands of Israelis visited before last year’s revolution there.

Turkey, once a favorite holiday spot for Israelis, joined Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, Ivory Coast, Togo, Burkina Faso and Mali as countries where there is a “concrete high threat.”

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. 

SOUTHERN GOLAN HEIGHTS 

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. hamat-gader.com/eng.

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 parks.org.il.

COASTAL PLAIN 

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. hameigaash.co.il.

JUDEAN DESERT

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.co.il.


Ein Gedi Spa Photo by Daniel Baránek

EILAT

Dolphinarium
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. dolphinreef.co.il.


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. cooljewbook.com.

CSU system debates restarting Israel study abroad programs


During the past few months, top California State University administrators, who oversee 23 campuses with 420,000 students, were spending a good deal of time wrestling with upcoming draconian state budget cuts and protesting students, yet they set aside some time to consider whether the largest four-year college system in the United States should restart its study abroad program in Israel.

CSU shut down the program in 2002, during the height of the Second Intifada, citing U.S. State Department warnings against travel to Israel.

But now, with relative quiet in Israel, and under considerable pressure from Jewish organizations, student groups, legislators and even Israeli diplomats, CSU seemed on the verge of announcing a resumption of the Israel program.

Not everyone applauded the new attitude. In early December, a petition in the form of an Open Letter landed on the desk of CSU Chancellor Charles Reed, under the boldface header, “We strongly urge you not to reinstate the CSU Israel Study Program Abroad.”

The petition had been signed by some 81 faculty members, nearly half from the university’s Northridge campus (CSUN), as well as 46 students and alumni. Among the signatories were a number of deans and department chairs, as well as Harry Hellenbrand, who at the time was CSUN’s provost, vice president for academic affairs and the campus’ second-highest administrator.

On Jan. 1, Hellenbrand was named the interim president of the campus, following the recent retirement of its president, Jolene Koester. (Under the CSU nomenclature, the head of the entire system is the chancellor, while each campus is led by a president — the reverse of the University of California designations.)

The chief organizer of the petition, as of most anti-Israel activity on campus, was David Klein, a veteran mathematics professor at the school. Klein’s Web site on the CSUN server is a compendium of just about every charge ever leveled against Israel, starting with the quote “Israel is the most racist state in the world at this time.”

Not surprisingly, Klein has been the bête noire of pro-Israel groups for some years, and the petition — which also warned that American students might be killed by Israeli soldiers or face discrimination if of Arab descent — stoked the anger.

CSU’s announcement in mid-December that the study program in Israel would be resumed with the 2012 fall semester at the University of Haifa, did little to lower the level of acrimony. (Asked why the Hebrew University or Tel Aviv University is not included in the program, CSU spokesman Erik Fallis cited security considerations.)

One of the first formal outside complaints against Klein’s Web site came to CSUN President Koester in late November from Leila Beckwith, a professor emerita and child psychologist at UCLA, who wrote in conjunction with Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, a lecturer in Hebrew and Jewish studies at UC Santa Cruz. The two recently co-founded the Amcha Initiative, described as a grassroots Jewish organization focusing on problems of public higher education.

Amcha’s charges were quickly reinforced by two other organizations, StandWithUs and the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA).

A series of phone interviews, e-mail exchanges and correspondence made available by the university to The Jewish Journal yielded a general outline of the evolving dispute.

In the first round of e-mail exchanges, Amcha, StandWithUs and ZOA focused on Klein’s “anti-Semitic and anti-Israel Web pages,” citing the “most racist state” quote, alongside “gruesome photos of dead children to imply that Israel intentionally murders Palestinian babies.”

As a follow-up, the pro-Israel groups argued that, while Klein was free to express his ideas, “however abhorrent,” as an individual, he was violating university regulations and the law by posting his material on the CSU server.

He was thus not only implying the university’s imprimatur for his opinions, but also using taxpayers’ funds in the process, the critics charged.

In response, Koester wrote that a full administrative review found that while Klein’s views might be offensive, he had the academic freedom and free-speech rights to express his opinions.

She also affirmed that Klein’s rights “extend to the use of an individual’s Web pages as part of the university’s Web site.”

Amcha and ZOA shot back challenging the use of the CSUN Web site for “political propaganda,” and Roz Rothstein, CEO of StandWithUs, said in an interview that she would explore the possibility of taking legal action.

For her part, Rossman-Benjamin received in response to a lengthy memo to Koester listing a series of objections, a curt e-mail consisting of just two words — “Too bad” — followed by Koester’s initials.

This seemingly contemptuous reply from the school’s then-president quickly made the rounds of CSUN’s critics, until Koester hastily drafted a somewhat awkward apology. She explained that she had sent the message from her cell phone while traveling, intending to forward the information to her staff, but had accidentally pressed “reply” instead of the “forward” button.

“The comment ‘too bad’ was meant to express to internal staff regret about the controversy and the distress it had caused,” Koester wrote. “It was not a comment directed at you … and was not intended to disrespect or dismiss either you or your point of view.”

Winter brings out Israel’s unique charms


Despite being about the size of New Jersey, Israel has a winter season that offers tourists a unique opportunity to experience the country’s mystical meteorological rollercoaster in different urban and suburban settings.

During the winter months, you can ski on the snow-clad slopes of Mount Hermon in Northern Israel in the early morning hours, hop a midday flight to Tel Aviv, where you can enjoy a delicious outdoor lunch along the Mediterranean beachfront in near-70 degree temperatures, then leisurely board an afternoon Jerusalem-bound train or bus in order to imbibe the crisp and mystifying evening air that envelops the holy city.

“Jerusalem is much more mysterious during the winter months, because most of the time the city is surrounded by fascinating clouds. But you won’t see more than one or two days of consecutive rain, or feel an icy chill running through your bones during the winter,” said Ilan Brenner, the Inbal Laromme Hotel’s executive assistant manager of marketing and sales. 

Jerusalem is also a mecca for thousands of families who jet over during the annual January winter break, in order to reconnect with siblings who attend the various post-high school yeshivot and universities in the metro region. 

“Celebrating Shabbat at a luxurious hotel and partaking in the lavish Mediterranean-themed buffet meals prepared by award- winning chefs, has in recent years become an annual rite for many visiting families and their friends,” Brenner said.

In trendy Tel Aviv, one hotel marketing executive remarked that she actually looks forward to the winter vacation period when “snowbirds” from the United States, United Kingdom and Canada quickly discard their puffy winter coats, change into summer shorts and sandals and make a beeline to the beachfront.

“I’ll be sitting at my desk, trying to warm myself up with a glass of hot tea, but for many of our guests 70-degree weather is warm enough for them to change into summer gear and head straight to the beach or nearby Dizengoff Street in order to do some serious shopping,” she said.

Almost all of the major five-star hotels highlight first-class spas and health clubs, where winter-themed treatments have also become a popular attraction.

Here’s a brief rundown of what some of the better-known hotels are offering tourists during the winter respite:

JERUSALEM

Inbal Laromme Hotel

The family-oriented hotel is promoting its “Triple Free” program, which includes a free Hertz rental car for each night’s stay, free parking at the hotel and free WiFi. The package requires a minimum three-night stay. The Inbal Jerusalem Hotel features a heated indoor pool as well as a renowned spa that rotates its menu of body and facial treatments for men and women. Inbal Jerusalem’s executive chef Moti Buchbut recently upgraded the menu in the hotel’s Sofia Restaurant, a fish, pasta and patisserie bistro. And the Inbal is the first hotel chain in Israel to offer tech-savvy guests a wide range of services via its online Digital Concierge application. inbalhotel.com.

Atrium lobby of Tel Aviv’s David InterContinental Hotel.

Dan Boutique Hotel

The impeccably designed facility highlights “Go Dan” five- and seven-night special packages through the end of February that are based on a bed and breakfast program. As the Dan Boutique is part of the large Dan hotel chain, which features impressive facilities across Israel, tourists can combine the “Go Dan” packages among various danhotels.com.

Mamilla Hotel

The city’s newest upscale hotel, located within the chic Mamilla shopping mall, is promoting a “Discover Jerusalem” winter program. Guests who book a double studio room will be entitled to dinner at the Mamilla Cafe during weekdays (fixed dairy menu) and/or dinner on weekends in the main dining room, plus a complimentary drink in the ultra-cool Mirror Bar. The package, which also includes free use of the gym or steam room, requires a minimum three-night stay and will not be available Dec. 19-27. mamillahotel.com.

TEL AVIV

David InterContinental Hotel

Extremely popular among business travelers, this hotel is located in Tel Aviv’s revitalized Neve Tzedek neighborhood. The city’s bustling Shuk HaCarmel outdoor market, trendy Sheinkin Street fashion stores and the historical Jaffa Port are all within walking distance. The beach is located directly across the street. The hotel boasts a remodeled business lounge and atrium lobby as well as several swanky bars and restaurants. intercontinental.com.

Sheraton Tel Aviv Hotel and Towers

The newly renovated Sheraton Towers — a hotel within a hotel — offers a private reception area; a new lounge, including a private boardroom facility for meetings of up to eight participants; butler service; and other extra amenities. The hotel’s Olive Leaf signature restaurant, helmed by chef Charlie Fadida, is touted as one of the finest kosher restaurants in Tel Aviv. starwoodhotels.com.

Dan Tel Aviv

The legendary luxury hotel, which plays host to many prominent business moguls, celebrities and politicians, is also offering its regular customers a four-night winter package that runs through the end of February. The package is based on a standard bed and breakfast program. The hotel features a high standard of service, plush rooms and suites, an indoor pool and several dining experiences, including the chic Hayarkon 99 restaurant. danhotels.com.

DEAD SEA

Prima Spa Club indoor pool.

Prima Spa Club

For couples who endeavor to get away from it all and enjoy a reinvigorating body-and-soul winter experience, the Prima Spa Club boutique luxury hotel highlights a Moroccan spa, wellness programs, spa parties and VIP services. There are discounted rates available for vacationers who wish to spend seven consecutive nights in the hotel. prima-hotels-israel.com.

Rimonim Royal Dead Sea

The Rimonim chain, which recently assumed control over this five-star facility, has upgraded the Dead Sea region’s largest hotel. The Royal highlights 46 private treatment rooms, an indoor saltwater pool, Jacuzzi, sauna and gymnasium. There’s also an outdoor pool and kids’ pool. During the winter season, the hotel is featuring “Royal Serenity Indulgence,” two- and three-night packages aimed at couples who wish to enjoy a romantic getaway. The midweek and weekend packages include various perks, including a bountiful breakfast and dinner (half-board). rimonim.com.

Is Jerusalem in Israel? Supreme Court takes up passport case


The U.S. Supreme Court convened Monday to ponder the implications of a single word that is conspicuously missing from the passport of a 9-year-old boy who was born in Jerusalem.

His name is Menachem Binyamin Zivotofsky, the son of Ari and Naomi Siegman Zivotofsky, Americans who made aliyah in 2000.

Menachem was born at Shaare Zedek Hospital in western Jerusalem, but due to a controversial State Department policy, his U.S. passport does not designate “Israel” as his place of birth—despite a federal statute enacted in October 2002 that says Americans born in Jerusalem are entitled to have Israel listed on their official papers as their birth country.

The Zivotofskys want that law enforced so their son can claim what they feel is his birthright—the inclusion of the word “Israel” on his passport, a statement “that the land of Israel has centrality for the Jewish people,” the boy’s father, Ari Zivotofsky, told reporters after Monday’s court session.

“It’s a very personal issue,” he said.

A decision on the case is not expected for several months.

The arguments and counterarguments presented Monday before the high court focused on several key issues, including which branch of government has the authority to conduct foreign policy and whether or not the appearance of the word “Israel” on a passport is in fact tantamount to an expression of foreign policy.

It is not, argued attorney Nathan Lewin, representing the Zivotofskys. “It is purely a means of identification,” he explained in response to a question from Justice Elena Kagan.

The petitioners maintain that Menachem Zivotofsky is one of an estimated 50,000 Jerusalem-born American citizens who have been unfairly barred from listing their place of birth as “Jerusalem, Israel,” rather than simply “Jerusalem.”

The federal statute that grants those passport holders the right to essentially identify their place of birth as they see fit has been ignored by the administrations of both George W. Bush and Barack Obama, with Bush claiming that it infringes on the president’s authority to formulate foreign policy positions, such as the administration’s stance on the status of Jerusalem.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, the named respondent in the Zivotofskys’ litigation, heads the chief foreign policy arm of the executive branch. She has argued that the State Department’s regulations governing the passport designation of Jerusalem-born American citizens have rightly served to maintain U.S. neutrality on the sensitive issue of sovereignty over Jerusalem. The Zivotofskys contend that the policy is biased against Israel and against Jews who have a religious attachment to the land.

“Congress recognized that with regard to the 50,000 people who have a passport that says ‘Jerusalem,’ they are being denied a certain sense of self-respect that they feel they should be able to have in terms of their own identification,” Lewin told the court in reponse to a question from Justice Samuel Alito. “This is not a statute that is designed to create some political brouhaha or make a foreign policy statement.”

Arguing on behalf of Clinton, Solicitor General Donald Verrilli acknowledged that the position of the administration is that the status of Jerusalem is disputed, and he added: “A passport is not a communication by the passport holder. It’s an official United States document that communicates the position of the United States.”

In response to a challenge from Chief Justice John Roberts, Verrilli added: “I do think that this is an area in which the executive’s got to make the judgment because it’s of paramount importance that the nation speak with one voice.”

The executive’s handling of the Jerusalem issue, Verrilli told the justices, “is a very sensitive and delicate matter. This position was arrived at after very careful thought and it is enforced very carefully.”

The State Department has contended, according to the petitioners, that if American citizens who are natives of Jerusalem are permitted to self-identify as being born in “Israel,” that would create the misperception among Arab states that official U.S. policy on the sovereignty of Jerusalem had changed, which in turn could have serious foreign policy repercussions. The Zivotofskys, however, maintain there is no evidence that would happen.

Further exploring that issue, Kagan posed a hypothetical in an exchange with Verrilli. Suppose, she said, the law governing passports included a disclaimer that stated: “The recording of Israel as a place of birth on a passport shall not constitute recognition of Israel’s sovereignty over Jerusalem.”

“Would that be constitutional?” she asked.

Probably not, Verrilli responded.

Yesterday’s oral-argument session, which lasted for about an hour, was witnessed by a capacity crowd that included a sizeable contingent of spectators with head coverings.

Among them was David Poltorak, a 27-year-old law school graduate who lives in Washington.

“This is about the very essence of separation of powers,” he said prior to the start of the hearing “I’m not convinced that the president has the right to just not heed a law that’s been passed.”

Although Poltorak conceded that there are compelling legal arguments on both sides of the issue, “as a Jew,” he said, he was pulling for the Zivotofskys.

Following the hearing, Poltorak was spotted in a corridor not far from the courtroom. “Nat’s performance was fantastic,” he said, referring to Lewin. “It was a slam dunk.”

“I think it’s still up for grabs,” countered his friend, Pesach Klein, a 24-year-old Washington resident.

Outside on the sun-drenched courthouse plaza, Ari Zivotofsky, 48, a bearded and kippah-wearing neuroscience instructor at an Israeli university, was answering reporters’ questions. His son, Menachem, was busy trying to shun the limelight, his face nearly buried in his father’s side so that little more than his knit kippah was visible.

It was his first visit to the United States. Asked about his impressions of America, Menachem said quietly: “It’s bigger than I thought … but it’s not as fun as I thought it would be.”

El Al to charge for second bag on Israel trips


El Al Airlines soon will be charging $70 for the second piece of luggage checked on coach seats to and from Israel.

The new fee will affect tickets purchased after Nov. 1, two representatives of Israel’s national airline confirmed to JTA on Monday. The first bag will remain free.

Continental Airlines started charging $70 for the second bag checked on direct flights to Israel in mid-June. Passengers had been able to check two bags for free.

Delta is in the process of changing its price structure for bags checked to Israel but would not disclose the changes.

US Airways provides free checking for the first and second bag for all visitors to Israel.

Jerusalem lodging boasts refined eatery, spa


JERUSALEM — It had been years since I’d ventured any farther than the lobby of the Inbal Hotel in Jerusalem, so when I received an invitation to tour its spa and one of its restaurants, it was hard to say no.

Built in the 1980s, the Inbal is one of the city’s top hotels and its facilities reflect this. Its staff is helpful and pleasant, and its health club and spa, which were refurbished two years ago, are top-notch.

One of the nicest things about the Inbal is its location in tony Talbieh. It’s within distance of the Old City and Western Wall, the many shops and restaurants on bustling Emek Refaim Street and the center of town. It adjoins Liberty Bell Park, which boasts a fantastic kids’ playground, outdoor exercise equipment, basketball courts and places to barbecue. In other words, a taste of the real Israel.

We began the tour at Sofia, the Inbal’s dairy restaurant. Adjoining the flower-filled terrace, the restaurant’s floor-to-ceiling windows provide the feel of outdoor dining without having to sacrifice much-needed air-conditioning.

Sofia specializes in pasta and fish dishes that can be tailored to individual tastes. When I inquired whether some of the dishes could be prepared without dairy products — I’m lactose intolerant — the answer was a resounding “yes.” This was a welcome surprise; Jerusalem restaurants are rarely this flexible.

The menu includes champignon mushrooms filled with goat and parmesan cheeses, pine nuts and spinach stir-fried in butter and thyme; and melanzana: smoked eggplant, roasted peppers, pesto, diced tomatoes and mozzarella cheese in a baked phyllo shell in cream and white wine sauce. The fresh herb salad featured finely chopped herbs combined with breadsticks, with smoked mozzarella cheese shells, red onion, sliced olives and smoked salmon.

Fish courses include salmon filet cooked either in olive oil (on special request) or served with creamed peas, polenta, thyme sprouts, Parmesan and sautéed vegetables; and filet of trout marinated in fresh garlic, with diced potatoes, mushrooms, marinated in olive oil, capers, celery and red onions.

The apple pie, which was the only dairy-free choice, was creamy and delicious, but not as decadent as the Magic Meringue, a baked meringue filled with mascarpone cream, passion fruit, coconut sorbet and honey cream.

Satisfied and full, we headed to the health club, which includes a semi-Olympic pool that is covered and heated in the winter, a gym, a dry sauna and a spa.

The health club offers Pilates, aerobics, body sculpting and water exercise classes. The gym, which features all the equipment you would find in a well-equipped American fitness center, is large and modern. There are three personal trainers.

Health club director Dr. Ran Bibi, who holds a doctorate in sports management from the Wingate Institute, Israel’s National Centre for Physical Education and Sport, said the facility is “very successful because the staff is experienced and highly trained.”

Before receiving a massage, Rachel, the young immigrant from New Jersey who would be kneading the tension out of my body, asked me to fill out a medical disclosure/permission form. The room we entered was sleek, serene and spacious, with an exceptionally comfortable massage table, a bathtub-whirlpool and a separate shower.

Again, the staff responded well to special requests. When I asked Rachel whether she had some unscented oil (as opposed to aromatherapy oils), she searched high and low until she located a bottle of almond oil, whose scent is very subtle. When she learned that I had come straight from a big lunch, she started with reflexology to ease my digestion.

The Inbal’s spa offers a wide range of massages, including Swedish, deep tissue, Oriental, four-hand, hot stone and aromatherapy, as well as facials, body peeling and Dead Sea body wrapping. Prices for a massage range from $90 (Swedish, deep tissue) to $165 (four-hand). A hot-stone facial costs $130, and mud wrapping costs $115. 

Refreshed by the massage, I showered and headed to the pool, located right outside the health club. There I found a poolside café that prepares light meals, a sun-protected wading pool and the beautiful main pool, which is large enough for laps.

The few guests I saw that afternoon were seated on lounge chairs or doing laps. A swimming instructor was coaching a 7-year-old on her breast stroke.

Thoroughly relaxed, I entered the pool, where jets froth the water and massage the muscles. I knew I should go home and help the kids with their homework.

But I didn’t.

Inbal Hotel, 3 Jabotinsky St., Jerusalem, Israel, 92145. (972) 2-675-6666. For more information, visit inbalhotel.com.

For business or pleasure, hotels rolling out red carpets


The emergence of Israel on the global high-tech stage as a “start-up nation,” combined with the growing number of international business and Jewish organizational events held in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, has spurred a slew of major hotels to invest in upgrading their various services to discerning executives who endeavor to mix business with pleasure.

“The growth of social media, which includes business- and travel-oriented forums, has allowed our staff to engage with people who are planning business trips to Jerusalem and other points in Israel, offering them the opportunity to take advantage of the hotel’s varied services, many of which are tailored to the business tourist,” said Ilan Brenner, the Inbal Jerusalem Hotel’s executive assistant manager of sales and marketing.

The five-star hotel has regularly played host to a variety of business and organizational conferences in its various halls, including El Al, Hadassah and the Jewish Agency for Israel.

“As there are several types of business travelers — ranging from the high-powered executive who seeks a luxurious WiFi-equipped suite with a terrace that overlooks the Old City of Jerusalem, to a salesperson who might want to conduct a private meeting with a colleague in our rooftop Executive Lounge — we can provide a variety of settings based on need and budget,” Brenner said.

In metro Tel Aviv, where the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange and many of the nation’s top corporations are located, a number of the city’s finest hotels regularly cater to a business clientele. However, several hotels have tweaked their interior design concepts and external marketing agendas to discourage “family tourism” and focus almost exclusively on luring upscale business travelers.

The posh Crowne Plaza Tel Aviv City Center Hotel, which has been built into the prodigious Azrieli Towers business, shopping and entertainment complex, prides itself on being a concept facility.

“We like to think of ourselves as a leader in the development of the business tourist concept,” said Michael Plesz, general manager of the Crowne Plaza Tel Aviv City Center Hotel. “Nearly 60 percent of our customers are business people, 85 percent of whom come from overseas, including, of course, North America. The upbeat design of our public areas and rooms enhances the notion of a place where one can find the right atmosphere to do business and rest between meetings.”

In addition, metro Tel Aviv’s renowned beach, bar and restaurant scene is a magnet for business tourists. 

Want to know more about who offers the most enticing business and relaxation combination packages? We’ve compiled an abridged list of hotels that offer myriad business services and pampering perks:

JERUSALEM

Inbal Jerusalem Hotel

There are dozens of beautiful suites, executive or deluxe rooms to choose from in this venerable facility. The intimate Executive Lounge features a computer station, a variety of newspapers and magazines, light meals and snacks. In order to keep the lounge as an exclusive benefit, its use is restricted to guest staying in suites, executive or deluxe rooms. There is also a 24/7 business center featuring a variety of services upon request. There are special corporate rates available to companies that commit themselves to a minimal annual turnover.

Many local and foreign business people use the spa and health club in their after-hours down time to work off the daily stress and reinvigorate body and soul. The hotel also offers all guests free tickets to local cultural attractions.

For more information, visit inbalhotel.com.

David Citadel Hotel

The Executive Lounge, located high above the city, offers a majestic view of the Old City and provides a perfect setting for business people who wish to mingle, nosh or conduct one-on-one meetings. The hotel also offers a wide range of rooms that cater to the various needs of business travelers. Special arrangements can be made for private spa treatments in guest rooms or in the hotel’s new spa and health club downstairs. Private concierge service is also available for VIPs, which includes arranging special transportation to local events and cultural attractions. Private tour guides can also be arranged. The hotel plays host to a variety of business functions in its adjustable meeting rooms and halls. The David Citadel complex also boasts the critically acclaimed Scala Chef Kitchen & Bar as well as the rooftop Mamilla Café. For more information, visit thedavidcitadel.com.

Sheraton Tel Aviv Executive Lounge

TEL AVIV

Sheraton Tel Aviv Hotel & Towers

The entire third floor has been reconfigured to meet the needs of business guests with a new business center, 12 newly designed guest rooms and meeting areas. The new guest rooms feature a work desk, ergonomic chair, WiFi and landline connectivity, flatscreen TVs, Nespresso machines, step-out balconies and soundproof windows that overlook the sea. In addition, all the new rooms feature a stall shower instead of a bathtub. “This is a new market trend, especially amongst the business travel community,” general manager Jean-Louis Ripoche said. “Most of our business guests are too busy to use a tub, or they are just not interested in it.”

The meeting rooms are complemented by a modular, multifunctional hall divisible by means of soundproof movable partitions, each with its own audiovisual equipment — LCD projectors, screens, bulletin boards — and coffee-break stations.

For more information, visit sheratontelaviv.com.

David InterContinental Tel Aviv Hotel

The David InterContinental Tel Aviv Hotel offers two new highly stylized business lounges — the Executive Lounge on the third floor and the Club InterContinental on the 24th floor. In addition, the redesigned Club InterContinental Lounge offers greater food diversity, improved décor and enhanced services. Both lounges offer WiFi and business services, including copier, printer and fax. The Club InterContinental Tel Aviv offers private check-in and check-out services as well as private concierge services with activities designed to match busy schedules, including the handling of itineraries and access to restaurants and shows at the last minute. The newly renovated Aubergine restaurant offers a business lunch specializing in Mediterranean delicacies infusing local cuisine with an international flair. The David InterContinental Tel Aviv offers a full-service spa and fitness center, as well as a ritzy sports and cigar bar called Inca.

For more information, visit intercontinental.com.

Northern Israel’s boutique mystique


When Lisa Edelstein, Omar Epps, Jesse Spencer and Amber Tamblyn paid a visit to Northern Israel with “House” creator David Shore as part of a weeklong trip sponsored by America’s Voices in Israel, the stars of the hit Fox series admired the tranquil beauty of the Galilee region.

“It was just so much fun to be able to relax and get away from it all, even if it was only for a day,” Tamblyn said. “It’s just so peaceful and beautiful up here.”

That serenity is the selling point for a number of posh Galilean boutique hotels located around the mountainous town of Safed and along the banks of Lake Kinneret in the city of Tiberias.

“The pastoral beauty, fresh air and unique historical mystique of Safed and the Galilee region is the perfect place for tourists who wish to get away from the big city and just relax,” said Nadav Brada, general manager of the Ruth Rimonim Safed Hotel.

In Safed, tourists can walk through the narrow alleyways of the Old City and pray in one of the spectacular ancient synagogues. The popular “Lecha Dodi” (Come My Beloved) Friday night sing-along prayer was actually composed in one of the town’s ancient synagogues by 16th century Safed kabbalist Rabbi Shlomo Halevi Alkabetz.

The Prima Galil Hotel. English.prima.co.il>

The adjacent artists’ colony, where Tamblyn purchased some beautiful rings and bracelets, boasts some of Israel’s most unique jewelry and art galleries. Just bring cash and a willingness to bargain with the locals, who are only too happy to partake in a bit of Middle East marketing.

For tourists who enjoy culinary adventures, the Galilee and Golan Heights boast some of Israel’s top wineries. Hotel concierges can easily arrange daylong treks to any number of wineries in the area.

At the Ruth Rimonim Safed Hotel, a unique boutique facility, part of the structure dates back more than 300 years, when the Ottoman Empire ruled over the region.

“Of the 77 rooms in the hotel, 36 are located in the ancient part,” Brada said. “Every one of the rooms in the hotel is designed in a different manner, which is what makes it so unique.”

The Ruth Rimonim Safed also features a spa, a swimming pool that faces Mount Meron and a fully stocked wine cellar, which is also a destination for nightly entertainment.

As you wind your way down from Safed to Tiberias (about 15 minutes away), Lake Kinneret and the adjacent Golan Heights are frequently abuzz with outdoor activities.

“This is a place where families and kids can enjoy so many types of water sports, including kayaking, motor-boating and jet-skiing, as well as horseback riding, jeeping and even rappelling across the Golan Heights,” said Omar Assle, manager of the Rimonim Galei Kinneret Hotel.

The 120-room Rimonim Galei Kinneret, which bills itself as a classic, boutique destination, features a pool, spa and private beach. In the evenings, guests can enjoy a show on the terrace opposite the pool.

The Hacienda Forestview Hotel. www.c-hotels.co.il>

“We are not one of those big, crowded hotels,” Assle said.

The Prima Galil prides itself on its various indoor and outdoor experiences. Guests are encouraged to create their own ways of exploring the region via a checklist of recommended activities: sports, bicycling, jeep trips and visits to local wineries. The hotel’s Galilean evenings (Mondays and Thursdays) entice guests to sample culinary delicacies while listening to live music performed by local musicians.

One of the best-kept vacation secrets in the region can be found between Ma’alot and Kfar Veradim in the Western Galilee. The Hacienda Forestview Hotel, which has been built like a Spanish homestead, sits amid 20 acres of natural green forest. It is renowned for catering to body, soul and palate.

Part of the C-Hotels chain, the Hacienda offers three different themed spa options: C and Enjoy, including mud treatments and body peeling for couples; C and Relax, featuring a Turkish steam bath, Jacuzzi and baths for reflexology treatments; and C and Feel Fit, which showcases the hotel’s exercise room.

“When you are feeling relaxed, you are more than ready to enjoy an incredible culinary experience,” a C-Hotels spokeswoman said.

The Hacienda offers a colorful and healthy array of breakfast options. However, it’s the South American-style barbecue evenings, featuring prime cuts of beef and other delectable dishes prepared by Chef Itzik Marciano, that accentuate a real gastronomic extravaganza. Recognizing that kids shouldn’t be left out of the culinary equation, the Hacienda also highlights a delicious buffet for kids right down to the toasted marshmallows and melodic outdoor kumsitz (sing-along).

State Dept. warns against sea travel to Gaza


The U.S. State Department “strongly urged” Americans not to travel to Gaza—a warning aimed at Americans joining a flotilla to break Israel’s naval blockade of the coastal strip.

“U.S. citizens are advised against traveling to Gaza by any means, including via sea,” said the statement issued Wednesday. “Previous attempts to enter Gaza by sea have been stopped by Israeli naval vessels and resulted in the injury, death, arrest, and deportation of U.S. citizens.”

The reference is to the Gaza flotilla Israeli commandoes raided a year ago. Nine Turks, including one Turkish American, were killed in the melee.

At least 36 Americans are joining a flotilla set to sail June 25 from Athens.

“U.S. citizens participating in any effort to reach Gaza by sea should understand that they may face arrest, prosecution, and deportation by the Government of Israel,” the State Department’s travel warning said. “The Government of Israel has announced its intention to seek ten-year travel bans to Israel for anyone participating in an attempt to enter Gaza by sea.”

Michal Ansky celebrates spring’s bounty on Passover


Here’s the first thing you notice about Michal Ansky: She’s beautiful. Tall, with long black hair and a strong, lean Israeli build. In the lobby of the Ritz-Carlton Marina del Rey, where we meet, people do double takes. She’s not quite famous here yet, though Fox TV selected Ansky from among all the cooking experts in the world to be one of three judges on its hit program, “MasterChef.” Padma Lakshmi, watch your back.

In Israel, however, Ansky is a major food celebrity. She was a judge on the Israeli version of “MasterChef,” one of the country’s most popular shows. She hosts a popular show on Channel 10, “Fresh Cooking.” And most significantly, she, along with Shir Halpern and partner/husband Roee Hemed, founded Israel’s first true farmers markets, giving Israelis direct access to farmers’ fruits, vegetables and products of the land.

I came to talk to Ansky about Israeli food, not the TV show, and about Passover. She is not religious, but she does revel in the tradition of the holiday — it’s part of the land, and it’s part of her roots.

“We live in a cynical age,” she said. “There are no surprises. One day is like the next. But I think it’s very important to have tradition that makes certain times special, and I don’t take it for granted.”

For Ansky, Passover also means the first strawberries, the first greens and herbs, the early peas.

“I love it all,” she said. “But mostly, I love my grandmother’s soup noodles. She’s from the Carpathian Mountains in Czechoslovakia. She makes them with matzah meal flour and eggs; she makes crepes and rolls them and slices them like fettuccine. I can eat them all year, not just Passover. But I also love her charoset and her matzah balls. My grandmother is a great cook.”

The Shuk HaNamal in Tel Aviv. Photo courtesy of Michal Ansky.

Ansky’s family has deep roots in Israel. Her grandfather, Rabbi Haim Gevaryahu, taught Bible to Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, as well as to Prime Minister Menachem Begin. Gevaryahu created the Bible Quiz, a beloved Israeli institution that for generations has encouraged Israelis to learn Torah. Ansky’s father, Alex, is the country’s leading radio personality, and her mother, Sherry Ansky, has written a food column for Ma’ariv newspaper for 30 years and published 11 cookbooks. 

Michal Ansky’s fondest first memories are of picking wild pine mushrooms, oraniot, in the forests surrounding her Jerusalem home, of shopping in the Old City, where Palestinian women spread out their blankets and pile them high with wild greens and cactus fruit for sale.

“I guess everything I’ve done in my life I see through the lens of food,” she said.

After graduating with a degree in literature from Hebrew University, Ansky followed her passion: She enrolled in the masters program in gastronomic sciences at the Slow Food University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo, Italy.

 “It was very intense,” she said. “The first few months was theory and books. Cured meat, cheeses, wine, olive oil, vegetables, production, history, anthropology. The next year we spent traveling Italy and the rest of the world. We studied wine in Burgundy. We went to Crete to learn about goat cheese and honey. We learned about cured ham, so we went to Parma, then to Spain to learn about Catalonia jamon.” 

Ansky didn’t become a chef — she said she only likes to feed the people she loves. She became an expert on food, a gastronome. Along the way, she had a realization.

“I became incredibly proud of Israel’s food,” she said. “We ate in three-star Michelin restaurants, three or more meals a day, meeting the biggest chefs and the best food producers in the world. And I kept comparing it to the food we have in restaurants in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and I was like, ‘Oh my God, we really can be proud of what we have, of what we’ve established.’ ”

So the granddaughter of the man who inculcated a love of Torah throughout Israeli society set about teaching Israelis to love not just the book about the land, but the fruit of the land itself.

Three years ago, she and her partners opened the country’s first farmers market in the refurbished port area of Tel Aviv. Local growers bring their produce to sell, along with producers of artisan breads, cheeses and honey. Eventually they created six such markets in Tel Aviv, Beer Sheva, Herzliya and other Israeli cities. 

Ansky also co-founded the Shuk HaNamal, a permanent farmers market with 32 booths. Among them is her mother’s now-famous herring stand. Sherry Ansky guts, fillets and cures her own matjes and shmaltz herring, offering it to shoppers on a sliced homemade baguette with a shmeer of chicken shmaltz and some thin-sliced pepper.

“People go there and eat it and break into tears,” Michal told me, getting more and more excited as she described the herring scene. “I’ve seen 10 people cry in front of her. It brings them back to what they had at their grandparents’ house.  Food takes you places immediately. ”

The farmers markets, officially linked to the International Slow Food movement, attract some 20,000 Israelis in a weekend.

You’d think that in a country as small as Israel, every vegetable is “local,” especially compared to American markets, whose produce travels thousands of miles to land on the shelves. But Israel’s famous outdoor shuks, like Mahane Yehuda in Jerusalem and Shuk HaCarmel in Tel Aviv, sell the products of more industrialized farms in massive quantities. Israelis, Ansky said, are willing to pay slightly higher prices for more variety and quality, direct from the producers.

And the farmers markets have a value beyond just great quality. They allow Israelis to taste some of the country’s finest produce, which otherwise often goes to higher-priced export markets. People can buy locally, and learn more about the food their land produces from the people who grow and make it.

“I walk around the market and I feel it’s a cultural meeting point. It’s not just a shopping experience. That’s the real point,” Ansky said.

Ansky is a TV personality now — a little hesitant to get into controversy. But she is happy — relieved even — when I raise the inevitable questions about how she navigates Israel’s particular intense food politics. 

Israeli settlers from Tekoa sell delicious mushrooms in the Tel Aviv markets, but many shoppers boycott their products. On the other hand, Palestinians from the territories have difficulty selling their products inside the Green Line.

“The best tahini in the world — in the world — is made in Nablus,” Ansky said.

Ansky once made a short film in which she played an anarchist who sneaked Nablus’ al-Jamal tahini onto an Israeli supermarket shelf and into a Tel Aviv McDonald’s. In the last scene, she sits naked in a bubble bath, rubbing the sesame paste on her face. 

“Food is also political mirror,” she said. Then she stops herself: No controversy.

I ask her if what she means is that food can be a way for two cultures sharing this small bit of land to appreciate their common gift, respect it and, through food, learn to respect each other.

“I agree,” Ansky said, smiling. “Write it down. It’s partly what I’m trying to achieve.”

Ansky wants to see a farmers market in every Israeli town. She especially wants to start them in poorer areas, to prove that healthful, delicious food is not just the birthright of residents of North Tel Aviv. She wants to see great Palestinian products on Israeli shelves, and she wants to see all the people who share the land treating it, and one another, better.

It’s a kind of Zionist dream, perhaps the natural heir to the one her grandparents realized — no less idealistic, no less possible, no less rooted in the land.

As it happens, two weeks after meeting Ansky in Marina del Rey, I have a trip scheduled to Tel Aviv. The farmers market closes at 3 p.m. on Friday, my 14-hour El Al Flight 6 nonstop lands — exactly on time — at 2 p.m. I race through customs, leap into a cab and tell the driver, “The farmers market, please, but fast.” I make it to the port as the vendors begin loading their unsold bounty onto trucks.

The market smells of Passover — peas, artichokes, bundles of fresh herbs, mountains of spring carrots, flats of ripe strawberries.

I make for the herring stand marked “Sherry Herring.” Ansky’s brother Hillel extracts a filet and — as carefully as a sushi chef — slices it. He blends it with fresh local olive oil, lemon, thin-sliced peppers and onion. It is buttery, soft, tasting of the sea, the deli and Israel. It is the best herring I’ve ever had.

The market itself is still quite lively. I sample flawless goat cheeses from Adi Ellis, who with her husband, Tal, runs Tzon-El in Zippori. There are home-cured olives, fresh-roasted nuts, wildflower honeys, fresh fish and meat. This is the land of Israel at its best. I also spot some jars of al-Jamal tahini.  It is of politics but beyond politics, a true birthright to those who live off the land, growing, harvesting and eating its fruits. I can think of no better place to begin the Passover season, to get into the spirit of the holiday.

The food and the setting remind me of something Ansky told me earlier, when I asked her about her Passover celebration: how holiness — how we eat, how we treat the land, how we treat one another — is not a God-given right but an act of will.

“I don’t really feel like Eliyahu Hanavi, Elijah the Prophet, will come and enter our table at Passover,” she said.

“But I do feel I can choose to see this feast as a holy one. If I take a shower, and choose carefully what to wear, and sit between my grandmother and my little girl, and continue this beautiful tradition of eating together and remembering something that happened 4,000 years ago — it is holy if I choose it to be.”

For more on Michal Ansky, including a photo slideshow of the farmers market and her Israeli restaurant recommendations, visit this story at jewishjournal.com/foodaism.


FISH FILETS FRIED IN MATZOH MEAL

1 pound thick-sliced strips of fresh grouper, carp or other fish
Salt
1 teaspoon sweet paprika
1 teaspoon fresh crushed garlic
1/2 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
2 eggs
1 1/2 cups matzah meal
Cooking oil

Rinse strips of fish and coat with 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon paprika and crushed garlic.

Sprinkle lemon juice over fish strips. Refrigerate until ready to fry.

In a separate bowl, beat eggs, add additional paprika and matzah meal; mix well.

Heat about 1/2 inch oil in frying pan while coating the fish with mixture from bowl.

Fry fish strips until golden.

Serve with mashed tomatoes or hot pepper and vegetable salad.


SMOKED MACKEREL SPREAD

1 smoked mackerel
Zest and juice of 1 lemon
1 (4-ounce) package cream cheese 
2 teaspoons scraped or mashed fresh white horseradish
4 to 6 green onions, finely chopped
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Peel and clean fish of all its bones. Sprinkle lemon zest over it, reserving lemon juice.

Place fish into the bowl of a food

processor and pulse until no large pieces remain.

In a separate bowl, mix cream cheese with horseradish.

Add fish and green onions to bowl; mix together.

Season to taste with salt, pepper and reserved lemon juice as desired.

Serve on top of matzahs, and garnish with sprouts or small radish.

For more Passover recipes visit jewishjournal.com/passover_food.