The Paramount Hotel lobby.

Check In to Hotels, Check Out Decorating Ideas

Among my biggest design inspirations are hotels. When choosing a hotel, the first thing I consider is not the room rate or location, but how cool the décor is.

My love affair with hotel design started in the ’90s when, fresh out of college, I splurged on a New York vacation to stay at the Philippe Starck-designed Paramount Hotel on West 46th Street in Times Square. The moment I stepped into the hotel lobby, I felt the transformative power of interior design. Not only was every square inch of the hotel awesome to behold, the hip factor had rubbed off on me. Suddenly, I felt like a model in a Calvin Klein fragrance commercial — glamorous, mysterious and full of ennui. The only thing that could have made it better was a free breakfast buffet.

Now, whenever I stay at a boutique hotel, I take lots of photos that go into my inspiration file, and design elements from many of them have found their way into my own decorating.

The Paramount Hotel.

The Paramount Hotel.

Paramount Hotel,
New York City

Design inspiration: Upholstered headboard

My favorite part of the room at the Paramount was the giant upholstered headboard featuring a Vermeer painting. I had never thought that something as utilitarian as a headboard could be art — literally. I’ve since created framed, oversized headboards for clients that have depicted goldfish swimming around orchids, an angel sunbathing by the pool, and even a photograph of the exterior of Tiffany’s in Beverly Hills. (Sadly, the Paramount was sold to a hotel conglomerate in 2011, and the Philippe Starck décor is no more.)

Hotel Zeppelin.

Hotel Zeppelin.

Hotel Zeppelin, San Francisco

Design inspiration: Typography

Perhaps because I’m both a writer and a designer, I like the idea of decorating with words. Text is used quite whimsically in the rock ’n’ roll-themed Hotel Zeppelin in the Union Square district. The graphic wallpaper in the bathroom incorporates names of singers and bands in a retro font, giving new meaning to bathroom reading. And the overhead light above the bed surprises you with a message when you turn it on. Depending on your room, the word could be “love,” “peace” or “prosper.”

Door murals at the Hotel Max.

Door murals at the Hotel Max.

Hotel Max, Seattle

Design inspiration: Door murals

An artist-centric hotel, Hotel Max showcases the work of a different local photographer on each floor, covering the doors to each guest room with that photographer’s work. When I saw those doors, they really got my creative juices flowing, and I could not wait to do something similar. I got the chance when designing the Jewish Journal offices, and I needed to cover the dull wood doors that came with the space. I found vintage stock photos of reporters and newsrooms, had adhesive murals made of them and applied them to the doors. Walking down the hallway, it’s like a gallery.

Hotel Le Bellechasse, Paris

Hotel Bellechasse in Paris.

Hotel Le Bellechasse in Paris.

Design inspiration: Decorating the ceiling

Designed by Christian Lacroix, Le Bellechasse is a kaleidoscope of pattern and color squeezed into tiny rooms typical of Parisian quarters. Once you get over the puzzling fact that the bathtub is in the bedroom, you can appreciate the marvelous design details, like quirky wallpaper that extends across the ceiling. Lying in the bed and looking up, I truly appreciated the attention paid to the ceiling. It is valuable decorating space that is rarely used. Now, I always consider how to design above the eye line, whether it’s as simple as painting the ceiling or hanging an interesting light fixture.

Rubi's Taco "Lengua" - Tamar Alexia Fleishman, Esq.

Tasty, authentic Mexican cuisine: Chicago’s Maxwell St. Market

Though Chicago’s been in the news a lot lately — dealing with political issues, a crime wave and harsh weather — it’s still one of the great cities in the world! From its very beginnings, Chicago rose above the neighboring prairie towns in sophistication and culture. Folks came up from the Mississippi Delta and also, from around the globe.

One of the city’s historic outdoor markets — Maxwell Street Market — isn’t even on Maxwell Street anymore, but its quirky mystique follows it wherever it goes. For over 100 years, the market has been a famed melting pot of ethnic foods, flea market and back in the day, a well-known place to fence stolen goods! Unlike some of the city’s other farmer’s markets, Maxwell Street is open every Sunday, year round. I visited it on a gorgeous, unseasonably warm November day. The market was packed with neighborhood South Loop residents, as well as people the north side by way of bikes on this lovely day. Some brought their dogs, as the market seems to be dog-friendly.

These days, Maxwell Street Market’s food vendors are Mexican and other Latin street food, in all of their glory. Have you had pozole? It’s a traditional Mexican stew made with pork, hominy, spices and herbs, all slow-cooked. It felt so warming and perfect as a brunch starter on a warm-cool morning. Sitting at the pozole booth’s communal picnic table, I chatted up a couple of local fix-it guys: they felt the same way. The recipes are the real deal . . . I’m sure of it. Many of the vendors don’t speak English and my Spanish is sorely lacking.

Pozole Booth at Maxwell St. Market - Tamar Alexia Fleishman, Esq.

Pozole Booth at Maxwell St. Market – Tamar Alexia Fleishman, Esq.

As I finished up my stew, I glanced at a growing line in front of one of the vendors across the way. It was unlike anywhere in the whole market! I’ve always known that when it comes to local restaurants — even if it’s a food truck or a truck stop — the ones with huge crowds are where you want to go. The locals know what’s best!

Rubi’s Tacos

Rubi's Taco "Lengua" - Tamar Alexia Fleishman, Esq.

Rubi’s Taco “Lengua” – Tamar Alexia Fleishman, Esq.

Rubi’s Tacos are revered by people all over Chicago. The vendor serves varieties that aren’t dumbed down for tourists. They take a while to get to your order, because everything is made of the freshest ingredients to order. I got a taco with chopped tongue, along with huitlacoche: a corn fungus known as “corn truffles”.  You can get your taco garnished with your choice of roasted spring onions, roasted chili peppers, fresh cilantro, onion, tomato and lettuce. The shell is a freshly baked soft taco. Luscious! There wasn’t a single person in the long line who was disappointed.

Rubi's Tacos at Maxwell St. Market - Tamar Alexia Fleishman, Esq.

Rubi’s Tacos at Maxwell St. Market – Tamar Alexia Fleishman, Esq.


Calendar: February 24 – March 2, 2017

FRI | FEB 24


Come see the exhibition “Pop for the People: Roy Lichtenstein in L.A.” during this special night. See more than 70 works that make up this exhibition. Curator-led tours are scheduled for 6:30 and 8:30 p.m. Afterward, enjoy a full cash bar, music in the courtyard and dinner available for purchase from Mandoline Grill and the Hungry Nomad. Exhibition swag at no charge. 5-10 p.m. Free. Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 440-4500.



Peter Fogel presents his first multimedia solo show, “Til Death Do Us Part … You First!” In this comedic performance, a mensch baby boomer searches for his bashert, finding her after he is dumped on Valentine’s Day. 8 p.m. $23; tickets available at Whitefire Theatre, 13500 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks. (818) 990-2324.

SAT | FEB 25


Explore beliefs about life after death through two panel discussions moderated by the Rev. Gwynne Guibord. Panelists will discuss how different faiths understand life, the afterlife and how their beliefs about death and dying are reflected in their rituals. The morning session will include Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels, along with the Very Rev. Canon Mark Kowalewski and Imam Ahmed Soboh. Buddhist, Hindu and Sikh viewpoints will be represented in the afternoon session. Space is limited. 10 a.m. Free; registration required. St. John’s Cathedral, 514 W. Adams Blvd., Los Angeles.  (323) 325- 5412.


cal-niver-travelLisa Niver, a travel expert, writer and on-camera host on “We Said Go Travel,” an online community of 1,600 travel writers from 75 countries, will be interviewed. Niver has visited more than 95 countries, and will talk about her favorite experiences and offer tips and expertise on a variety of travel topics. 11 a.m. Free. RSVP at Capital One Café, 11175 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles.


Whether single or in a couple, come enjoy an event for folks 50 and older, featuring Tommy Tassi & the Authentics, who will perform hits from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s.  There will be a huge dance floor, dance hosts, ice breakers, line dances and more. More than 200 guests are expected. Dinner, dessert and beverage bar, featuring beer and wine. 7:30 p.m. $25. Stephen Wise Temple, 15500 Stephen S. Wise Drive, Los Angeles. Email

SUN | FEB 26


Get a taste of Kollel Yom Rishon presented by Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future-REITS and Shaarey Zedek Congregation. Rabbi Hershel Schacter, a noted talmudic scholar, will teach the Inyanei Rosh Chodesh. Then the dean of the Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and published child psychologist,Rona Novick will give a talk called “Building Resilience in Ourselves and Our Children in Challenging Times.” 10 a.m. Free. Shaarey Zedek Congregation, 12800 Chandler Blvd., Valley Village.


cal-finkelDirector Taliya Finkel turns the camera on herself and her journey through the world of internet dating. Finkel goes from date to date in Tel Aviv, experiencing the many bizarre aspects of dating in the modern age in this comedy with a feminist tinge. Rated R. 11:30 a.m. $5. Congregation Beth Shalom, 21430 Centre Pointe Parkway, Santa Clarita. (661) 254-2411.


In celebration of Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month, enjoy activities such as arts and crafts, karaoke, gymnastics, music and dancing, farm activities, games and more. Hosted by HaMercaz-LAJAC Partners. Glatt kosher food available for purchase. Noon. $10 per family; $5 per individual. Vista Del Mar, 3200 Motor Ave., Los Angeles. (866) 287-8030.


Renowned L.A. Yiddish folk singer Cindy Paley will perform an evening of Yiddish love songs. Guest artist Menachem Mirski (from Poland) joins Isaac Sadigursky on accordion and Miamon Miller on violin. The Yiddish songs from the beginning of the century follow the theme of love and courtship. Audience participation is encouraged. 2 p.m. $15; $18 at the door. Valley Beth Shalom, 15739 Ventura Blvd., Encino. Also 7 p.m. Feb. 27; address provided upon RSVP. Tickets available at


Israeli comedian Uri Chizkia is sure to make you laugh. 7:30 p.m. Tickets start at $60. Wilshire Ebell Theatre, 4401 W. Eighth St., Los Angeles.

MON | FEB 27


Learn about how Jews were able to succeed in the Old West using their Jewish values. Each participant will receive a copy of guest speaker David Epstein’s book “Why the Jews Were So Successful in the Wild West … and How to Tell Their Stories.” 7 p.m. Advanced RSVP, $36; $72 on day of event. Kol Tikvah, 20400 Ventura Blvd., Woodland Hills. (818) 348-0670.



Every community, family and individual has a unique perspective on identity, and Jews are no different. This program for adults and teens on the multiplicity of Jewish identity will feature Joshua Silverstein, an award-winning actor, comedic writer and a bi-racial Jew. Sponsors include Temple Beth Am, Be’chol Lashon (“In Every Tongue”) and Beth Chayim Chadashim. 7 p.m. Free; RSVP requested. Temple Beth Am, 1039 S. La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 652-7353, ext. 215.


This panel event will celebrate the award-winning book “The Sacred Calling: Four Decades of Women in the Rabbinate.” Moderated by Rabbi Denise L. Eger, founding rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami and the outgoing president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR). Guest panelists include Rabbi Karen Bender, director of spiritual life for the Los Angeles Jewish Home in Reseda; Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills Rabbi Emerita Laura Geller; and Rabbi Wendy Spears of Woodland Hills.  All four women are local contributors to the more-than-750-page anthology. 7 p.m. Free. Congregation Kol Ami, 1200 N. La Brea Ave., West Hollywood. (323) 606-0996.



Join the Executives Speaker Series Breakfast, featuring Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority Commissioner Wendy Greuel and Stephanie Klasky-Gamer, president and CEO of LA Family Housing . 7:30 a.m. Members $25, $30 at the door; nonmembers $35, $40 at the door. El Caballero Country Club, 18300 Tarzana Drive, Tarzana. (818) 774-3332.

Why did The Jet Set interview Lisa Niver?

Why did The Jet Set interview Lisa Niver? Lisa Niver and Nikki NoyaThank you to Nikki Noya and The Jet Set for interviewing me about Transformation Travel! I loved being on your show and talking about my project of 50 new things before I am 50. Thank you to Tammilee who inspired me with her 40 before 40 project when we met at Travel Media Showcase.

I spoke about several trips on my segment–please click on the names of the places for more information about my trips to Bonaire, Cuba and Park City. I am working on the videos from SharkSchool and will be skiing with the visually impaired next week. I will share that footage as soon as I can!

Thank you for all your support! Lisa Niver

More about THE JET SET:
“The Jet Set is a first of it’s kind talk show designed to keep pace with the professional, leisure and aspiring traveler by offering interviews with a wide variety of guests from the entertainment and travel worlds, on-location experiences, and insight into the latest trends and current events.

Our show engages a social media connected generation, experiencing destinations with them, rather than for them. Opening the door to new advertising and promotional opportunities with both travel-focused companies such as airlines, hotel brands, restaurant chains, etc. and lifestyle products including mobile electronics, apps, financial services and cosmetic brands among others.

The Jet Set not only connects viewers to a destination or experience, but also to hosts they can relate to and brands that will help take them where they truly want to go.”

VIDEO: Lisa Niver on The Jet Set February 4, 2017

From The Jet Set:

“The Jet Set is a fresh new talk show designed to reinvent travel television and keep pace with the professional, leisure and aspiring traveler by experiencing the sights, sounds and scenery of destinations around the world or here at home, along with you!

As the first hybrid talk and travel show, ‘The Jet Set’ is anchored from its ‘jet’ television set complete with an airplane wing desk and actual set pieces built from a decommissioned Boeing 747. Alternatively, like other travel shows, ‘The Jet Set’ hits the road to feature destinations, attractions, festivals and unique adventures.

Travel and talk veterans Gailen David, Bobby Laurie and health and wellness expert Nikki Noya will keep you in the loop each week with a wide variety of guests from the entertainment and travel worlds, on-location experiences, and insight into the latest trends and current events.

But more importantly, we let you in on the fun and reinforce that you don’t need to “jet” to be part of the “Jet Set” experience!

Share your opinions, experiences,  and tips by interacting via photo, video or commenting on social media platforms and on our app!

The Jet Set is filmed in Washington, D.C.”

Watch the full episode:

This article first appeared on We Said Go Travel.

Why did The Jet Set interview Lisa Niver?

Safety tips when celebrating Passover in Europe

This Passover, travelers to the Tuscany region of Italy can soak up the sun on the beach and eat special, kosher food certified by the Chief Rabbi of Brussels while staying at the Gallia Palace Hotel. 

Or they can celebrate with a whiff of the Adriatic Sea in Dubrovnik, Croatia, or by soaking up the glamour of the French Riviera, where they can stay at the four-star Novotel Cannes Montfleury.

But while Europe may be calling this Passover — resorts offer top amenities and beautiful accommodations — some travelers may be hesitant to celebrate the holiday there due to the recent violence in places such as Turkey, Germany and Belgium. 

There’s also the growing anti-Semitism throughout the continent that could give rise to safety concerns. According to a 2016 Jerusalem Post article, Israel’s Minister of Diaspora Affairs Naftali Bennett said anti-Semitism in Europe has increased to an “unprecedented” level. He referred to a statistic that anti-Semitic occurrences in London increased 60 percent during 2015. In the first quarter of 2015, they rose 84 percent when compared with the first quarter of the previous year. 

Despite these concerns, travel agents specializing in Jewish and kosher travel said there is no reason to avoid Europe this Passover. 

“The people who go to Passover programs for a vacation … there is no need to have more security than usual,” said Sam Kroll of Melrose Travel in Los Angeles. 

This goes for both common destinations and remote ones. This year, Eddie’s Kosher Travel and Tourism is offering a remote Passover program in the Italian Alps. CEO David Walles, who is based in Israel, said there should be no worries about anti-Semitism because, “Nobody knows what a Jew is over there.”

When going in and out of the European airports, however, Walles said it may be safer to wear a baseball cap instead of a yarmulke, if the person is comfortable doing that. “You have to be sensible. There is no reason to stand out,” he said.

According to Kroll, Jews going to France, especially, are wearing hats or caps instead of yarmulkes in public. When Jews are in the country for Passover and staying with a host family, they should simply follow the precautions the family is taking. He said he heard feedback from travelers who went to England and said they detected an animosity toward Jews, but they didn’t have any safety concerns. 

Even though Bennett said anti-Semitism has risen, Kroll hasn’t experienced the same on his end. “I’m not aware of any [attacks on Jews in Europe] recently. I don’t see any changes.” 

Sophia Kulich, owner of Jewish Travel Agency, said that in places such as Eastern and Northern Europe, it is safe to wear religious items. “I see people in the airports there who wear yarmulkes,” she said.

Walles said that, in general, when traveling around the globe there are basic precautionary tips that everyone should follow. “You need to be vigilant and not hang around public areas unnecessarily. You have to be aware that we live in a very different world than it used to be.”  

And when traveling anywhere, Kulich said, it’s important to buy travel insurance for emergencies and register the trip through the U.S. Department of State’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP). The trip is registered with the U.S. embassy or consulate closest to where the traveler is going so that they know about it. The website for STEP ( features travel alerts and warnings as well. For example, the latest travel advisory for Europe, released in late November, says to “exercise caution” at holiday festivals, events and outdoor markets, and to avoid large groups. 

Travelers should note, though, that when the government puts out travel advisories for certain places, sometimes they are generalizing, Kulich said. “There are many different countries in Europe. Iceland is the safest country in the world. I take groups to Poland, the Baltics and Armenia and it’s pretty much always safe.”

Kulich, who goes to Europe every two months, said that if travelers plan to go to Europe this Passover, they shouldn’t showcase that they are American, either. “It’s also better to avoid political conversations, especially now,” she said, referring to the recent presidential election results.

Europe is just like everywhere else, Kulich pointed out, and people could say that the United States is not safe to travel around because of the recent Florida shootings in Orlando and Fort Lauderdale.

“Europe is as safe as anywhere else in the world,” Kulich said. “Unfortunately, the violence that is taking place is the new normal that people are getting used to.”

Roman holiday: Pesach vs. Pizza

Ever since I was a teenager, I had dreamed of an Italian honeymoon. Cuddling on a gondola, exploring ruins, feasting on pasta — those to me were the definition of marital bliss. 

So when my husband, Sean, and I booked our post-wedding tickets for nonstop pizza in the piazza, we were rattled when we realized that it was going to coincide with Passover. Neither of us had ever skipped a seder, and we always tried to avoid chametz during the holiday. And yet, would canoodling in Italy be complete without noodles?

We thought hard, and instead of returning our tickets, we made a Passover plan that ensured both a unique and beautiful honeymoon.

We started in Venice a few days before the holiday and began to eat unlimited amounts of pasta and pizza, as well as visit the Jewish museum and the historic synagogues. My idea of Venetian Jewry previously had come from only “The Merchant of Venice” (not the best source material). Despite being ghettoized for centuries (and even inventing the term “ghetto”), the Jews of Venice had a rich, beautiful history and tradition. Unfortunately, we also learned of the dramatically fading Jewish life in Venice: the struggles to put together a minyan, the challenges of getting kosher food, and the community’s aging population. 

Our next stop was Florence, where I had heard so much about the Great Synagogue (or Tempio Maggiore) — its iconic dome, rich mosaics and stunning stain glass windows. So before we headed out on our trip, I bought two tickets online for the synagogue’s community seder. 

We traveled by train and arrived with only enough time to quickly drop our bags, change clothes and walk to the synagogue. We arrived as services were nearing the end. What I had forgotten was that, like nearly all historic synagogues of Europe, this one was Orthodox. Sean and I, both raised Reform, were separated and I had to sit along the side behind a mechitzah, able only to see most of the stunning building through a wooden-gated divider. 

While my view was limited, it also was breathtaking — and not just for its beauty. The building was filled with the chazzan’s boisterous voice, children running around, and even disenchanted teenagers loitering in the lobby. This synagogue was alive — not a beautiful old relic, like so many of Europe’s other old synagogues. 

As services concluded, the majority of the congregants left to attend their family seders. About 40 people stayed behind to attend the community one, which was held in the basement/community room of the synagogue’s administrative office building. Sean and I found a table with a few other English-speaking folks, including an American expat who had been living in Italy for 27 years and, it turns out, used to carpool to Hebrew school in Flint, Mich., with my former boss! 

The seder was led by the synagogue’s rabbi and his family. Little of what was said was comprehensible to Sean and me since it was in Italian, but we got by with the help of our tablemates and the fact that the order of a seder in Italy is the same as one in Los Angeles — some wine, four sons, some plagues, some miracles, some more wine, next year in Jerusalem. 

For the rest of our trip, which was all during Passover, we knew it would be impossible for us to keep strict observance. And considering that our love of pasta is what made us book our trip in the first place, we made the decision to not keep the holiday for every meal but to designate one meal each day as chametz-free. And there were little things that required little sacrifice — instead of getting our gelato in a cone, for example, we ate it from a cup. These sacrifices, though minor, kept us thinking about Pesach even as we spent our days touring the Vatican and exploring seaside villages.

It also helped that we spent the rest of our honeymoon trying to incorporate as much Jewish tourism as we could. Among our stops was Pitigliano, a small Tuscan village known as “La Piccola Gerusalemme” (Little Jerusalem). More than 1,000 feet above sea level, the village was once home to a small but thriving Jewish community for hundreds of years. Now, fewer than 10 Jews live in the city. 

Still, the community’s historic synagogue, Jewish museum and ancient caves that once housed matzo ovens, a mikveh and wine cellars are the top tourist attractions for the otherwise remote and decaying mountain fortress. After a lovely tour, we walked into the gift shop and bought our first box of matzo, which had a sign in English that read “ancient bread.” 

In Rome, we toured the Jewish museum and the historic synagogue located in the famous and thriving Jewish ghetto neighborhood. During the tour, I asked, “Is the shul Sephardic or Ashkenazi?” “It’s Roman!” the tour guide replied, explaining that Jews have been in Rome since before the Diaspora and so they predate the concepts of Ashkenazi or Sephardic. 

We spent that afternoon — our last in Italy — shopping in Judaica shops, where we met people who said their families dated back to the days of the Colosseum, when Jews were brought as slaves. As the curtain descended on our Italian-Passover honeymoon, I turned to Sean and joked, “We were once slaves in Egypt; then God freed us. We were once slaves in Rome; then we became tourists.”

Safety tips when celebrating Passover in Europe

This Passover, travelers to the Tuscany region of Italy can soak up the sun on the beach and eat special, kosher food certified by the Chief Rabbi of Brussels while staying at the Gallia Palace Hotel. 

Or they can celebrate with a whiff of the Adriatic Sea in Dubrovnik, Croatia, or by soaking up the glamour of the French Riviera, where they can stay at the four-star Novotel Cannes Montfleury.

But while Europe may be calling this Passover — resorts offer top amenities and beautiful accommodations — some travelers may be hesitant to celebrate the holiday there due to the recent violence in places such as Turkey, Germany and Belgium. 

There’s also the growing anti-Semitism throughout the continent that could give rise to safety concerns. According to a 2016 Jerusalem Post article, Israel’s Minister of Diaspora Affairs Naftali Bennett said anti-Semitism in Europe has increased to an “unprecedented” level. He referred to a statistic that anti-Semitic occurrences in London increased 60 percent during 2015. In the first quarter of 2015, they rose 84 percent when compared with the first quarter of the previous year. 

Despite these concerns, travel agents specializing in Jewish and kosher travel said there is no reason to avoid Europe this Passover. 

“The people who go to Passover programs for a vacation … there is no need to have more security than usual,” said Sam Kroll of Melrose Travel in Los Angeles. 

This goes for both common destinations and remote ones. This year, Eddie’s Kosher Travel and Tourism is offering a remote Passover program in the Italian Alps. CEO David Walles, who is based in Israel, said there should be no worries about anti-Semitism because, “Nobody knows what a Jew is over there.”

When going in and out of the European airports, however, Walles said it may be safer to wear a baseball cap instead of a yarmulke, if the person is comfortable doing that. “You have to be sensible. There is no reason to stand out,” he said.

According to Kroll, Jews going to France, especially, are wearing hats or caps instead of yarmulkes in public. When Jews are in the country for Passover and staying with a host family, they should simply follow the precautions the family is taking. He said he heard feedback from travelers who went to England and said they detected an animosity toward Jews, but they didn’t have any safety concerns. 

Even though Bennett said anti-Semitism has risen, Kroll hasn’t experienced the same on his end. “I’m not aware of any [attacks on Jews in Europe] recently. I don’t see any changes.” 

Sophia Kulich, owner of Jewish Travel Agency, said that in places such as Eastern and Northern Europe, it is safe to wear religious items. “I see people in the airports there who wear yarmulkes,” she said.

Walles said that, in general, when traveling around the globe there are basic precautionary tips that everyone should follow. “You need to be vigilant and not hang around public areas unnecessarily. You have to be aware that we live in a very different world than it used to be.”  

And when traveling anywhere, Kulich said, it’s important to buy travel insurance for emergencies and register the trip through the U.S. Department of State’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP). The trip is registered with the U.S. embassy or consulate closest to where the traveler is going so that they know about it. The website for STEP ( features travel alerts and warnings as well. For example, the latest travel advisory for Europe, released in late November, says to “exercise caution” at holiday festivals, events and outdoor markets, and to avoid large groups. 

Travelers should note, though, that when the government puts out travel advisories for certain places, sometimes they are generalizing, Kulich said. “There are many different countries in Europe. Iceland is the safest country in the world. I take groups to Poland, the Baltics and Armenia and it’s pretty much always safe.”

Kulich, who goes to Europe every two months, said that if travelers plan to go to Europe this Passover, they shouldn’t showcase that they are American, either. “It’s also better to avoid political conversations, especially now,” she said, referring to the recent presidential election results.

Europe is just like everywhere else, Kulich pointed out, and people could say that the United States is not safe to travel around because of the recent Florida shootings in Orlando and Fort Lauderdale.

“Europe is as safe as anywhere else in the world,” Kulich said. “Unfortunately, the violence that is taking place is the new normal that people are getting used to.”

New rail line to connect high-tech Tel Aviv with holy Jerusalem

Tel Aviv and Jerusalem are only 60 km (40 miles) apart but they often feel like different planets, not just in terms of mentality but because the commute from the Mediterranean to the hills can sometimes take two hours.

That is set to change in the next 18 months with the completion of a $2 billion, high-speed rail line that will slash the time between the high-tech, business center and Jerusalem's Old City to just 30 minutes.

After more than a decade in the planning, the project, which has involved boring tunnels through mountains and spanning bridges over deep valleys, promises to transform Israel's two largest cities, or at least bring them a little closer.

“We are doing in Israel what was done 200 years ago in the United States, after World War II in Europe and in recent decades in Asia,” Transport Minister Yisrael Katz said on Tuesday, touting several new rail lines in the works. “The main aim is to connect Jerusalem to the rest of the country.”

There is already a train between Jerusalem and the coast — built during the Ottoman empire and added to by the French and the British — but it's a slow, scenic route that takes an hour and 40 minutes, not ideal for commuting. That said, around 7,500 people still ride it most days.

The new line takes a more direct route, cutting through the steep hills between the Mediterranean and Jerusalem, which sits 800 meters (2,640 feet) above sea level.

Working with 10 foreign companies, the line runs over 10 bridges and through five tunnels. Construction began in 2010 and is scheduled to end in March 2018.

Double-decker trains holding around 1,700 passengers will travel at 160 km/h. The plan is for four departures an hour, serving 50,000 commuters a day, or 10 million a year, said Boaz Zafrir, the chief executive of Israel Railways.

Katz believes the train will give a jolt to Jerusalem's economy, encouraging more people from the coast to open businesses in the city, which is more religious and conservative than Tel Aviv. Some Tel Avivians, fed up with high rental costs and high humidity, may also decide to move to Jerusalem.

The new line also promises to be a boon for foreign diplomats, Israeli government employees and parliament members, many of whom live on the coast but commute to Jerusalem almost daily and often lament the traffic jams.

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 ( 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.


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.


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.


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.” 

Around the world in five years

On their first date 18 years ago, Benny Rubinstein told Shifra “Shiffy” Raz about his dream of backpacking around the world, while he was still young enough to climb mountains and carry a heavy backpack. 

The date lasted 14 hours, and the two quickly discovered that they share the same values. Both were minimalists and adventurers who loved the outdoors. It was the second chapter for both of them: Rubinstein, a program manager in the aerospace industry, was a father of two, and Raz, a senior director at the YMCA, was a mother of four.

But Raz, who was 52 at the time and two years younger than Rubinstein, was not ready for travel of that magnitude.

“I need to help my kids, cannot quit my job. We have no money and cannot afford traveling, and we must plan for our retirement,” she argued.

And so they stayed. Seven years into their relationship, though, they lost a few close friends to illness, and their priorities changed.

“I told her I want to take one year off work to go around the world,” Rubinstein recalled. “But Shiffy said, ‘How much can we see in one year? Let’s go for five years.’ ”

The main obstacle was financing the trip. The solution, it turned out, was right at home: The couple rented out their Santa Monica condo and traveled on the rental income. 

It was 2005. Rubinstein was 61, Raz was 59; both are natives of Israel and were healthy and physically active when they hit the road, two backpacks for each of them, filled only with essentials.

“How much do you really need to sustain your existence?” Raz said.

She answered her own question in her travel journal, a collection of thousands of photos and 250 entries that she emailed to friends and family on a weekly basis: “Two pairs of pants, two shirts will do. One small bar of soap used for bathing, shampoo, laundry and dishes. Every plastic bag was saved and reused. You quickly realized that the material staff is only stuff. What you take along your journey, is your personal inventory, in our case our core and stability was our Israeli-Jewish upbringing and values. I packed a tiny Bible and a siddur and followed the weekly Torah Reading.” 

Raz never doubted that their trip would be a success, as the pair hopped the globe, exploring 35 countries in Asia, Europe, Australia, South America and Africa.

Benny Rubinstein climbing up to Torres del Paine in Chile

“Our children and friends were very supportive of our dreams, but I don’t think that anyone believed we were really going to travel the world for five years. On the other hand, I had no doubt that we could do it. I trusted our relationship and would follow Benny through fire and water,” she said.

They came back home each year — sometimes for the birth of a new grandson, sometimes for a bar mitzvah — staying with family or friends. 

While on the road, they never worried about their safety, although in Rio de Janeiro, two young thugs pulled knives on them. (Rubinstein was quick to pull his own knife and the assailants ran away.) In fact, Rubinstein said, their age was an advantage in many cases as people were more respectful and trusting, even inviting them into their homes as guests. 

The couple occasionally traveled in the company of young Israeli backpackers who were fresh out of the army. Raz and Rubinstein joked that it was their own after-army trip. (Rubinstein was a sergeant in the Israeli air force and Raz served as a lieutenant in the army’s military police.) 

They celebrated Shabbat and holidays at Chabad centers around the world, meeting young travelers who shared travel tips and stories. The rest of their intel came from Lonely Planet travel guides. It was Raz’s responsibility to read the book and highlight what she wanted to see; Rubinstein had to figure out how to get there.

They had a general direction but no schedule. They never made a reservation for accommodation but always found a place to stay. Always traveling frugally — they prepared their own meals and traveled on buses — the world became their home.

In Peru, they met a jungle man who took them into the heart of the Amazon, where they slept on hammocks hanging from trees and ate what they fished and gathered. 

In Indonesia, they stayed with naked tribesmen who, thankfully, had given up their taste for human flesh some 60 years ago.

In Honduras, they spent time on a tiny island — about 275 square yards in size — with the most amazing snorkeling sites. And in Sri Lanka, they participated in a pilgrimage to a holy mountain with 8,000 steps.

Along the way, they were caught in avalanches and floods, sometimes using chain ladders to climb up and down a mountain. In easier moments, they met kind people who opened their doors for them and invited them in for a meal. While visiting Bali, for example, they noticed preparations for a wedding. 

“I watched them curiously decorating the house and was promptly invited to the wedding,” said Raz, who along with Rubinstein wore traditional costumes as requested. “We ended up going to two weddings and a funeral and prolonging our stay in town so we could participate.”

Language was never a problem, they said, as they communicated with gestures, drawing pictures and smiles. 

The last year of their adventure was in Africa. Since, they said, that continent does not accommodate backpackers very well, they decided to travel as volunteers, collaborating with the charity organization Pagus: Africa to build a school for children in a small village in Ghana. The place had no running water, electricity or gas. 

The ground was dug with shovels and hoes and 8,000 concrete bricks were molded by hand, using two molds. Rubinstein applied his engineering skills and Raz her teaching experience. During the six months the couple spent in the village, Rubinstein supervised the construction of the new school and Raz helped out in the existing one. 

“When we arrived there, the villagers were skeptical” Rubinstein recalled. “They said, ‘You are going to be like all the rest. You just came to take pictures, and next week, we will not see or hear from you anymore.’ I proved them wrong. They now have a beautiful school: three buildings, eight [classrooms] and administration building with offices, library and toilets, where 250 students attend daily. We keep in touch with the school and get periodic updates.”

Since returning home in 2010, Raz, now 69, said the best part has been having daily contact with the couple’s kids and grandkids, as well as a greater appreciation for the United States.

“The biggest shock upon returning home was the realization of how much our society wastes — all the disposable stuff — and how people sweat over the small stuff,” she said. “When you spend time with people who don’t own anything, your priorities change. We could feed so many villages with what our society puts in our trash.”

They still keep much the same lifestyle as they had while traveling, even though a number of years have passed. No TV, no eating out. Rubinstein, now 71, even built most of the furniture in their home. 

Are they ready for their next adventure? Raz, who volunteers as a yoga and tai chi instructor at senior centers and teaches Hebrew privately each afternoon, is not so sure. 

“I have a routine now, which I really love,” she said. “If we’ll go on a trip again, it will probably be in the States. We’ll buy an RV and go coast to coast. After traveling all around the world, the United States is probably one of the most beautiful countries in the world.” 

Passover is perfect for hitting the road to culinary adventure

You’ve just touched down in Chicago. Or New Orleans. Or New York. You’re in town to visit your aunt, the one with lipstick-stained teeth and the husband no one wants to talk politics with. The saving grace: You have a week to indulge in deep-dish pizza. Or beignets. Or bagels. 

But wait. You can’t. It’s Passover. 

Here’s a crazy notion. What if the parameters of Pesach — which begins the evening of April 22 and leads many to visit out-of-town relatives — didn’t have to be a deterrent to taking full advantage of an exciting restaurant scene? After all, some live to eat. Some eat to live. Everyone travels to eat. 

On those nights when there is no seder, there are still plenty of opportunities to eat out and actually enjoy yourself without having to sit facing blank walls to avoid seeing all the dishes you can’t consume.

Amy Kritzer, the Austin-based creator of the food blog What Jew Wanna Eat and author of the upcoming kosher dessert book “Sweet Noshings,” views Passover as a time to relish creativity in the kitchen. Her blog features recipes for matzah nachos (machos!) and Thai matzah pizza, and she contends that many restaurants use Passover to try new things. For her, that’s something to look forward to. 

“Most restaurants are used to accommodating gluten-free people, allergies and such. Passover is just one more challenge they take on, and many of them are ready for it,” Kritzer said. “One year in New York, I remember eating matzah breadsticks at an Italian place. They were incredible.”

In cities with a varied, dynamic restaurant scene — think New York — many top eateries even prepare special menus for the holiday. Think of it as an opportunity to see the chef operating at peak creative levels. Each spring, for example, chef Hillary Sterling at NoHo’s Vic’s whips up a Passover-themed menu inspired by the Seder Hamishi, a secret meal that Jews prepared inside the homes of Christian neighbors during the Spanish Inquisition. It features carciofi alla guidia (fried artichoke), bottarga (cured fish roe) and guinea hen. 

Of course, not everyone travels to New York for Passover. But no matter where you find yourself, you can always try a good deli — even if traditional sandwiches are out of the question.

 “It’s actually one of the busiest times of the year,” said Harold Ginsburg, owner of Art’s Deli in Studio City.  

Suzee Markowitz, owner of Factor’s Famous Deli in West L.A., echoed Ginsburg, noting that she sees many unfamiliar faces come Passover time. “We have a lot of families visiting us from out of town around the holiday,” she said. 

Both restaurateurs noted that, in addition to enjoying seasonal items such as matzah brei and flourless desserts, people tend to simply order deli favorites such as pastrami or corned beef — minus rye bread. 

Now, to purists, that may sound just plain wrong. But Lara Rabinovitch, a specialist in food culture and history who served as consulting producer on “City of Gold,” the award-winning documentary on Pulitzer Prize-winning food writer Jonathan Gold, said there’s reason to keep an open mind. Rabinovitch currently is working on a book about pastrami, which includes delving into a history that doesn’t include its now-familiar companion, rye.   

“First of all, pastrami was originally not served on bread,” she said. “It’s from Romania and it was eaten on its own there originally. Bread is a sideshow to the main event, which is pastrami. In most delis, bread is an oversight, anyway. You don’t lose much by losing bread.” 

So, think of Passover as the one time of year when you’re forced to eat pastrami the way it was intended.

Orly Olivier’s Sephardic roots inform the way she engages with the holiday, emphasizing family and food above all. The Los Angeles-based artist’s exhibition “Petit Takett: Love, Legacy and Recipes from the Maghreb,” a celebration of her Tunisian family heritage, just completed its run at the Skirball Cultural Center. 

Olivier recommends outings during Passover week that in some ways mirror the spirit of the holiday. For her, that means family-style dining and sampling small plates. 

“If I were doing Passover dinner in a restaurant, I’d do Elf in Echo Park. It’s 100 percent vegetarian. They have an amazing approach to food,” she said. “It’s small plates, so you share everything. You’ll never wish you had a piece of bread — or meat, for that matter.” 

Olivier also advises calling a restaurant before you go to let the staff know you’re coming in with dietary restrictions. If you let them know you’re coming in for Passover, she said, they’ll probably “pimp it out for you.” 

When Tannaz Sassooni is not busy with work as a technical director at Dreamworks Animation, she runs the Persian food blog All Kinds of Yum. Sassooni believes Persian restaurants are another viable option during the holiday, as bread isn’t a major part of the meal. Sassooni said the menu and atmosphere should be major selling points. 

 “A lot of it is yogurt-based. You can do small plates and everyone is reaching over each other and talking over each other,” she said. “It’s amazing.” 

Ready, set, Goa in India

Rabbinic tradition has it that Hodu (“India” in Hebrew) is the word Yehudi (“Jew” in Hebrew), without the letter yod, which signifies the one God — suggesting that India possesses kindred spirituality to Judaism, minus the monotheism. Perhaps that is why the predominantly Hindu country has long provided a welcoming home-away-from-home for Israeli backpackers. 

Now India is evolving into a happening tourism spot for the clean-cut, young Israeli professional who simply wants to take a break from the stresses of Israeli life, with the coastal state of Goa leading the way after the “Hummus Trail” near Kasol in northern India. 

In the 1990s, this former Portuguese colony became branded as a trance-rave destination. Israelis flocked here for that post-army, psychedelic escape. These days, Israelis have found other exotic, inexpensive locales for their post-army detox, such as Central America and Vietnam, and the generation that came here to party hard in Goa decades ago is staking a new claim, older and wiser. 

Israeli-owned cafes and inns serve as unofficial consulates for the Holy Land. Goan beaches have become popular, dirt-cheap resort destinations for the discerning budget traveler. (And dirt cheap means $12-a-night bungalows that compromise Western standards of cleanliness — a trade-off that’s worth it, refreshing even.)

Goa is where you free yourself from the daily grind and learn to find joy in life’s simple pleasures, like a $1.50 papaya juice by the shore. Here are some destinations where Israelis have created a mini-outpost for the Jewish state where all MOTs should feel welcome. 

South Goa: Palolem Beach

Palolem is the beach of choice for the young professional and spoiled lost soul. Many Israelis land at this beachside community for R&R after more adventurous treks in rural and urban parts of the country. Goa’s sensitivity to Western cuisine (and plumbing) lead India regulars to remark: “Goa is not India.” 

The social, fun-loving Palolem is distinctly international, with British, German, French and Russian tourists shmoozing on recliners and cushions facing the calm sea. The place is ideal for European-Israeli diplomacy. It’s where Scandinavians bond with Israelis over playing cards, or Brits buy Israeli girls a drink (easy, considering cocktails cost $3.50). 

Every menu features Israeli comfort foods — from Israeli salad to schnitzel. Café Inn is a popular Israeli establishment on the main road serving salad-heavy Israeli breakfasts, laffas and shipudim (Israeli grilled meat). There’s also Crystal Goa, founded last year by a British Jew named David Tomkins, who retired in his mid-30s from a career in finance so he could travel, only to end up working 60 hours a week running his own Goan restaurant. As for places to stay, Jewish intellectuals should feel at home at the artsy haven Cozy Nook, where the Catholic owner, Agnelo “Aggy” D’Costa, will, like a true guru, indulge guests with talk of philosophy, religion and healing.

Bear in mind, though, when making your travel arrangements that most of the seasonal bungalows are made of plywood and straw because beachside inns disassemble for summer monsoons.

North Goa: Anjuna and Arambol beaches

Drive more than two hours north of Palolem and you’ll find Anjuna and Arambol — busier, grungier beach communities that are frequented by aging hippies, stoners and substance-seekers. “Cold” turf wars between Israelis and Russians — and an electronic music party scene — ward off the yuppies. Still, Anjuna’s Wednesday souk (marketplace) is worth a visit, as is a drink at Curlies Shack, an institution. 

Israelis have made a community in Arambol. Signs in Hebrew advertise yoga classes and mopeds for sale. Shopkeepers greet tourists with “Shalom” to lure business.

A convenient, familiar place to land is Mama Café and Inn, founded by Inbal “Big Mama” Asher and her Nepali boyfriend. It was named such because the 28-year old Israeli founder practically adopted her Israeli and Jewish guests. She has since moved back to Israel, and turned over the inn to a Nepali friend, while still giving her motherly guidance to the new owner. Along the main road, Secret Bistro Garden, also Israeli-owned, will satisfy anyone longing for a vegan-friendly Tel Aviv-style cafe.


An eight-hour ride from Goa on a nighttime sleeper bus (get the AC option!), Hampi is a delightful detour. This UNESCO World Heritage Site has morphed into a rustic tourist destination thanks to Israeli explorers. Villagers and Israelis have forged economic and cultural bonds that have turned this former Hindu empire stronghold into one of the most welcoming enclaves for the hiker, adventurer and seeker.

Stacked, pastel-colored boulders form natural fortresses around the mystical city, with the cobalt blue of the Tungabhadra River slithering through the hills, emitting calm. Columns and statues of Hindu gods from ancient temples lie in gorgeous ruin throughout the countryside, blessing Hampi with a sense of eternity. 

But the people of the one God have solidly introduced monotheism. Chabad has set up camp for Israelis, with black-hatters strolling among Indian women wearing fuchsia saris as shopkeepers play Israeli pop. 

Be sure to visit the Monkey Temple, a Hindu site that is still active on a hill named after the monkey gods. Monkeys will literally eat out of your hand as you take in the breathtaking 360-degree panoramic view. Or, if you’re interested in creatures of a different sort, check out what travelers have dubbed the “bird sanctuary.” Hike to the top for another exquisite view — the lone shepherd will move the cows out of your way in exchange for enough rupees to buy a beer. 

Mowgli Guest House offers round huts and concrete rooms with its cafe overlooking livestock fields and the river for a meditative morning coffee, but budget travelers craving a homey, Israeli scene can opt for the aptly named Shesh Besh (“backgammon” in Hebrew).

Rent a moped for $1.50 a day, but ride with caution — muffler burns (and worse) are common. Then cruise around to places such as Sunset Point, where Israelis gather for a drumming circle, or get lost — purposefully.

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.

Meet the family behind Burma’s last synagogue

In the center of downtown Yangon (formerly Rangoon), just off the city’s main thoroughfare of Mahabandoola Street, stands Burma’s only remaining synagogue, Musmeah Yeshua. Each year, hundreds of tourists visit the colonial-era synagogue, one of the few remnants of this country’s once-thriving Jewish community. In this majority-Buddhist country, the synagogue’s continued existence can be attributed largely to the efforts of one family: the Samuelses. 

Shortly after Burma — also known as Myanmar — gained its independence from Britain in 1948, Moses Samuels took over the care of the synagogue from his father, who had taken over from his father before him. For decades, Moses would open the synagogue doors every morning, eager to greet Jewish and non-Jewish visitors alike. 

Moses’ son, Sammy, told the Journal that his grandfather had exacted a promise from his father “that as long as we are here, the synagogue will be open and there will [be a] community. All [the] credit goes to my father.” 

When the Journal contacted Moses in late April, he was suffering from throat cancer and could hardly speak; he responded via email.

“For many years I [have] been receiving visitors from all over the world, and I treat everyone with equal respect and dignity … no matter if they are Jewish or Buddhist, Muslim or Christian, Hindu or Baha’i — [no] matter if they come from America or India, Europe or Asia,” Moses wrote to the Journal on April 29. 

“I am always proud to share the history of the community. This is great for [the] city of Yangon and tourism, to show the diversity of this beautiful city and religious tolerance of its people.” 

A month later, Moses died at the age of 65. Sammy, who has been active in the synagogue’s upkeep and support for many years, said he will continue taking care of both the synagogue and cemetery, as his father had for 35 years. 

Sammy Samuels is the fourth generation of his family to serve as the synagogue’s caretaker. 

“Before my father passed away, I had made [a] promise to keep the Jewish spirit alive in Myanmar, and I will continue to do so,” Sammy said. 

The synagogue, with its soaring ceiling and graceful columns, was rebuilt in 1896 from a smaller wooden structure that had been erected in the mid-1850s. Listed as one of 188 Yangon heritage buildings by the Yangon Development Council, Musmeah Yeshua in its heyday contained 126 silver Torah scrolls. Only two remain today; various Jewish families took the others when they left Burma for other countries over the years. The city’s Jewish cemetery is about six miles from the synagogue and contains more than 600 gravestones, the oldest dating to 1876. The community once boasted a Jewish school, which at its peak in 1910 had 200 students.

Burma’s Jewish community dates to the mid-19th century, when Jewish merchants migrated to Burma and became a conduit between British colonial rulers and the export-import community abroad. Most of these merchants, including Sammy’s great-grandparents, came from Iraq. By 1940, there were approximately 2,500 Jews living in Burma. Many became successful in business and industry, some owning ice factories and bottling plants, others dealing in textiles and timber. The rest were primarily customs officials and traders. 

As Jewish prosperity increased, so did philanthropy, and Jews donated large sums to local institutions such as schools, libraries and hospitals. 

But Jewish life in Burma changed drastically during World War II. In the colonial era, the Jewish community had formed close ties with the British. The Japanese occupied Burma in 1941 and, believing Jews were spying for the British, forced them — and most of the British colonial population — to flee to other countries. 

Only about 300 Jews remained in Burma under Japanese occupation. Another 200 returned after the war, but with their homes and wealth gone, most were unable to resume or rebuild their prewar lives. Over time, many of these families also left Burma. By the time Burmese dictator Ne Win’s regime nationalized business in 1962, there were only 150 Jews remaining in the country. With nationalization, more families lost their businesses and factories and also decided to leave. Today, approximately 20 Jews live in Burma, including Sammy’s family. 

For more than five decades, the country remained isolated from much of the outside world, largely because of the economic sanctions Western governments imposed on Burma for its poor record on human rights. But in 2011, when the quasi-civilian government led by President Thein Sein opened up the country, business opportunities and foreign investments began mushrooming and tourism increased dramatically. According to Myanmar’s Ministry of Hotels and Tourism, about 800,000 tourists visited in 2010-2011; this number increased to 1.5 million in 2012, 2 million in 2013 and 3 million in 2014.  

The Samuels family’s role in Jewish life in Burma has kept pace with the country’s changing status.

In 2002, Sammy left Burma to study at Yeshiva University (YU) in New York. While he was there, he promoted a Jewish-Burmese connection by telling everyone he met about the small Jewish community in Burma. He also assisted many Americans in planning and arranging visits to Myanmar. 

“I [spoke] about Burma at Jewish Communal events, at the Yeshiva University, some synagogues, Jewish Federations,” Sammy said. “That’s why my friends called me the ‘Ambassador of Jews to Burma.’ ” 

When he graduated from YU in 2006, Sammy wasn’t sure what to do next. “I had only $870 extra money. … In my last semester, I got the idea to open a travel agency.” With the goal of increasing tourism and awareness of Jewish heritage in his country, Sammy named his company Myanmar Shalom. He hired one staff person who, along with one of his sisters, helped to run his company in Yangon. His father also helped. 

“Now it’s been almost eight years since I started the agency. And I now have a staff of over 25 at a 2,500-square-foot office in Yangon and branch offices in other cities.” Besides the travel agency, Sammy also created MS Global Consulting Company, and owns and runs two guesthouses in Yangon — the York Residence Bed & Breakfast and the Lotus Inn. 

“If [my] family had left Burma like others, I think the synagogue [would] be closed, and there [would] not be Jewish spirit alive in the country,” Sammy said. He added, proudly, that the synagogue ranks No. 4 out of more than 96 attractions in Yangon and in the top 10 landmarks in Burma by TripAdvisor.

“This is pretty amazing,” Sammy said. “Who [would] think the synagogue with a handful of Jews [would] rank so high in a country with thousands of beautiful pagodas and temples?”

Saw Yan Naing is a Burmese journalist for The Irrawaddy magazine and was the Jewish Journal’s Alfred Friendly Fellow earlier this year.

Israelis warned to steer clear of more than 40 countries

Israel’s Counter Terrorism Bureau in its spring travel warnings called on Israelis to stay away from more than 40 countries.

Recent terrorist attacks by Islamic extremists in Belgium, Canada, Australia, France and Denmark raise concerns over additional attacks against Western targets, including Israeli and Jewish targets, by veterans of the fighting in Syria and Iraq who are affiliated with Global Jihad, including Islamic State, and by local elements inspired by the terrorist organizations, the bureau said in a statement.

The bureau warned Israelis to avoid visits to Syria, Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Yemen and Saudi Arabia — it is illegal for Israelis to travel to those countries — as well as Afghanistan, Libya, Sudan, Somalia, Burkina-Faso, Indonesia, Ivory Coast, Malaysia, Mali, Mauritania, Pakistan and Togo, due to concrete threats. Any Israelis in those countries now were advised to leave immediately.

“The global terrorist campaign by Iran and Hezbollah continues to threaten Israeli and Jewish targets around the world, especially tourists and Jewish symbols (rabbis, community leaders, Chabad houses),” the bureau said.

The bureau also said there are high concrete threats regarding travel to Algeria, Djibouti, Mauritania and Tunisia, and basic concrete threats regarding travel to Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. There are continuing potential threats regarding travel to Azerbaijan, Turkey, Morocco, Oman, Kenya and Nigeria, according to the bureau, which recommends that the Israeli public avoid non-essential visits to these countries.

There are very high concrete threats regarding travel to southern Thailand, the southern Philippines island of Mindanao, Chechnya, the northern India state of Jammu and Kashmir, the Sinai Peninsula and northern Nigeria. A severe travel warning remains in effect for the Sinai Peninsula, according to the bureau.

The bureau said there also is a high concrete threat regarding travel to eastern Senegal.

The warnings were issued ahead of the spring holidays in Israel, including Passover and Independence Days, when many Israelis travel abroad. The warnings are based on “solid and reliable information, which reflect tangible threats, and which are based on the intelligence picture for the given period,” the bureau said.

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. 

Jerusalem high on new skyline

Ten years ago, Jerusalem was just starting to emerge from the Second Intifada, which scared away local residents as well as investors. Many shops and restaurants closed during that period, leaving hundreds of storefronts with “for sale” signs. 

Fast-forward 10 years, and Jerusalem feels like a vastly different city. Many trendy stores, restaurants and hotels have opened in the city center; there is a world-class shopping district in Mamilla, as well as the adjoining Alrov residential complex, right next to the Old City; and the suddenly chic Mahane Yehuda open-air market is now a huge tourist attraction. 

 An equally important sign of Jerusalem’s rebirth is the number of luxury apartment projects being built downtown and elsewhere. Several luxury buildings, some of them high-rises, have gradually changed the skyline and brought a sense of stability and affluence to a city not known for either.  

The city has approved several of these high-rises, sometimes to the chagrin of local tenants accustomed to Jerusalem being a low-rise city. The impetus came in 2006, after former Mayor Uri Lupolianski acceded to environmentalists’ pressure to scuttle the Safdie Plan, which would have expanded Jerusalem westward and added 20,000 housing units. Unable to move outward, the city had nowhere to go but up. 

In truth, the new luxury homes haven’t made a dent in the city’s chronic housing shortage because the average Jerusalemite can’t afford to purchase one. But no one denies that the projects have created numerous jobs, brought hundreds of millions of dollars in investments and generally improved the city’s atmosphere. 

Shay Lipman, a real estate analyst at Excellence Nessuah Brokerage Services in Petach Tikvah, said the city “began to turn around” about five years ago. 

“Today, we’re seeing demand from many foreigners, including Russians, who also like Tel Aviv, [and] Americans and Europeans, especially from France and Belgium, partly due to rising anti-Semitism. Many are religious Jews.” 

Some Israelis invest as well.  

Lipman said buyers may be businesspeople who spend several weeks or months in Israel for work “and want a home base and the high standard they’re used to.” 

Others are empty-nesters, often in their 50s and 60s, who want a spanking-new apartment with condo-style services — no more mowing the lawn or repairing the roof — with an on-site maintenance team. 

Still others are families with young children who visit Israel regularly, or new immigrants who’ve decided to make their home in Jerusalem.  

While most purchase apartments as their second — or third or fourth — home, many eventually use them as their primary residence, Lipman said. 

In Jerusalem, the most sought-after properties tend to be within easy walking distance of the Old City and the center of town. 

One of the most luxurious projects is King David’s Crown, located across the street from the King David Hotel, directly adjacent to the landmark Jerusalem YMCA building. The apartments, with three, four and five bedrooms and large balconies, have direct underground access to the YMCA sports center and overlook a 1.25-acre park. The buildings feature 24-hour security, Shabbat elevators and a beautiful synagogue. 

The homes range from more than $1 million to several million dollars. 

Another luxurious property is the Saidoff Houses project, a 23-story residential building close to the Mahane Yehuda shuk on Jaffa Road. It offers 90 penthouses and duplexes (three to six rooms), a pool, spa, gym and synagogue. The views are stunning.  

Some of the penthouses in the africa-israel Residences at 7 rav Kook St. cost more than $5 million. Their spacious terraces offer fantastic views of Jerusalem.  Photo by Michele Chabin

For sheer location, nothing beats the Africa-Israel Residences at 7 Rav Kook St., a surprisingly quiet street perpendicular to Jaffa Road. The other side of the building adjoins the Ticho House, the famed restaurant, museum and former home of the artist Anna Ticho.  

The project, which was jointly initiated by Africa-Israel and Shainfeld Investments, has 131 apartments, including 112 “premium” apartments, eight penthouses and 11 “grand” apartments. The ground floor offers 11 hotel rooms and has 12 retail stores. All of the premium apartments, with one to four bedrooms, have been sold; marketing has begun for the grand ($1.28 million to $2 million) and penthouse homes ($3.4 million to $5.7 million), the latter boasting large terraces. 

Despite being in the heart of the city, the building has the feel of an inner sanctum. The apartments are sunny and quiet, and offer marvelous views. The property includes a hotel-standard exercise room, a large event room for tenants and many other amenities, said Dalia Azar Malimouka, a spokeswoman for the residences. 

During a tour, she showed two penthouses. The first was unfinished, to enable prospective owners to design the apartment to their taste and specifications. The second, a nearly 800-square-foot apartment with a 155-square-foot balcony, was completely furnished. The wood-decked terrace, which comes with a huge wooden pergola (or sukkah frame), provides a fantastic view of much of the city. 

In a phone interview, Oren Hod, CEO of Africa-Israel, recalled the intifada years, “when the city was neglected.” Today, he said, “people feel safe and confident, and you see [this] in the amount of investment” in infrastructure and real estate. 

Hod acknowledged the new luxury homes being built in Jerusalem aren’t for everyone: “All of us have a budget, and not everyone can live in the heart of Jerusalem.”

Voluntouring in Israel

Going on holiday can mean relaxing or sightseeing, tasting new foods or learning firsthand about new cultures. A growing segment of vacationers, however, goes abroad to work for free.

Voluntourism — volunteering and tourism — has been cited as one of the fastest-growing sectors of worldwide tourism. Israel, a top destination for myriad reasons — from historical to cultural, biblical to religious — is proving to be a leading location for voluntourists as well.

People of just about any age can farm, perform dentistry, respond to emergency calls, serve in the army, work in animal or environmental conservation, pick fruit on a kibbutz or make a person in need smile.

“Volunteers can make a difference even if they come for an hour,” said Deena Fiedler, spokeswoman for the national food bank Leket Israel. “They’re in our fields or in our packing warehouse; they’re preparing sandwiches, rescuing surplus food. They’re making a difference. We couldn’t do what we do without the volunteers.”

Leket relied on more than 50,000 volunteers in 2013 to help glean fields, rescue leftover food and redistribute it. Many were visitors from overseas.

In a 2012 report, 35 percent of adults said they would like to try a holiday involving a voluntourism component.

Do something good

The main premise of voluntourism is to travel while helping a cause. It also offers out-of-towners a personal feel for the place they’re visiting.

“It’s a nice way to get to know where you are,” Fiedler said. “When you’re in the field, you’re with an eighth-grader from Ashkelon or a group from a high-tech company on a bonding day. I don’t think you’d get that experience if you were a regular traveler. And I think that’s why a lot of people do it.”

The time-honored option of volunteering on a kibbutz for a few months is still a tradition that’s very much alive, as is the “wwoofing”(experience of working the land in Israel as part of Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms or Willing Workers on Organic Farms). But today there are dozens of organizations in Israel — and hundreds around the globe — offering short volunteering projects that can be included in a one- or two-week holiday.

At the Pantry Packers facility in Jerusalem, tourists 8 and older don gloves, aprons and caps in order to fill bags of rice, beans and other commodities for food baskets destined for needy families.

Tourists are sure to find inspiration at Yad Sarah — the largest national volunteer organization in Israel. Voluntourists in Israel for at least three months are welcome to help aid the disabled and elderly.

An experience for you, too

Voluntouring can also include professional exchanges. Licensed dentists from many countries come to treat underprivileged Jerusalem children through Dental Volunteers for Israel (DVI).

“The experience of providing dental treatment to children in need is very rewarding,” said Dr. Karen Walters of Texas, who has returned five times to volunteer at DVI’s Trudi Birger Dental Clinic.

“The feeling you get from relieving a child’s dental pain and restoring their teeth so they can smile again is so satisfying. When my colleagues ask me why I go to Israel and ‘work,’ I can only reply, ‘Why not?’ The children of Jerusalem need this wonderful clinic, and I am proud to be a part of it.”

Aliza Solomon of DVI said interest in the program is high.

“The experience of volunteering gives them something you can’t get any other way. Quite a few dentists tell us that [treating underprivileged children] was their way of going back to why they went into dentistry in the first place,” Solomon said.  

Another popular voluntourism opportunity is Magen David Adom (MDA), Israel’s national emergency and blood service agency. Participants in the MDA Overseas Volunteer Program get hands-on experience in CPR, bandaging and dealing with mass casualties. They leave as certified first responders. MDA also has shorter tourist mini courses in first aid and CPR.

Environmentalists and socially conscious tourists have a whole range of eco-tourism options in Israel, too.

Project Bird Box is an educational wildlife nonprofit that works with farmers and schools. Volunteers are always needed to build bird boxes for natural pest control. GoEco matches volunteers with wildlife and desert conservation programs in locations such as the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo, Nazareth and the Negev desert.

“I hope that when people come to Israel with GoEco, they learn that Israelis are not only focused on the political situation, but they’re also focused on sustaining the land that is so holy and dear to so many people,” a volunteer coordinator said. 

Want to voluntour?

If you want to voluntour but don’t know where or how to go about it, there are organizations in Israel that can help.

Ruach Tova (“Good Spirit”) is an umbrella organization for prospective volunteers, matching them up with programs in education, health, the environment, animal welfare and more. 

The Israel Volunteer Center also helps tourists find a suitable place for their services. 

Sar-El is another national volunteering project, offering opportunities to help in military warehouses with tasks such as packing equipment or fixing uniforms. 

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.”

Jewish culture adds spice to Santa Fe

Santa Fe has a lot more than great cuisine and an art scene to intrigue travelers — this New Mexico town is more than 400 years old and the oldest state capital in America. And for Jewish travelers, it contains surprises that cross all of these areas.

Some of the first Jewish settlers to arrive in New Mexico in the 1600s were descendants of Spanish and Portuguese forced converts, or conversos, who fled the Inquisition, according to the New Mexico Jewish Historical Society. Although these early settlers publically practiced Catholicism, they secretly practiced their families’ generations-old Jewish traditions. 

In the 1800s, Jewish trappers and merchants passed through the area, and when New Mexico became an American territory in 1846, Jewish families were permitted to settle permanently.  

One of the first settlers was Solomon Jacob Spiegelberg. According to the city of Albuquerque’s Web site, he established the first Jewish family enterprise and first major economic empire in the territory. Numerous relatives later joined him. 

Later, German-Jewish businessman Abraham Staab began his life in Santa Fe, eventually setting down roots in high society. He built a comparatively lavish home for his wife, Julia, and surviving parts of the building are integrated into La Posada de Santa Fe Resort and Spa, which is now, among other things, a popular destination for Jewish weddings and bar mitzvahs. 

While churches and pueblos make the city’s architecture iconic “Southwest,” there is a Jewish influence to these, too, according to La Posada’s resident art historian Sara Eyestone, who is Jewish. Her afternoon art lectures often cover how and why the Staabs bankrolled two of Santa Fe’s most significant Catholic and Episcopalian churches: taking an active role in local society and community building, and giving back to those who befriended them on the frontier. 

Santa Fe Archbishop Jean-Baptiste Lamy became close friends with Abraham Staab en route to Santa Fe. Later, he was a regular at the Staab home and delighted in helping Julia — whose ghost is said to still occupy La Posada — plant her beloved garden. He is said to have paid tribute to his Jewish friends’ generosity and friendship at St. Francis Cathedral with the Hebrew inscription for the name of God above its entrance.  

While Georgia O’Keeffe’s later works are synonymous with Santa Fe and New Mexico, it is important to remember her husband and professional champion, the photographer Alfred Stieglitz, was Jewish. Stieglitz famously empowered O’Keeffe to ultimately find herself as an artist, and she did just that in Santa Fe. 

Today, her larger-than-life-presence lives on at a museum bearing her name, with some photos of her by Stieglitz interspersed with her canvases. Elsewhere in Santa Fe, her legacy lives on through artists who have followed their bliss in a similar fashion. Stroll up Canyon Road, the city’s “arts district,” and you will find several galleries owned by or representing Jewish artists. 

A streetscape in Santa Fe, N.M.

Painter Sara Novenson and mosaic artist Joshua Kalkstein are among several Santa Fe Jewish artists attracting international acclaim. Novenson’s works were displayed at the Skirball Cultural Center in 2011 and can be found decorating the lobby of the Jewish-owned La Fonda Hotel and the Inn and Spa at Loretto. Kalkstein, meanwhile, is responsible for a stunning mosaic mural created for the mikveh commissioned by Chabad Rabbi Berel Levertov and his wife, Devorah Leah Levertov. The “Waters of Eden” mosaic depicts four rivers flowing from Eden and lists the names of the four matriarchs wrapping around the main immersion pool.  

It was estimated by a 2011 Hadassah Magazine story that between 2,000 and 7,000 Jews live in this city of 65,000, with a total of five Jewish congregations. There are no stand-alone kosher cafes, but the Levertovs stage Shabbat dinners via prior arrangement ( The Chabad Jewish Center of Santa Fe also offers catering services and prepared kosher meals to go. 

Meanwhile, the Levertovs are working to pull together a cafe with the same pioneering spirit as their 19th-century counterparts. This corner of the Southwest has left its own mark on even traditional Jewish dishes they serve.

“What makes New Mexico cuisine special, and why I love it so much, are the flavors,” said Devorah Leah Levertov as she checked on her green chili matzah ball soup prior to a Friday night gathering that draws a mix of visitors, artists and academics. 

“The way we prepare food on the holidays and every day is a mix of traditional (Ashkenazic) kosher food and New Mexican components, such as the fresh green and dried red chiles, corn and grilled meats,” she continued. “Every year, we purchase a big stack of green chile when it is in season in fall, and we use both kinds throughout the year in everything. Although roasting chiles takes effort, the smell alone is worth it. We do chile-based stews for major holidays and events, and occasionally offer a chile cholent.  

To make classic New Mexican-style cuisine even more accessible for observant Jews, Berel Levertov said he recently collaborated with the Santa Fe Tortilla Co. to make its production facilities kosher.  

He also started working as a consultant for chanukiyot produced by Nambe, a New Mexico-based design company producing artisanal kitchenware and home décor items. His involvement stemmed from a vandalism incident he described as “a rare and unfortunate incidence of anti-Semitism.”

“In December 2005, our giant menorah on Santa Fe’s Plaza was vandalized,” he said. “The community came out to show their support, and following that, Nambe approached us about wanting to donate a new menorah. [However], the menorah they gave us was not [the correct shape], and when I pointed this out to the representative from Nambe, he took a genuine interest. Later, Nambe invited me to consult when they were ready to design menorahs and [other products for the Jewish market].”

From a food standpoint, it’s no secret that Santa Fe in recent years has emerged as a center of culinary art. One way to explore it is at the Santa Fe School of Cooking. Flanked by a gourmet and cookware shop, the school offers excellent walking tours featuring the city’s hottest destination restaurants as well as cooking lessons.  

One of the more popular presences at the school is chef and James Beard Award-winning author Lois Ellen Frank. While Frank — who is from the Kiowa Nation on her mother’s side — has spent more than two decades documenting the foods and life ways of Native American communities throughout the Southwest, she has fond memories of coming of age with the food traditions from her Sephardic father’s side of the family. 

“Native households are similar to Jewish households when it comes to food,” said Frank, comparing the two cultures. “When you walked into my grandmother’s house, her commands were ‘sit’ and ‘eat,’ and she would keep at you until you decided to sweetly surrender and eat. If you go into a Native household, especially on feast day at the Pueblos, there is no way you can go into a house and not eat.

“On a deeper level, food is a bridge between the two cultures. Food is about generosity, literally feeding your guests your love, and connecting with them. When your Jewish grandma feeds you, you become part of their family, and the same goes in Native homes.”

Sante Fe has always had a lot cross-cultural influences going for it. But it’s important for visitors to remember that just like Frank’s approach to cooking, the city’s experience is flavored with a rich mix of European, Native American, Mexican — and Jewish — influences that makes it unmistakably American. 

Iceland’s inner warmth

Iceland is a small place that is big on surprises. 

Scandinavian in its roots, the society has a reputation as being a homogenous, quaint and relatively uneventful place — Björk and her infamous swan dress aside. In the last several years, however, an influx of tourists, expatriates and an arts scene makes it more international — and Jewish — than ever.

It’s all relative, of course. There are only 50 to 100 Jews estimated to live in the small island country of 320,000, located northwest of the United Kingdom at the edge of the Arctic Circle. It remains best known for being home to glaciers, geysers, geothermal pools, volcanoes and a name meant to scare people away.

Still, there are small signs of a Judaic past and present. In the capital city of Reykjavik, just visit Kolaportið, the weekly Saturday and Sunday flea market by the town harbor. The former warehouse features a fresh fish market as well as a neatly organized collection of stalls stocked with vintage clothing, hand-knit sweaters and accessories, nicely crafted costume jewelry and antiques and, on at least one occasion, a menorah. The dealer explained that it was a remnant from the American military presence during World War II. 

While a small number of Israelis traveled to Iceland to work in the fishing industry a couple of decades back, newer Jewish arrivals from the United States, Canada, Australia, Israel and Europe are slowly but steadily growing the community. Most prominently, these include the country’s first lady, Dorrit Moussaieff, who was born in Jerusalem, and avant-garde Australian fashion designer Sruli Recht.

Mike Levin, a longtime resident and native Chicagoan whose career and desire for a life tied to nature led him to Iceland, is the president of Iceland’s Jewish community, which has Jews from various denominations and nationalities. He has worked tirelessly to organize events to give his children and other families a Jewish experience.

More recently, Chabad Rabbi Berel Pewzner first came to Reykjavik in 2011 to organize a Passover seder, High Holy Days services and the first minyan in Iceland since World War II. This year, he said, there were two seders attended by more than 70 people.

“I live in New York City and visit Iceland as often as the budget allows,” he wrote in an e-mail. “I do hold biweekly Torah lessons via Skype for members of the community in Iceland. There are small monthly meetings in which community members just gather and share some good times.”

Pewzner said his ultimate goal is to establish a synagogue and Jewish communal center in Iceland that would serve the locals and Jewish tourists.

Most Jewish residents ended up on the island as a result of marriage to native Icelanders or a career move. (Only a very small number of third-generation Icelandic Jews exist.)

Pewzner does not shy away from the fact that a Jewish life in Iceland can be challenging. For example, he noted that starting Shabbat services can be difficult during summer and winter solstice times, based on when the sun goes down near the top of the world. While keeping kosher is difficult, it is not impossible, as imported foods from the United States and United Kingdom can be found in local supermarkets, and Icelandic smoked salmon (complete with OU certification) abounds, as do root vegetables grown in the country’s rich volcanic soils.

While street art and music festivals are infusing energy and edge into the serene gingerbread-style Nordic architecture lining Reykjavik’s streets these days, several Jewish residents are making their mark in the expanding arts scene, too.

Among them is Glenn Barkan, a New York-bred graphic artist and former L.A. resident who owns Café Babalu. Below the restaurant, he oversees an art gallery that includes the jewelry of Israel-born Sigal Har-Meshi, which integrates Israeli jewelry-making techniques and symbols (hamsas, Magen Davids) with materials unique to Iceland, such as polished lava beads. Barkan, who lived in the Los Angeles area between 1999 and 2004, moved to Iceland to be with his partner, Thor.

“My experience as a non-Icelandic man, a Jewish man and American has only been positive,” he said. “If anything, there is a lot of curiosity about Jewish culture. When I got married and my family came in for the wedding at the time of the High Holidays, I was working my first job at a local kindergarten. My mom, a retired kindergarten teacher, visited me at work and talked with the kids about what it meant to be Jewish. The kids and their parents were genuinely interested and asked a lot of questions.”

Cafe Babalú in Reykjavik is owned by musician and former L.A. resident Glenn Barkan. Photo by Michelle Vink

Café Babalu, whose customers have included Björk and members of the internationally popular Icelandic pop band Sigur Rós, has played host to Sunday brunches and Chanukah parties where Barkan introduced foods and traditions from his childhood — matzah ball soup, dreidel, chocolate coins and latkes — to his non-Jewish friends. (Oh, and there’s his popular New York cheesecake, too.)

As for Har-Meshi, the cook-turned-jewelry designer first came to Iceland in 1986. While she and her Icelandic husband went on to live in Israel for 11 years, she feels that since her return to Iceland eight years ago, she has come into her own as an artist while the Jewish community is coming together, thanks in part to Pewzner’s efforts.

“I really like what Rabbi Pewzner is doing,” she said. “Although there has been a Jewish community for about 25 years where people gathered to celebrate holidays even without a synagogue, he came at the right time. This [reorganization of the community] taught us new things, especially as many Israelis are secular. Even at my age, I like learning something new. I think it would be nice if it evolved into something like Chabad.”

Three and a half hours north of Reykjavik, Andrea and Jacob Kasper, originally from Israel and Boston respectively, embraced the simple lifestyle of Skagaströnd, home to about 530 people, with a thriving fishing industry, superb hiking and an unusual bar — Kantry — that is a shrine to American country music. The Jewish couple moved to Iceland in 2008 so Jacob could complete a master’s degree program in coastal and marine management.

While in north Iceland — they recently moved to the United States — the Kaspers were the only Jewish family in their town. Still, they said they found their neighbors to be interested and supportive. Attending events and services, though, meant that they had to make several trips a year into Reykjavik to connect with other Jewish families.

But that wasn’t so bad either, said Andrea Kasper, an educator.

“We have forged some very special friendships because of the coalescing of the community. When Jacob went to sea for a couple of weeks to do research, my children and I spent time with another family we had met two weeks before during Rosh Hashanah at one of the rabbi’s services.”

Finding jewels of Judaism on Italy’s Adriatic coast

It’s a foggy fall morning, and standing atop Mount Cardeto on the east coast of central Italy, I can barely make out the deep blue of the Adriatic Sea. As I look out toward the cliff’s edge, what I do see is a vast, grassy slope dotted with gravestones. Most of the stones are circular — thick, stubby posts with decorative tops — and are engraved in Hebrew, though some are in Italian. Many are lopsided, having settled part way into the ground over the hundreds of years since they were first erected.

This hilltop cemetery — used continuously from the early 1500s to 1863 — is in the port city of Ancona, which in 2004 completed a massive restoration of its Campo degli Ebrei (Field of Jews). In all, more than 1,000 gravestones were recovered, including hundreds that had fallen into the sea. The information carved on them — name, lifespan, place of birth, occupation, names of other family members, etc. — has been entered into a digital archive that visitors can now search on-site.

The size of the cemetery attests to a once-vibrant Jewish presence in the area. The scope of its restoration attests to something altogether different: a recent interest in, and support for, uncovering and preserving the Jewish past in Italy. 

Which is what brings me here. The Primo Levi Center in New York — an organization that supports research on historical and contemporary Jewish life in Italy — along with the Italian tourism bureau, has brought a group of American journalists to two regions in Italy, places where Jewish history and artifacts have often gone unnoticed. On our six-day journey, scholars, curators and Jewish community members guide us through towns in Marche, along the country’s central Adriatic coast, and in Apulia, a southern region that extends through the heel of Italy’s boot.

Recovered gravestones in the Jewish cemetery in Ancona.  Photo by Anita K. Kantrowitz 

In Ancona, a city in Marche, Jews played a vital role in the economy, especially during the 15th and 16th centuries. They were merchants and traders of the many commodities that passed through the busy port; they were also artisans, craftsmen and moneylenders. In other Marche towns, Jews enjoyed periods of similar success, albeit with variations due to local economy or rule: Jews in Pesaro and Urbino enjoyed periodic protections under some of the Montefeltro dukes, while Jews in the free port of Senigallia prospered from the Fiera della Maddalena, one of Europe’s largest market fairs. 

Despite periods of relative peace and prosperity, Jews in Marche also experienced restrictions, persecution and ghettoization, and in the 20th century, fascism and World War II devastated the Jewish population. Today, Ancona is home to the only remaining official Jewish community in Marche, with approximately 200 members, including Jews who live in nearby Urbino and Senigallia.

Ghettos were created in the 1630s in each of these towns, as they were wherever large numbers of Jews lived, and Jews from smaller communities were forced to move to them. When people left the outlying communities, they often brought sacred objects with them. 

This was the case when, in 1633, a ghetto was created in the walled city of Urbino, home to Duke Federico da Montefeltro’s majestic 15th century Palazzo Ducale, or Ducal Palace. The one remaining synagogue of the period, at 24 Via Stretta — just steps from where a gate to the ghetto once stood — now houses dozens of Torah scrolls, most brought by Jews from surrounding areas. It also houses a collection of Torah covers and parochet (ark curtains), made by women in the community and donated to their synagogues to mark a birth or wedding. Embroidered on silk, satin or velvet in rich hues and gold threads, many with lace and beadwork, these textiles reflect a grandeur seemingly at odds with ghetto life. 

In the mid-1860s, ghettos throughout the region were opened. Some were subsequently razed, destroying original synagogues. When Ancona’s ghetto area was revamped, the first Levantine-rite synagogue — built in 1569 — was demolished, though some furnishings were preserved. In 1876, using plans from the original building, the synagogue was reconstructed in the heart of the old ghetto, at 14 Via Astagno; it is used to this day. 

Its prayer room, like those in many of Marche’s historic synagogues, is a rectangular, airy two-story space, with women’s galleries lining the long sides of the upper floor. Elegant brass chandeliers cast a golden light; gilded decorative elements lend an almost regal air to the room. The 17th century Baroque-style ark was preserved from the earlier building; red-painted wooden columns flank its silver doors — lavishly decorated with Jewish symbols — and an elaborate crown tops the whole structure. 

For hundreds of years before Jewish settlement reached its apogee in Marche, there were well-established, learned Jewish communities to the south, in Apulia. Especially between the ninth and 13th centuries, towns such as Trani, Oria, Bari and Otranto were renowned for Torah and Talmud scholarship, while other parts of the region were centers of Hebrew manuscript production. 

But this land was part of the Kingdom of Naples, which under Spanish rule became less and less hospitable to Judaism. In 1541, the kingdom issued its final expulsion edict for Jews in all of southern Italy.

In some Apulian towns today, the only remnants of a Jewish presence are place and street names, such as Via della Sinagoga in Lecce. And in some places, Jewish gravestones were “recycled” and used as building materials; in Trani, for example, you can find Hebrew inscriptions on doorjambs and lintels made from old gravestones.

Between 1200 and 1400, there were four synagogues in the Jewish area (giudecca) of Trani; around 1380 they were converted to churches, and today two remain standing. One of these — originally the Scola Grande synagogue, later the church of St. Anna — now houses the museum of the archdiocese of Trani-Barletta-Bisceglie, which contains a Jewish section. Archeological finds and archival documents describe the history of Jews throughout southern Italy, especially in Trani. Displayed within the stone walls and under the soaring domed ceiling of the old synagogue/church, the artifacts include medieval illuminated Hebrew manuscripts, a 13th century mezuzah from the rabbi’s house in Trani, and plans and photos revealing synagogue features no longer visible.

Via Stretta, in Urbino, was a main street in the Jewish ghetto. Photo by Anita Kantrowitz

The second Trani synagogue that still stands is the more modest Scola Nova, which was completed in the 13th century. It was also converted into a church but recently became a synagogue once again. Francesco Lotoro, a musician who has spent many years uncovering and recording music composed in concentration camps, was a driving force behind re-creating a place for Jewish worship in Trani. 

A convert to Judaism, Lotoro believes he is descended from Jews who were forced to convert to Christianity. After his conversion was finalized in 2004, and at the suggestion of his rabbi, he reached out to the 40 or so Jews who were living in Apulia — a few Israelis married to Italians, other converts — to join him in re-opening the synagogue at Scola Nova. After successful negotiations with the city, which at the time owned the empty building, Lotero’s group made some alterations to the space and has been conducting services there since 2006.

How appropriate that this was the last stop on our trip, a trip that began in a cemetery. For it is here, in Trani, that a single thread from the 2,000-year-old tapestry of Italian Jewry has been picked up again, and for the first time in 500 years, Jews are once again worshipping in a medieval synagogue in Apulia.