Friday, August 24, 2012

Traveling the land, kosher style 

A bearded man in black clothes walked though a stream, filled with the vacationers of mid-August, in the northern part of the country. As the water gushed over slippery pebbles, he made his way with a confident stride. On his chest was a carrier from which an infant's head peeked out. From time to time one of his other small children climbed onto his shoulder and jumped into the water. His wife, her head wrapped in a scarf, also carried a toddler and a large bag in her hands. Along the way she sang and recited poems to him. When they arrived at a little pool, along with other hikers, they stopped for a break.

"We've come here from Tiberias and we don't have a GPS," the woman related, smiling, adding that her family was renting an apartment in the town, from which they went on outings in the area. "I got pretty confused on the way," she continued, explaining that after coming across another ultra-Orthodox family at one point, they had followed them to the water hole. To their great surprise, they found many such families en route, the woman said. Hasidic garb was carefully folded up on the banks above the stream, while hats were passed carefully from hand to hand until a safe place was found for them on tree branches high above the water.

During the course of a few days' vacation in the northern Galilee and the Golan Heights earlier this month, secular people were conspicuous by their near-total absence among the masses of ultra-Orthodox and national religious daytrippers. For their part, the Haredi families who inundated the nature reserves and recreation sites en masse, and filled local hotels and attractions, are a sign of a new and expanding movement. The evident enthusiasm of the adults as well as the children when hiking in the open air despite the tremendous heat - after spending virtually all of the year within the four walls of the beit midrash (study house ) and in crowded neighborhoods back home - was plain to see. Indeed, in recent years, the ben hazmanim period - the three weeks of break from the yeshivas and the kollelim (yeshivas for married men ), from the day after Tisha B'Av to the first day of the month of Elul - has become a kind of ultra-Orthodox vacances, as the French call their near-universal August vacation.

"If in the past the ultra-Orthodox went on vacations mainly in the guise of visits to therapeutic mineral baths or holy sites," says Riki Shushan, an ultra-Orthodox journalist for the weekly Sha'ah Tova, "today there is no need to disguise the fact that they are going on holiday."

A new study, conducted at the University of Haifa Center for Tourism, Pilgrimage and Recreation Research, characterized the various types of ultra-Orthodox family vacations in Israel according to the vacationers' socioeconomic status. At the bottom are yeshiva students, who cannot afford all the trappings of a proper holiday, and tend to swap apartments with other ultra-Orthodox.

"The idea is for them to get a change of atmosphere," says Dr. Lee Kahaner of the university's geography department, who conducted the study together with his colleague Prof. Yoel Mansfeld. "In Jerusalem they enjoy the weather and the proximity to the Western Wall. In Haifa and Ashdod they enjoy the possibility of going to the beach every day. This is an inexpensive vacation that includes savings on the cost of food, which they bring from home, and on expenses of travel, by public transport or in chartered buses."

There are gemahim (free-loan societies ) and other agencies that arrange apartment swaps for Haredim. Some families spend a very small amount of money to sleep in empty yeshivas, which ultra-Orthodox entrepreneurs have made into improvised vacation lodgings. From there the families go on excursions or enjoy nearby attractions. Lawns that provide a sense of space, inflatable toys for the children and lectures for the adults seem to suffice.

"Children who live in the area of Geula [a neighborhood in Jerusalem], where can they ride a bike?" asks Shushan. "It is enough for them to see cows, to ride a donkey - this is an attraction."

One step up are those who pay for accommodations in bed and breakfasts or hotels, each family according to its means. Thus, for example, in one of the Golan communities Haredi children were seen riding bicycles a week ago with obvious delight. They never left the place during their entire vacation.

A certain proportion of the ultra-Orthodox public that can afford to, do travel abroad on organized vacations to hotels that have become popular religious destinations, with strict kosher lamehadrin certification and the like.


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