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Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Israel’s Ultra-Orthodox tourism flourishing

On a broiling Jerusalem afternoon, dozens of children are whooping and darting in and out of spouting water geysers at the newly opened “Teddy Park” named after Jerusalem’s long-time mayor Teddy Kollek.

The park is just outside the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City, and the fountains are surrounded by patches of grass. Most of those enjoying the water are ultra-Orthodox children whose parents would never have voted for Teddy Kollek when he was alive, but nobody seems to care.

“This is the Jerusalem ocean,” Yakov Ohayon, a father of seven wearing the ultra-Orthodox “uniform” of a white shirt and black pants told The Media Line. “We don’t have a beach so we want to thank the municipality for making us a lovely attraction with water. The kids are already saying, “When are we going back to the fountains?”

The summer vacation is long in Israel spanning almost the full months of July and August. For almost all Israelis, camp finished weeks ago. Harried parents bring their kids to work, or use up their vacation days to stay home.

In the ultra-Orthodox sector, an estimated 15% of Israel’s population, the summer can feel especially long. The ultra-Orthodox, called haredim (those who tremble) in Israel have especially large families and often only one working parent. 

Many of the men study Jewish texts full-time in Jewish religious institutes called yeshivot, earning only small stipends. Sending so many children to day camp is not feasible economically, and many children spend the summer at home.

“It’s true that summer is even harder for us because we don’t make a lot of money,” Ohayon says. “We learn to make do with little. It’s so great that this park is free. We bring our own food with us to save money and just have a great time.”

Some of the children here have come from outside Jerusalem to enjoy the fountain. Every half hour it turns out with the geyers of water shooting up to different heights.

“It’s this water park with sprinklers that shoot up every half hour,” Avigail Amar, 8, told The Media Line. “Kids run in it and love it, I love it too.”

Her mother Tami says they’ve come from Hashmonaim, about a 45-minute drive to enjoy the fountains. A mother of six, Tami Amar says it’s not easy to keep young children entertained all summer.

These haredi Jews are careful to preserve the Jewish laws of modesty. The women have their heads completely covered with wigs or scarves. Young girls wear long-sleeved shirts and skirts, and often even black tights in the Jerusalem heat. Girls and boys are educated separately, and would not be allowed into a swimming pool at the same time.

Here at the fountain, these rules are bent, if not broken. While some of the adults are sitting on benches along the side, quite a few are getting wet in the fountain, often carrying their young children.

“I didn’t go in today because I’ve got my cellphone but I’ve gone in in the past,” Yakov Ohayon, the father of seven, says. “It’s OK because everyone’s wearing clothes. Even the secular people who come here aren’t wearing bathing suits so it’s not a problem.”

Special needs

Israel has long been a tourist destination with some 3.5 million tourists from abroad last year. There is also a flourishing internal tourism sector with Israelis filling hotel rooms in the Red Sea resort of Eilat. There are also hundreds of bed and breakfasts along the Mediterranean coast and in the Galilee mountains.

Most hotels in Israel are kosher, but not kosher enough for the ultra-Orthodox crowd. In many cases, an ultra-Orthodox travel agent will organize a group vacation to a hotel that caters to their needs, and fill up the entire hotel. The food will have the strictest level of kashrut. The swimming pool will have separate hours for men and women. And the televisions and radios will be unplugged.

“The haredim are very conservative and they don’t want outside influences, especially for their children,” Yael Elimelech, a mother of 12 who has worked in the tourism sector told The Media Line. “We have special needs such as a synagogue and Torah study for the men.”

At these ultra-Orthodox vacations, she says, men and women will sit separately at entertainment programs. Women would not sing in front of men, or even give a lecture to men, because of modesty.

Unlike the rest of Israel, ultra-Orthodox men study almost all year round. The only time they are off is “bein hazmanim”, the three weeks following the Jewish holiday of Tisha B’Av, a day of mourning for the destruction of the Temple. During the year, men and boys as young as 7 or 8 study Jewish texts from the early morning well into the night. These three weeks are their only chance for a vacation.

“Even though it’s expensive, the rabbis say a vacation is really important for the whole family,” she said.

Those who can’t afford a hotel will rent an apartment near the beach, she said. Israel has several beaches with separate bathing areas for men and women. Others will switch apartments with friends or even strangers.

“We did that once, but it’s so much work,” Elimelech said with a smile. “You have to get your apartment in perfect shape and then leave their apartment in perfect shape once you leave. It really is very tiring.”

So is caring for 12 children while on vacation, she admits. But when the kids go back to school, the women get a break. There are “women only vacations” for ultra-Orthodox women at hotels during the off-season. Three or four women crowd into a hotel room and kick back.

“We sing, we dance, we swim and we relax,” she said with a smile. “The husbands stay home with the kids, and the women go a little crazy.”

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