Tours de Force

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There are more options than ever for active adults looking to explore all that Israel has to offer.

For my travel-averse grandmother, a Holy Land trip was a lot like her diet — the one that always started tomorrow. When she and my grandfather finally joined a tour of Israel, the Yom Kippur War broke out on their second day in Jerusalem. But they had a wonderful time anyway, and the photos, stories and gold Chai necklaces from that trip were among my grandmother’s most cherished mementos.
Whether it’s a once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage or an annual vacation, there are more options than ever for older Americans seeking to experience Israel — alternatives that go far beyond the traditional greatest-hits tour, though that, too, has evolved with changing tastes. No other demographic is as varied in age, interests, physical condition, or generational preferences as today’s seniors, who might be anywhere from 50 to 100.
First-timers might enjoy a group visit to the Western Wall, a swing through Tel Aviv and a dip in the Dead Sea; repeat visitors, active adventurers and scholars will find itineraries tailored to their particular bents. On virtually every tour, couples predominate, followed by a sizable contingent of single women (single men are less common, though exceedingly popular). The average age is generally in the 60s, which is true even for trips not specifically aimed at seniors.
But there is one thing all sojourners have in common, according to Susan Blum, Israel department manager at Philadelphia-based Gil Travel Tours: “Every trip, they’re yelling, ‘Turn on the Wi-Fi!’ ” — her tone conveying that from 80-year-olds, this you wouldn’t expect. “And it’s like, ‘Look on the right, there’s something amazing,’ ” recalled Blum. “Come on, you’re in Israel. Turn off your phone and look out the window!”
Nostalgic for Junior Year Abroad? The classic Israel tour is uniquely conducive to friendships that endure after the plane lands at Newark. That’s because minutes into the welcome dinner, travelers are playing a game their guides call Jewish Geography — swapping stories of Brooklyn childhoods and exclaiming over mutual acquaintances in Michigan. For tour devotees, what you sacrifice in flexibility and independence, you more than gain in hassle-free roaming and conviviality. Friendships are forged over camel rides and hummus; couples broaden their social circle, while solo visitors find companionship (though the single supplement is still common.)
Most excursions cover the essentials: Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, the Dead Sea, Masada, Haifa, the Sea of Galilee, the Golan Heights and maybe Caesarea. Still, as times have changed, so have the trips. Itineraries have grown more adventurous, incorporating culturally immersive activities like home-based Shabbat and newer attractions like Abraham’s Tent at Genesis Land. “And over the years, hotel quality has improved — from four to five stars, which in Israel is a big step up,” said Michael Morse, a third generation member of the family behind Margaret Morse Tours, a Florida-based company that has specialized in Israel for 35 years. “The Jewish traveler from the U.S. prefers something better.”
Morse offers more than a half-dozen adults-only departures in spring and fall, the most pleasant seasons in Israel, with 13- and 16-day programs from $3,999 to $4,399 per person, not including airfare. Groups are large — an average of 60-90 people, spread over two to three buses with lots of empty seats for comfort — and several departures are geared specifically for second-timers.
At Gil Travel Tours, another Holy Land specialist, 12-day trips for ages 55+ sell out as fast as Susan Blum schedules them. The average age is late 60s, though Blum has had energetic guests in their 80s and 90s; with 15 to 20 people, groups are large enough to keep dinner conversation lively but small enough to warrant spontaneous additions to the schedule. “If we have a real shopping crowd, we can make sure to do that,” Blum explained, ticking off the advantages of a Gil senior tour: “They’re all the same age. There’s no kids on the trip. We go when it’s not too hot. We become a family.” Another benefit: the price, $4,900 per person, includes airfare and nearly everything else.
For doctors who fancy a busman’s holiday: Does your idea of a good time involve lunch with the Health Minister and cutting-edge research labs? This February, North American Jewish doctors can join an international team of colleagues on the Doctors for Israel Tour, one of a number of special-interest travel missions sponsored by the Jewish National Fund. Most participants are middle-aged and older, said Talia Aviani, JNF’s missions manager, though many are still working.
The Americans meet with top Israeli doctors and researchers, learning about the achievements and challenges of a world-renowned medical culture. The group visits facilities around the country — august institutions as well as small border hospitals — and meets with patients at a military rehabilitation center. Price: $2,595 per person (based on double occupancy, without airfare). Another medical mission is scheduled for December 2016.
I want to volunteer, but I’m not an M.D. Joining the morning commuters on the city bus, exchanging greetings in the elevator, discussing the day’s challenges over lunch with colleagues: There is no better way to understand a country than to work alongside its residents. For visitors who prefer meaningful service to sybaritic vacations, Skilled Volunteers for Israel is an organization that matches North American adults and retirees with nonprofits in critical need of their skills — everything from editing and early childhood education to graphic design and legal research.
Apply for individual placement or join an upcoming group mission, Go Israel Volunteer: Tel Aviv, from February 15 – March 5, 2016. Go Israel Volunteer costs $1,650, including orientation, transportation, activities, meals, and a lecture series; airfare and accommodations are extra. However you volunteer, you’ll pay rather than get paid — but constructive engagement is its own reward.
Already worked your way through the Zahav cookbook? The weeklong Culinary, Wine and Music Tour, another JNF mission, might be the perfect next chapter. Ideal for aesthetes, gourmands and those who have already seen Israel’s major sights, this June route takes in up-and-coming wineries, the jazz clubs of Tel Aviv, and the spice markets of Jerusalem. A typical day might involve a workshop on the evolution of Israeli cuisine with a top chef and cookbook author; a guided nature walk through biblical forests, followed by a meal prepared with locally sourced ingredients; and an ice cream-making event and discussion of Israeli diversity at a jointly owned Arab-Jewish creamery. Price: $5,999, based on double occupancy and excluding airfare.
For the lifelong student who schleps Will Durant to the beach: Would you rather debate the semiotics of a museum than its contents? You might enjoy one of the rigorously cerebral travel seminars organized by the Melton School of Adult Jewish Learning, a project of the Hebrew University. Melton, famous for its two-year adult Jewish learning curriculum, hosts four textually focused, idea-oriented Israel journeys — themes include “Herzl’s Dream Revisited” and “Biblical In-Sites” — as well as Jewish historical tours of Poland (Ashkenazim) and Spain (Sephardim) that culminate in Israel.
“It’s a study seminar, but you’re never in a classroom. You’re studying as you’re out walking the land,” explained Judy Mars Kupchan, CEO of the Melton School. “You come as a participant in Israel, not as a tourist.” In other words, don’t expect a shopping expedition. You’ll still swim in the Dead Sea, but after you dry off, you’ll join a study session on false messiahs rather than go for cocktails. Then you’ll dine at a kibbutz with staggeringly beautiful views, chat with the residents, and contemplate the relationship between land, history and people. Prices vary, starting around $2,950 (land only).
Speaking of travelers who insist they’re not tourists: When you’re digging up Holy Land treasure alongside university students or watching the sun set over Jerusalem from your own apartment balcony, you feel less like a visitor — and more like an Israeli. Those are the kind of immersive cultural experiences Road Scholar had in mind when the company designed its all-inclusive, six-week Living and Learning program for adults over 50. At a cost of about $9,000 (excluding airfare), participants get a local cellphone on arrival, settle into their own Jerusalem apartments, attend daily morning Hebrew classes, and convene for happy hours and weekend excursions around the country.
Road Scholar — formerly known as Elderhostel, the pioneer of senior educational travel — will launch the program in Israel this January. One of very few language-immersions specifically for seniors, Living and Learning promises free time to explore Israel and use your Hebrew in context, along with social diversity: Israel Road Scholars are typically split 50-50 between Jews and non-Jews…and 45 percent of them are single.
Prefer to roll up your sleeves and get dirty? Another Road Scholar offering, which begins this July for active adults over 50, invites participants on a two- or four-week archaeological dig in Tel Dor, a village on the Mediterranean near Haifa. Two dozen Road Scholars will join students and researchers from a local university for early morning digs, afternoons at the affiliated museum, and weekends in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv (cost without airfare: around $3,400).
Herbal tea, meditation and Midrash, too: A stay at Midreshet B’erot Bat Ayin, which describes itself as a holistic Torah retreat for Jewish women of all ages, is the antithesis of your typical Israel tour.  Seniors are in the minority, men are rare, participants commit to anywhere from two weeks to a year of full-time study — and it all takes place in the green Judean Mountains, far from the intensity of Jerusalem or the cosmopolitanism of Tel Aviv.
On a hilltop amid burbling natural springs, Midreshet B’erot Bat Ayin aims to be a spiritual oasis for an international community of women whose ages range from 18 to the late 80s. “We find so many older students bring a certain wisdom for our younger students,” said Elana Roth, the midrasha’s administration director (who is originally from Minnesota, but warned that the damp, underheated Judean winter feels just as cold). The women are united by a desire to plunge deep into Jewish learning in a nurturing, female-centered environment — whether for a two-week Passover “renewal,” a year-long conversion journey or an immersive summer ulpan.
Activities include classes in Jewish mysticism, meditation and classical philosophy; partner textual study; one-on-one spiritual mentoring; and workshops in herbology using Biblical plants from the garden. Few programs take the concept of going back to the land so seriously — or interpret it on so many levels. And if village life gets confining, Jerusalem is less than an hour away.
Hilary Danailova is already packing for the culinary tour of Israel.