Exploring: Israel's Tranquility Trail

Aron and Judith Hirt-Manheimer

As our minivan approached the ruins of the Crusader castle that once defended Caesarea, our guide pointed to a delicate white wildflower at the side of the road. "The Havatselet Hasharon," Ikey informed us, "blooms only once a year, marking the end of summer. It is mentioned in The Song of Songs. The young woman tells her lover, 'I am the rose of Sharon, the wild lily of the valleys.'" It seems that even the flowers in the Land of Israel have an enchanting story to tell.

Our tour of this ancient Mediterranean port city began in its guest center, set among outdoor cafés, modern metal sculptures, and the archeological remains of the port city King Herod built on this site almost 2,000 years ago in honor of the Roman emperor Augustus Caesar. Here, with the push of a button, visitors can interact with life-size video images of actors portraying historic figures associated with the city, asking, say, King Herod of Judea, the Roman Proconsul Pontius Pilate, the talmudic sage Rabbi Akiva, or the poet-hero Hannah Senesh about their lives and times.

The central figure in the Caesarea story is King Herod, who from 22-10 B.C.E. transformed what had once been a deserted Phoenician port into the world's first manmade deep-sea harbor. Herod's positioning of massive hydraulic concrete blocks offshore to form inner and outer breakwaters was in its day a masterpiece of engineering. The historian Josephus Flavius marveled: "The solidity of his masonry defied the sea." Herod's fame was matched only by the great riches he amassed from the taxes and storage fees he imposed on silk, spices, perfumes, and other goods imported from the East. With his coffers overflowing, Herod realized his architectural ambitions for Caesarea: a temple in honor of Goddess Rome, an aqueduct stretching nine kilometers from the Carmel Mountains to supply his palace's Olympic-sized swimming pool and spa, a hippodrome for horse racing and later for gladiatorial contests, and an amphitheater still in use today. In 6 C.E. Caesarea would become the provincial Roman capital and the grandest city in Judea, second only to Jerusalem. However, an earthquake in 130 C.E., the fall of the Roman Empire, and Crusader wars eventually reduced the city and its fabled harbor to ruins.

Today Caesarea, conveniently located midway between Tel Aviv and Haifa, is a favorite tourist destination, not just for its great historic interest, but also its picturesque seaside cafés, boating, museums, luxury accommodations, and Israel's only 18-hole golf course. Like so many other sites we would visit, Caesarea bridges ancient and modern, natural beauty and human ingenuity.

For wine lovers the vicinity of Zichron Ya'akov (named in memory of Jacob Rothschild, father of the philanthropist Baron Edmond de Rothschild) is an ideal place to begin a wine-tasting tour of Israel. It was here that the Baron supplied both the know-how (he owned the Chateau Lafite winery in Bordeaux) and the funding to make farmers and vintners of the mostly Romanian Jews who had settled in the area. More than one hundred years later, wine is still flowing. At Binyamina Wine Cellars the scent of fragrant jasmine flowers hints at the winery's earlier incarnation-a perfume factory built by Baron de Rothschild in 1925.

To reach our next stop, the Carmel Forest Spa Resort, our Kurdish-born driver Manash (short for Menachem) maneuvered the van slowly up a narrow winding road in the Mt. Carmel nature preserve overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. The original hotel, built with German restitution funds in the 1960s as a rest and vacation spot for Holocaust survivors, was acquired in 1992 by a group of investors who transformed the 18.5-acre property into one of the top health resort spas in Israel. Only fifty minutes by car from Tel Aviv and twenty minutes from Haifa, the facility features 126 elegant rooms with forest views, gourmet dining, and a health spa.

We were treated to the "Romantic" couple's massage. Our therapists-a handsome man with a long silver ponytail and a petite young woman with a lovely smile-led us into a dimly lit room with side-by-side massage tables and a Jacuzzi tub filled with hot mineral water. For fifty-five minutes we were treated to synchronized massages amidst the fragrance of scented oils and soft meditative music. At the end of the massages, candles were lit and placed on the rim of the Jacuzzi, followed by a bottle of sparkling wine, two glasses, and a bowl full of fresh figs, pomegranate, mango, tiny champagne grapes, and other delectable fruits. We were then left alone in a state of pure relaxation.

A pomegranate tree laden with ripe red fruit caught our attention as we arrived at the Mitzpe Hayamim health resort that continues to honor the legacy of its visionary founder Dr. Eric Yaros. The story is told of how the German-born homeopathic doctor and avowed vegetarian "discovered" the site in 1923 while traveling on the road from Rosh Pina to Safed. He ordered his driver to stop at the foot of a barren, rocky hill on the eastern slopes of Mt. Canaan. The doctor then climbed to the top as his driver looked on incredulously. At the peak, Dr. Yaros beheld the panoramic view of the Sea of Galilee and the Golan Heights and decided to build a clinic for his patients on that very spot. It would take forty years. After many setbacks, in the mid-sixties he and his friend Yehezkel Rosenberg, a Bauhaus architect, finally completed construction of the simple but elegant hilltop facility, landscaped sublimely with gardens and streams.

The resort's current owners, Sami and Anita Hazan, have made organic gardening-long a hobby of Dr. Yaros-an essential part of the Mitzpe Hayamim experience. All the seasonal food served in the hotel's vegetarian dining room is homegrown on its twenty-eight acres of adjacent farmland: milk, yogurt, and cheese from herds of cows, sheep, and goats; eggs from the free-range chickens; fruit, nuts, and olives from the orchards; tea blends (always available in the guest lobby) from the herb gardens. A second dining option is the onsite Muscat Restaurant (see RJ 's list of the Top 20 Restaurants in Israel (PDF)) which also draws on the seasonal bounty of the farm as well as fish from the Sea of Galilee and cattle that graze on the Golan. Perched on a second-floor patio with expansive views, the restaurant has a pleasant country-inn ambiance-relaxed and friendly. We shared entrees of organic leg of lamb with fennel seeds confit and duck in mulberry sauce. Both dishes were prepared to perfection, and the bottle of red wine-Domain du Castel (Gran Vin 2000)-recommended by our waitress was superb. Later we learned that this Israeli vintage received a four-star rating in Hugh Johnson's Pocket Wine Book 2008, a distinction reserved for the world's best wines.

Several miles to the north of Mitzpe Hayamim lies the holy city of Safed, known for its mystics and artists. It was here that famed 15th-century Kabbalist Isaac Luria composed the poetic verses of "Lecha Dodi" to welcome the Sabbath Bride. Our guide Ikey pointed to an Ottoman-era estate on the edge of the city that Madonna once tried to buy; the locals protested and the deal fell through.

Most visitors to Safed spend their time touring historic synagogues and shopping for art, crafts, and souvenirs. Instead, at the recommendation of ARZA Travel expert Ezra Korman, we drove to the heart of the Artists Colony and visited the home of the Bar-El family-Genine, an enterprising and spunky former New Yorker; Rony, her soft-spoken husband and chef; and their two children. We were captivated by the exotic atmosphere of the Bar-Els' 150-year-old stone house with its Arab-style architecture, vaulted ceilings, whitewashed walls, and antique furnishings. The space, which at different times was the home of the famed Israeli writer Binyamin Tammuz and the painter Hannah Levi, doubles as a dining area for travelers and locals alike. If the cheesecake Chef Rony served us is any indication, his kosher gourmet vegetarian spreads are sure to please. The Bar-Els can accommodate up to eighty guests for weddings and b'nai mitzvah parties on their roof with views of the Safed hills; they also offer a bed-and-breakfast suite upstairs. And if you're interested in alternative Safed experiences, the ever-resourceful Genine has put together quite a menu: speakers on Kabbalah, Galilean folklore, Israeli music, and Chinese medicine; midnight visits to the tombs of Kabbalistic sages; nature hikes; Klezmer music; Hasidic storytelling; yoga classes-the list keeps growing.

"When Rony and I settled in Safed eleven years ago," Genine says, "we had no intention of turning our home into a business, but within the first month of moving in, we heard that a group of Reform Jews from Arizona was coming to Safed for a day to study with a rabbi friend of ours. We offered to serve them lunch, and it worked out so well, we thought, why not open our home to other groups? The rabbi who'd led the group, Rabbi William Berk, later wrote a glowing travel review in the Central Conference of American Rabbis newletter, and congregational groups from all over North America have been coming ever since."

A tour along Israel's tranquility trail would not be complete without visiting family-that is, our Reform family. From Ben Gurion Airport we took a 40-minute flight to Israel's southernmost city, Eilat, where we were met by Ron Bernstein, one of the American Reform Jews who founded Kibbutz Yahel in 1976. Both Yahel and its "younger sister," Kibbutz Lotan, are nestled in Israel's southern Arava desert at the foot of the Edom Mountains.

After a 45-minute drive we arrived at the kibbutz and settled ourselves comfortably in Yahel's Ma'ayan Bamidbar - Holiday Desert Inn. The simple, air-conditioned suite was equipped with a television, refrigerator, stove, electric kettle, instant Turkish coffee and tea, and a bowl of fresh fruit. Lori Stark, also an American founder and the kibbutz's current general secretary, soon greeted us and asked, "Would you like to join us at Friday evening worship?" "Of course," we said, and were soon singing familiar liturgical melodies in the relaxed setting of the kibbutz synagogue. After services we all moved into the communal dining room for a chicken dinner, followed by birkat hamazon (grace after meals). The whole experience reminded us of Shabbat at Union summer camps back in the States.

The next day Ron took us on a tour of the kibbutz fields: 200 acres of field vegetables, 50 of date palm groves, and 30 of citrus. We stopped at the edge of a pomello orchard which runs along the quiet Israeli-Jordanian border. Ron pulled an almost ripe fruit from a tree, cut open its thick skin, and offered us a taste of its sweet pulp.

For Ron and the other members of Yahel, the world's largest citrus fruit (which looks like a grapefruit on steroids) has become a symbol of peaceful coexistence with the Arabs. As Ron tells it, several years ago Israeli border police warned the kibbutz that Jordanians were crossing the border into the pomello fields. Ron solved the problem by placing baskets of pomellos on the Jordanian side of the low wire fence. Personal cross-border friendships ensued. The kibbutz has also joined in a quiet project to teach Israeli drip-irrigation technology to Jordanian date farmers just across the border which has resulted in a dramatic increase in their Arab neighbors' productivity and standard of living. For Ron and the other members of Yahel who came here to live their lives according to the prophetic principles of Reform Judaism, Isaiah's call to turn swords into plowshares is more than an ideal-it's a daily endeavor. Ever optimistic, Ron is convinced that "the model for Mideast peace is in the Arava."

While Yahel derives most of its income from its agriculture and dairy enterprises, like many kibbutzim it increasingly counts on tourism to round out its economy. In this restful and beautiful desert setting, bathed in the changing pink, purple, and gold hues of the Edom mountain range, Ma'ayan Bamidbar offers its guests full use of the kibbutz swimming pool and tennis courts, a healthy breakfast in the communal dining room, spa treatments, and a variety of guided activities: deep desert jeep or camel tours; biking and horseback riding; bird watching (millions of migrating songbirds, shorebirds, and raptors pass through this valley in the spring and fall); hiking in the Hai Bar Nature Preserve; and touring Timna Park (King Solomon's Mines) and Har Karkom-believed by some to be the real Mt. Sinai.

Just fifteen miles south is Kibbutz Lotan, which became an internationally recognized green kibbutz because of "an inconvenient truth" that hit close to home. Ten years ago, the mother of kibbutz member Mike Kaplan came to visit from a town north of London. Upset to discover that the kibbutz-an intentional community built on Jewish values-was not composting and recycling, she raised such a ruckus that the members took up recycling. However, because of prohibitive transportation costs and the lack of a regional recycling infrastructure, there was no place to send the plastic bottles, paper, metal, and tires that were piling up and becoming a blight on the kibbutz landscape. That's when Lotan members started experimenting with recyclables. They soaked paper and mixed it with local clay and sand to make a kind of papier-mâché mud, which they then smoothed over hay bales and tires stuffed with trash to construct adobe-like walls. Soon they were powering some of their constructions with solar panels. As word spread of Lotan's artful melding of the world's oldest building materials and cutting-edge technology, Israelis started coming to learn Lotan's eco-friendly building techniques, and the Ministry of the Environment presented Lotan with an environmental education award. Today people from around the world take Lotan's ten-week Green Apprenticeship program, which links theoretical knowledge with practical skills in organic gardening; alternative construction techniques using natural, renewable, and recycled materials; and more. The kibbutz is also teaching its building techniques to Bedouin Arabs through participation with Bustan L'Shalom (Orchard of Peace), an Israeli humanitarian organization committed to bringing basic health and welfare services to Bedouin families living in the Negev.

Following Lotan's lead, the southern Negev is now recycling. The next big step in Lotan's eco-evolution is teaming with JNF to build a wastewater-treatment facility designed to reclaim a large swath of wetlands that will become a new desert wildlife conservation park. We got a sense of the possibilities from American-born Mike Nitzan, Lotan's general secretary, who took us to see a structure used to shade and hide birdwatchers. Its two-foot-thick walls, constructed of milk-chocolate-colored mud, small window holes, and open space under its palm-leaf thatched roof, kept the hut's interior remarkably cool and breezy. As a gift to the birds that rest here during their migration between Africa and Europe, Mike pointed out, the kibbutz has installed a solar-powered waterfall birdbath. Next he showed us a children's playground equipped with climbing toys in the form of whimsical animals made by encasing tires and other non-recycled trash with "earth plaster" (a mixture of clay, straw, sand, and water) and decorated with bright-colored paint. Volunteers and students of Lotan's ecological innovations stay in buildings constructed of similar materials coating geodesic-dome metal frames and powered by small, ground-level solar panels in front of each unit. The kibbutz is also experimenting with composting toilets.

Like Yahel, Lotan is expanding its tourist services. Guests are housed in air-conditioned country lodging, have use of the kibbutz swimming pool, and can experience meditative Watsu massages-a shiatsu treatment in a warm water pool specially designed for aquatic bodywork. Lotan member Hiddai Shaked, who learned the technique (deep breathing while the body is moved weightlessly through warm water) from its San Francisco founder, has made Lotan a Watsu training center for Israelis and foreigners alike. In addition, Lotan arranges desert adventures of all kinds for its guests. Lotan member Michael Livni urges Jewish visitors to begin their tour of Israel in the Arava. That way, he tells us, you can follow the footsteps of our ancestors who entered Eretz Yisrael along this very route after their forty years of wandering.

Whether you begin your journey in the north or the south, Israel is a land of endless pleasures of body, mind, and spirit. As the young man in Song of Songs tells his lover: Now is the time of the nightingale. In every meadow you hear the song of the turtledove. The fig tree has sweetened its new green fruit and the young budded vines smell spicy. Hurry, my love, my friend-come away .

Aron Hirt-Manheimer is RJ editor and Judith Hirt-Manheimer is copyeditor.


Other Destinations Along the Tranquility Trail

Broad lawns, leafy trees, budding roses, and colorful seasonal flowers greet visitors to the Ramat Hanadiv Memorial Gardens, just south of Zichron Ya'acov. At the center of this 17.5-acre botanical garden is the mausoleum of Baron Edmond de Rothschild and his wife, Baroness Adelheid. Points of interest include tree walks and fragrant theme gardens. In summer, public concerts are held in the amphitheater. Handicap accessible.

Turn off the road between Rosh Pina and Safed and follow a private path into the heart of the Biria Forest and you will arrive at Bayit Bagalil (Domain Galil), one of the most architecturally beautiful and tranquil spa resorts in Israel. The exquisitely decorated hotel offers 26 guest suites, 6 treatment rooms, scenic views, swimming pool, and kosher dining.

Drive north to the Hula Valley and you'll find Pastoral Kfar Blum, a kibbutz hotel and spa that's become a favorite of Reform congregational groups touring the Upper Galilee. Guests can choose from among 10 suites; use the Turkish bath, Finnish sauna, fitness room, "rain cave," and reflexology basins free of charge (private treatments are available for a fee); and sign up for river kayaking and rafting.

As you walk along the well-marked, handicap-accessible trails of the Tel Dan Nature Preserve, you'll hear the rush of a mountain spring that is one of the three sources of the Jordan River. On a small hill you can explore the ruins of the ancient city excavated by a team led by HUC-JIR Professor Avraham Biran. An inscription found here from the 9th century B.C.E. is the first reference to the "House of David" outside of the Bible. (tel. 04-6951579)

No wine-tasting tour of Israel would be complete without a visit to the award-winning Golan Heights Winery, producers of Yarden, Gamla, and Golan wines. Be sure to try the Yarden Gewurztraminer dessert wine.

The Hula Valley swamps, famously cleared by early kibbutzniks for agriculture, are being reclaimed by the Jewish National Fund, attracting flocks of birds and nature-loving tourists. Agamon Hula offers guided tours, a safari wagon, bicycles, and golf carts for birdwatching.

A quarry blast in the Judean Mountains in 1964 revealed one of Israel's natural wonders-the Soreq Stalactite Cave. Visitors can take guided tours into this 5,240-square-foot wondrous natural phenomenon.

If you're just arriving, visit Mini Israel, a theme park of Israel in miniature (on a scale of 1:25). You'll be able to preview more than 350 model buildings of iconic sites landscaped with 20,000 miniature trees (50 species). You can also visit before your departure to see what you've missed-till next time.