A visit to Israel had been on our minds for a long time. My husband, Brian, had dreamed of visiting our homeland, but since his diagnosis of progressive multiple sclerosis (MS) five years ago, the idea was daunting. As a slow walker with a myriad of symptoms, he knew that typical organized tours would be too fast for us. Like many baby boomers, he had kept his desire to go on the back burner, only to realize that things weren’t getting any easier.
My two sons – Jonah, 23, and Brandon, 17 – had also never been to Israel, and had no plans to participate in the Birthright Israel program. Their image of Israel wavered between a war zone and an isolated desert. I had been once, back in 1984, and was longing to return. I found Brian staring at a live feed of the Kotel online and I knew that, as a family, we had to make Israel a priority.
A wedding invitation gave us the push we needed, and we booked four seats on El Al. Since we couldn’t do a jam-packed first-timer’s trip, we had to focus on experiences rather than hitting all the landmarks.
Israel presents particular challenges with accessibility. Ancient sites that must be preserved are not easy to modernize. In 2012, the Knesset passed a law requiring most venues to be handicap-accessible by 2018. Huge strides have been made since then, but accessibility varies based on the age and size of buildings.
People with disabilities constitute close to 20 per cent of the Israeli population. In the Diaspora, there is an aging population that missed out on the subsidies of Birthright and are longing to see Israel in a safe and affordable way, so the country would benefit from making accessibility a high priority. Accessible tours exist, but they are expensive and not suited to everyone. In our case, we thought that doing our own thing as a family would work best.
Although Safed beckoned, we decided to focus on Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. I booked an accessible room at Hotel 65 in the Rothschild area of Tel Aviv for our first week in Israel. Impressively, the manager called to confirm that the room would meet our needs. For Jerusalem, we booked an apartment through Airbnb. The app now has a category for accessibility, making it simple to find buildings with elevators.
We arrived at Ben Gurion Airport exhausted and were grateful that special personnel were there to push Brian in a wheelchair from the plane right through customs. The plan was to use free wheelchairs when available but to otherwise depend on a cane and walker. Taking taxis to prevent fatigue was another a strategy we employed.
Starting in Tel Aviv was a good way to ease into Israel. This modern city has mostly flat streets and our boutique hotel was part of the strong European vibe, with restaurants and cafes nearby. Rothschild Boulevard has a pedestrian walkway where people gather to relax, have coffee and people-watch. We enjoyed the hotel, which was small enough to easily navigate and had breakfast and happy hour included daily.
Exploring the area was fun, but our plan of taking a cab back to the hotel had its challenges. Most Israeli taxis are tiny, and with four people and a walker, this made for some uncomfortable rides. For longer trips, we spent more and hired a private driver with a larger vehicle.
I stayed one night at the Hilton Tel Aviv, where I got to enjoy the seaside experience. For those wishing to upgrade, their new Vista Lounge sports floor-to-ceiling windows and awesome views of the Mediterranean. The delicious kosher spread changes several times daily. This iconic property was one of the first in Tel Aviv, and I could see the commitment to accessibility. Sturdy ramps were plentiful and the elevators were state-of-the-art, with voice prompts and braille. Outside, Brandon and I walked the promenade, a comfortable route for those on wheels. There is even a path to the sea, and two beach wheelchairs are available.
Week two, we moved to the Airbnb. We knew that Jerusalem would be difficult to navigate, with few sidewalks and uneven cobblestoned streets. Still, we were not prepared for the steepness of the streets near the Mamilla neighbourhood. At first, we walked slowly with many breaks, but it was encouraging to see others with canes, who were patiently navigating the streets. Luckily, we were very close to the light rail stop near city hall. This form of transportation was a pleasant surprise. It is highly accessible, and as a family, we were able to travel quickly and inexpensively to the lively Machane Yehuda market.
Our introduction to the Old City was with Eli Meiri, founder of Israel4All, the accessible tour company he started in 1998. “I switched from social work to tourism (when) I realized I worked in social work with the disability of people and while in tourism I worked with the ability of the people,” he explained. We rented a scooter as advised, and it was already onboard when he picked us up in a mini-bus with a few others who had booked a day tour. Once in the Old City, Brian happily moved ahead of our group, as he got used to the bumpiness of the cobblestones. The accessible route to the Western Wall goes through all four quarters at different points. Meiri patiently guided us while pointing out historic and religious landmarks.
Things did not always go as planned. The language barrier with a cab driver led to us being left in Old Jaffa on top of a steep hill. Getting down with a walker from this high perch was quite challenging, though we saw beautiful views of the Tel Aviv cityscape, followed by a lively dinner at Dr. Shakshauka, so we ultimately had no regrets. We accepted that the trip would include trial-and-error despite lots of pre-planning. Brian did not join us on a self-guided day tour of Ein Gedi, Masada and the Dead Sea that I had booked through Tourist Israel, realizing that three stops would be too much for him. I went with my boys and had a wonderful time, while recognizing that Brian had made a good decision, as there were numerous flights of uneven stairs down to the Dead Sea.
On the positive side, many of the indoor attractions, such as museums, are completely accessible and even offer the free use of a wheelchair. Brian and Jonah visited the Israel Museum and were able to cover a lot of ground in a short time.
It was a pleasure to see my family get to know the real Israel. We bonded and learned that we can continue to vacation together, even though we have had to make changes in the way we travel. Our experience has given us the confidence we need to make sure that our next trip to Israel is even more satisfying.
•Access Unlimited: Your Guide to Israel is available through Israel Tourism in Toronto and reviews the accessibility of locations throughout Israel.
•Eli Meiri is an Accessible Travel Guide who is available through Israel4all.com. He is a disability consultant who suggests destinations, products and services and runs tours for all people, regardless of their limitations, disabilities or age.
•Naftali Lehrfield runs a new golf cart transportation service in the Old City called Rova Express -call 054-621-9184 or check him out on Facebook
•Yad Sarah offers transportation to and from Ben Gurion Airport, intercity transportation vans, and specific services for tourists in need of disability services. In addition, they offer all kinds of medical equipment for rent, from oxygen to walkers and everything in between. 972-2-644-4664 or [email protected]