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It’s never too late

Seven seniors from the Jewish Home in Rockleigh explore Israel

The group from Jewish Home Family facilities tours the Roman ruins at Beit She’an.
The group from Jewish Home Family facilities tours the Roman ruins at Beit She’an.

Exploring Israel’s iconic tourist sites requires rigorous footwork, what with the uneven cobblestones and stone stairways of Jerusalem’s Old City, the rocky-sandy beaches of the Dead, Med, and Galilee seas, the cliffs of Masada, and the archaeological ruins of Beit She’an and Caesarea.

Exploring these and many other areas with the aid of a wheelchair or walker is dauntingly difficult.

But a combination of meticulous logistical planning and a can-do attitude ensured that seven travelers from Jewish Home Family facilities — two from the Jewish Home at Rockleigh and five from the Jewish Home Assisted Living Kaplen Senior Residences in River Vale, ranging from 68 to 87 years old — were able to participate fully in a 10-day Israel mission whose itinerary rivaled that of a young-adult Birthright group.

This was the second such mission undertaken in the past three years at the initiative of Carol Silver Elliott, the president and chief executive officer of Jewish Home Family since November 2014. In her daily trip blog, Ms. Elliott related how the residents and their personal companions from the Jewish Home staff gracefully conquered each challenge.

“One of our resident travelers has much difficulty walking,” she reported in her entry about the group’s Dead Sea visit. “We walked her down and into the water and then our ever resourceful director of nursing, Eric Riguerra, found a way to use a plastic chair to help position her. Many hands helped tip her back into the water and then the chair was removed and she was floating. Words cannot come close to describing how thrilled she was and how free she felt.”

Talking to the Jewish Standard over dinner at Jerusalem’s Orient Hotel, participants reported that the excitement began even before taking off on October 9.

Retired attorney Allan Horowitz said his heart swelled with pride upon seeing the Star of David on the El Al plane at Newark Airport. “You cannot be anything but emotionally impressed by everything,” said Mr. Horowitz. “I was not brought up religious but I can understand why people want to move here because they’re participating in something that’s living and growing. And being in Israel really enhances your sense of oneness with the Jewish people.”

One of the group’s stops that day had been the Shrine of the Book on the campus of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. The building, which houses the oldest extant biblical manuscripts discovered in caves in the Judean Desert, has a unique white dome evoking the lid of the clay jar in which the first scrolls were found.

Jewish Home mission participants float in the Dead Sea.

“I was so excited about seeing the Dead Sea Scrolls that I didn’t even realize the building is in the shape of an urn until our guide pointed it out,” Deborah Shrier said. She and her husband, Jerry, had been to Israel most recently 24 years ago.

“The people are great and we’re getting an education,” Eugene Landsman added. “It’s a beautiful country and the guide’s been very informative.”

The guide they referred to was Yaacov Sivek, a spry 77-year-old who specializes in guiding Jewish elders and also led the Jewish Home’s first mission in 2015.

Mr. Sivek traveled with the group as far north as Metulla at the Lebanese border and as far south as the Dead Sea.

Among the more unusual places on the jam-packed itinerary were Kishorit, a cooperative farm and winery in the Galilee employing resident special-needs adults; Yvel, a fine-jewelry design house that runs a social enterprise where Ethiopian immigrants craft a line of contemporary jewelry based on their traditional styles; and Yad LaKashish (Lifeline for the Elderly), where Jerusalem seniors — many of them immigrants from the countries of the former Soviet Union — handcraft Judaica items sold in an adjacent gift shop and online.

Jerusalem’s Western Wall — the Kotel — always is a special highlight of a trip to Israel. The revered structure is a segment of an ancient retaining wall of the Second Temple compound built by Herod the Great. It’s customary to place handwritten prayers into the cracks between its stones.

Ms. Silver arranged for Kotel replicas to be erected at the Rockleigh and River Vale campuses before the trip so that residents and staff could tuck in notes, which were collected and brought to the real site.

“The Western Wall was very emotional for me and for the residents,” Julie Cochrane, the director of recreation at Jewish Home Assisted Living, said.

A member of the Jewish Home mission puts a note in a crack in the Western Wall.

Ms. Cochrane had a typical Israeli small-world experience when the group was touring the Golan Heights. They went to Mount Bental, an inactive volcano that became an Israel surveillance position after 1967. There, they ran into Israeli troops hailing from 18 different countries. It turned out that one soldier was from Washington Township, and he graduated from high school last year with Ms. Cochrane’s nephew.

The Jewish Home employees on the trip, whether Jewish or not, seemed just as emotional about the experience as were the seniors.

Tracey Couliboly, the director of recreation at the Jewish Home at Rockleigh, said she has worked in Jewish elder facilities for 29 years. “I think the most rewarding thing I could have done for myself and my residents was to go on this mission with them because I feel like they actually raised me into the person that I am today,” she said.

Ms. Couliboly, who is Christian, related a moving experience that happened at Neot Kedumim Biblical Nature Reserve.

“Three years ago my mother passed away, and she always told me to live life to the fullest,” she said. “One of the first things we did when we got to Israel was planting trees. And I planted my tree in honor of my mother. Putting my fingers into the soil, I felt like I was bringing her on a spiritual journey with me.”

Ms. Couliboly’s traveling companion, Barbara Levy, celebrated her birthday during the mission. The two women were not acquainted until they were paired for the trip.

“We had a couple of meetings so we’d get oriented to one another, and we bonded prior to our first day in Israel,” Ms. Couliboly said. “Barbara said to me on her birthday that now we’re more than just friends, and every year we need to do something to celebrate the moment we’re sharing today.”

The seven residents on the mission had applied voluntarily and had to meet certain medical qualification requirements. Those unable to pay their own way received assistance from the Jewish Home Foundation.

“When we came three years ago we weren’t sure what to expect in taking the seniors,” the Jewish Home Foundation’s executive director, Melanie Cohen, said. “It’s very rewarding to see Israel through their eyes, especially those for whom this was a bucket-list item their entire lives, and for one reason or another they didn’t make it. Now we’re making it possible for them and it’s totally enjoyable for us as well.”

Board member Maggie Kaplen and her son and daughter-in-law from Thailand also came along, and they helped participants with mobility issues, as did Ms. Cohen’s and Ms. Elliott’s husbands.

Ms. Cohen said the Jewish Home has shared its Israel Mission itinerary and professional contacts with other Jewish elder-care facilities considering such a trip. “It is challenging, but if you staff properly you just do it,” she said.

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