Harold Cohn is 87 and in fragile health. But when he was wheeled across the ancient cobblestones to the Western Wall — the Kotel — in Jerusalem, he asked to be helped from his wheelchair so he could stand at the holy site and kiss its worn stones.
“Isn’t that why we’re doing this, for him to have that opportunity?” said Carol Silver Elliott, president and chief executive officer of Jewish Home Family, as she described the emotional scene at dinner that night in Jerusalem’s Dan Hotel.
It was Day 7 of the first Jewish Home Family Centennial Mission to Israel, which ran from October 19 to 28 and brought a contingent of 20 to Israel. That included seven men and women from the Jewish Home facilities in Rockleigh and River Vale, 11 staff members, and two spouses, including Ms. Elliott’s husband, Tom, who had never visited Israel before.
Despite their walkers and wheelchairs, the seven seniors and their companions navigated to the top of Masada, played wheelchair basketball with disabled veterans, hiked to the waterfalls of Ein Gedi, floated in the Dead Sea, toured Roman ruins in Caesarea, lunched in a Druze village, sampled wine at the Golan Heights Winery, planted oak trees in the JNF National Forest, learned about organic farming at Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu, sailed the Sea of Galilee, rode a tractor through the Agamon-Hula bird sanctuary, toured Israeli history museums in Tel Aviv, and did many other activities they may not have believed they could enjoy at this stage of life.
“This visit, in essence, is my last hurrah,” said Rabbi Ronald Millstein, 84, who lives in the Jewish Home Assisted Living Kaplen Senior Residences in River Vale.
Rabbi Millstein, whose son, Rabbi Jordan Millstein, leads Temple Sinai of Bergen County in Tenafly, said that this was his 12th visit to Israel. His first, when he was a rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College, was in the 1950s.
“I don’t anticipate that I could possibly do this again, and I’m only doing it now because of the assistance of the Jewish Home, at which I live with my wife,” Rabbi Millstein said. “She was not able to participate, but she knew how much I wanted to go, and because she is well taken care of at the Jewish Home, she was very willing to let me go.
“I was able to receive enough help from the staff members to make this kind of journey. They’re a remarkable group of people to take this on with aged seniors.”
Ms. Elliott had led three missions to Israel when she was CEO of the Cedar Village Retirement Community in Cincinnati, the job she held until she came to Rockleigh last year. When she floated the idea at Rockleigh, she shared videos from those trips to show that such an undertaking is possible with proper planning and organization.
“Many people said they couldn’t imagine how it would work; how we’d get to the top of Masada, how we’d get to the Kotel,” she said. “I kept saying, ‘Trust me.’ We say and believe that age is just a number and we’re very committed to enhancing quality of life and giving people a full and meaningful experience whether they’re 75 or 90.
“The opportunity to learn and grow and achieve is still there.”
One of the many details involved in planning the experience over the past six months was choosing support staff to accompany the group from home and on the ground. Ms. Elliott hired Israeli tour guide Yaakov Sivek, 74, who had led the Cincinnati missions. Mr. Sivek said he has specialized in guiding Jewish senior citizens groups since 2002.
“We have to take into consideration their age and capacity,” he said. “We try to maintain a normal, classic visit to Israel according to their abilities.”
Because this group included some non-Jewish staffers from the Jewish Home, Mr. Sivek arranged for them to tour Jerusalem Old City Christian sites on Shabbat. As for the tense security situation in the capital city, he said no changes in itinerary were necessary because of the increased police and army presence. “We barely even talked about it,” he said.
Indeed, only one would-be participant decided against making the trip, and Ms. Elliott reports that this person now regrets the decision.
“My son was a little upset about my going at first, but then he saw that it was the right thing to do,” said Phyllis Schwartz, 75, a client of the Jewish Home’s Gallen Adult Day Care program. “I thought it was a good opportunity to see Israel. My whole family had been here and I wanted to go.” She singled out the Dead Sea and the Western Wall as special highlights.
Ms. Elliott arranged for Kotel replicas to be erected at the Rockleigh and River Vale campuses a month before the trip, and residents and staff were encouraged to write notes and tuck them between the “stones.” It is a popular tradition to insert prayers and wishes into the Western Wall, which is the only intact remnant of the Second Temple compound destroyed by the Romans around 70 C.E.
“We very carefully collected and Ziplocked all those notes and brought them with us,” she said. “We handed them out, and people went down to the Wall and were able to place them in the cracks.
“One of our African-American staff members had a big bag of notes from her church. There is no way to describe the power and spirituality of being at the Kotel; you just have to feel it.
“We all did, whether we were Jewish or not, and there were both tears and hugs as we shared this moment together.”
Bob Bardach, the Jewish Home at Rockleigh’s assistant administrator, said that he also was moved by the group’s encounter at Beit Halochem, a rehabilitation and sports center for wounded soldiers. Former IDF combat officer Roei Ben-Tolila told the visitors that he was permanently paralyzed as a result of accidental “friendly fire” during a raid to arrest Arab terrorists, “yet he has real sensitivity for the Arab people,” said Mr. Bardach, who joined other mission participants in a wheelchair basketball game with their host. “I was moved by his whole approach to life.
“I’d never been to Israel and I thought as a Jew I should go, and I was fortunate to have this opportunity,” he continued. “I have been surprised at how well, from my observations, everyone gets along: Arabs, Jews, Druze. I learned that there are Arab doctors and nurses in all the hospitals. The perception of Americans is very different than the reality here, and it was very enlightening to me.”
A visit to Yad Vashem, Israel’s national Holocaust memorial museum, was another high point for many participants. “We had a remarkable tour made even more poignant by the fact that one of our staff members is the daughter of a survivor,” Ms. Elliott said. “Her mother’s picture is in the ‘Auschwitz album’ that was found after the war. As we stood at that exhibit, and photos from the album flashed by us, the photo of her mother and aunt appeared on the screen. It was an emotional moment, and we felt incredibly moved and privileged to share this with her.”
Joel Schwartz, an 84-year-old resident at River Vale, had been to Israel many times before and took this opportunity to visit his brother and first cousins during some free time. “It would have been difficult to undertake this trip on my own,” he said.
Miriam Goldfarb, 87, was able to see her grandson, who is studying in Israel this year, as well as her niece and great-niece in the evening hours. “We’ve been having so much fun,” she said. “What made the trip special was Carol arranging everything to a tee.”
The other two participants were Abraham Sopher, 87, and Roy Blumenthal, 77.
Melanie Cohen, the Jewish Home Foundation’s executive director, explained that the mission was financed entirely by donations from 18 people from Bergen County. Most of them are Jewish Home board members.
“We’ve been videotaping throughout the trip and will edit it into a short video to give the donors as a token of our appreciation,” she said. “But unless you’re here to see it, you can’t possibly capture the emotion of experiencing it with this group of people knowing it’s most probably their last time. It’s very heartwarming to see seniors like Harold, who have never been here before, fulfill a bucket-list item, a lifetime dream.”
Ms. Elliott says that if there is enough interest, the Jewish Home might offer an Israel mission again in two years.
As the trip wound to a close, Rabbi Millstein said, “Not only am I saying goodbye, as it were, to the state of Israel, I also said goodbye to some of my closest living friends from rabbinical school who are living here.
“I’m grateful I could include this trip in the last chapter of my life.”