|A scene from Ashkelon National Park. Abigail Klein Leichman|
Considering the number of Hamas missiles launched toward Ashkelon last summer (4,564, to be exact), we did not expect the Leonardo hotel in this lovely Mediterranean shore city, eight miles north of the Gaza Strip, to be filled on a random March weekend.
We had chosen Ashkelon in order to spend some beach time in a less expensive and crowded city than Tel Aviv or Netanya, and to give the local tourism trade a boost after a financially disastrous summer season.
So imagine my surprise when, just as I was returning to the scrumptious breakfast buffet for a second – okay, third – helping, I saw a man with a nametag around his neck reading “Robert Levine, Teaneck, NJ.”
I nudged Steve. “I know that guy! I interviewed him for the Jewish Standard years ago!”
Bob remembered me right away, and introduced me to some of the fellow Jewish National Fund VIPs with whom he was traveling to identify needs in Gaza border towns. As a national vice president, Bob proudly described recent JNF projects such as the Be’er Sheva River Park and the Sderot indoor recreation center, which keeps kids safely entertained no matter what horrors are happening outside.
The JNF contingent was among many other guests enjoying the beautiful hotel and the nearby boardwalk, marina and archeological park. We were heartened to see that the Leonardo, where every room has a sea view, was not lacking for business. A Holiday Inn down the boardwalk also seemed busy.
Walking around town, it was difficult to imagine the city of about 120,000 under siege less than a year ago. On Thursday night, we dined at a cafÃ© inside Ashkelon’s cultural center, a magnificent building where people were gathered for an exhibition opening.
The seaside national park, rich with 4,000 years of history, was quiet on Friday morning. About a dozen young men were surfing the Mediterranean’s relatively calm waves as we watched from a vantage point studded with ancient ruins. A couple and their toddler explored the relics and the wildflowers. Later we walked through the marina, whose eateries were jam-packed with patrons in spitting distance of rows of bobbing boats tied to the wharf.
Whenever we travel in Israel, we try to attend Shabbat morning services at a local synagogue, to get a flavor of the community. Being early birds, Steve and I set out for a nearby Ashkenazi shul (most of the town is Sephardi) at about 6:40 a.m. The 7 a.m. minyan meets in an auxiliary room, leaving the sanctuary available for the main 8 a.m. service.
Just one problem: the auxiliary space has little room for women. In fact, there was a solitary seat in the designated area. Lacking alternatives, I sat in it. A little while later, an older woman appeared and smiled at me kindly. I began to explain in Hebrew that I was a visitor and I would be happy to go get another chair, while at the same time she greeted me and said she’d find herself a chair. The moment we heard one another’s accents, we switched to English.
And that is how I got friendly with Sarah, a New York native and longtime resident of Ashkelon. Apparently the only female regular at the early Shabbat service, Sarah told me about herself in between the davening and the Torah reading. She arrived in Israel in 1961, when she was 19; she went directly to a kibbutz that today is lush and thriving but then was rather rough around the edges. After a few years she’d had enough of the awful and scarce food and the belligerent women who never made her feel welcome. She and her British-born new husband moved to Ashkelon in 1964, when the city had only 30,000 residents. They had found their forever home.
Despite its proximity to Gaza, I can easily understand why people are attracted to Ashkelon. It boasts attractive private homes and high-rises, plentiful shopping and cultural activities, a sense of history and modern amenities. There is a sizable Anglo population and an active social group called ESOA (English Speakers of Ashkelon).
Myriam Baharav, who works in international client services for a local realty group, told me that even during the war, “We had a couple and two single women who chose to emigrate here from America. I was amazed.” (The couple, it turns out, were former members of my mother’s synagogue in North Riverdale. Small world.)
When a permanent peace finally comes to this tiny part of a tiny country, I have no doubt that tourists will come flocking. In the meantime, I do not hesitate to recommend a stay in Ashkelon to see it for yourself. If you don’t believe me, just ask Bob Levine.