Israel for Mobility Challenged Travelers: A Travelogue
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Israel for Mobility Challenged Travelers: A Travelogue

Disability and human rights advocate Cheryl Katz recently traveled through Israel and has great advice for anyone who uses a wheelchair and wants to plan a similar trip.

At the Dead Sea. Courtesy of Cheryl Katz
At the Dead Sea. Courtesy of Cheryl Katz

We visited Israel September 2019. One of the first questions I’m asked is whether it is possible to visit Israel on a budget if one is mobility challenged. The answer is that with some planning, a huge sense of humor and a sense of adventure, Israel is doable – even for travelers who, like me, are mobility challenged.

I mainly use a walker, but for long distances, I use a wheelchair. My partner, Barry, is able-bodied.

Hospitality in Israel is delightful beyond words. Everybody that we encountered, without exception, made room for us, even in cramped quarters, and considered it an honor to host and break bread with us.

Sunday September 1, 2019~Toronto, Ontario Canada, El Al or Air Canada

We chose to fly to Israel on El Al because of the dates. At Terminal 3 in Toronto, El Al has contracted out accommodation for passengers needing assistance. It is chaotic and decidedly sub par.

Monday September 2, 2019~Ben Gurion Airport, Israel

On the other hand, El Al’s accommodation at the Israel end could not have been more welcoming. The El Al ground agent waited while we got our suitcases and then pushed my wheelchair through the public waiting area all the way into the parking lot. All the while she told us about the tourist sites we needed to see. Try getting that kind of service on another airline.

At Ben Gurion airport. Courtesy of Cheryl Katz

Unless otherwise noted, in this article, I use the term “accessible” to mean wheelchair accessible. None of the doors that I saw are equipped with automatic door openers.

Wednesday, September 4, 2019~Jaffa Port

We went to the port in Jaffa where we had dinner at Nimrod Café named after a Reservist in the Israeli Army who died in combat. When his bag was emptied, they found a beautiful poem he had written to his widow the night before he went into battle.

While one has to wend the way through narrow streets and crazy busy traffic in Tel Aviv and Jaffa, the port in Jaffa is wheelchair accessible.

 There is a well-maintained boardwalk that traverses the port and paid parking is close by. There is no designated entrance and no charge to get in. It is a large area to cover so there is a lot of walking. On the other hand, there are multiple accessible restaurants and cafes along the way serving everything from snacks and ice cream to tea and coffee to full meals and dessert.

Thursday, September 5, 2019~Caesarea

Caesarea is on the Mediterranean coast between Tel Aviv and Haifa. As of May 2019, to access the site, adults paid NIS 39, students NIS 33 and children NIS 24. We went at night. There was nobody staffing the entrance to take our money. It is, however, a National Park and combo tickets are available to access other parks or nature reserves. The entire site, including the huge system of aqueducts dating back to the Romans, is the subject of ongoing archeological digs. Most of the Park is wheelchair accessible and pretty well maintained. Paths wend their way through the site – although at some spots, the path is rocky and seems to mysteriously disappear only to begin again further on.  Expect a lot of walking and multiple accessible restaurants and cafes along the way. Parking is a problem. There are paid parking lots, but not close by. Best if you can get dropped off at the entrance.

Saturday, September 7, 2019~Jerusalem, Kotel, En Karem

Saturday morning, we drove into Jerusalem. On Shabbat, Jerusalem comes to a stand still. There are no buses and no vehicular traffic to get close to the Kotel (aka the Wailing or Western Wall). On other days of the week, however, vehicular traffic is allowed and there are paid parking lots relatively close by. The paths leading to the Kotel are paved, but the terrain is hilly and challenging. The Kotel, itself, is accessible. At the entrance, there is a very easily navigable plaza. Women and men worship on separate sides. There is an accessible washroom at the site.

At the Kotel. Courtesy of Cheryl Katz

In the evening, we went to En Karem, a trendy village just outside Jerusalem. From there the view of the hills surrounding Jerusalem is breathtaking. Parking is fairly convenient but it is hilly and the roads are poorly maintained so navigation for mobility challenged travelers, while doable, is tough.

Sunday September 9, 2019~Knesset, Supreme Court

We went for a tour of the Knesset. The website assured us that there were English tours Sunday and Thursday. But when we got to the gate, the guards informed us that the Knesset was closed. Construction.  No tours until further notice.

So we went down the block to the Supreme Court instead. We were there by 11:00 a.m. That was the time advertised for the Hebrew tour. Nobody came. So the tour guide gave Barry and I a tour in English. The entire building is extremely accessible. There are accessible washrooms and parking, including well-marked accessible stalls, immediately outside the building. No charge.

Monday, September 10, 2019~Jerusalem public transportation, Israel Museum

Jerusalem takes your breath away. But it is hilly and busy and crowded. Roads are narrow, and, with the exception of the newer areas, poorly maintained. Parked cars, trees and other obstacles encroach the sidewalks. Navigation is very challenging. On the other hand, most streets have curb cut-outs and public transportation on major routes is wheelchair accessible – this is an inexpensive way to get around the city. For accessibility, I got on at the front door so that the bus driver could see me. A braver soul can get on in the centre of articulated (accordion) buses or rear as there are card readers near each door. The bus stops are announced orally and on a screen in Hebrew, Arabic and English. Everybody navigates using the phone app “Waze” and English is heard everywhere. So if you get lost, just ask for help. (But you may want to ask more than one person, because, as happy as everyone is to help, if more than one person gives you the same advice, there is a better chance that it will be accurate). This is Israel after all. Everybody has an opinion.

There is card access, integrated throughout all modes of public transport, called Rav Kav in Israel. Most major cities in North America have similar systems. Transferring within a two-hour window is allowed. In Jerusalem, the access cards have the cardholders name and picture on it. For tourists, there is also an option to get a non-personalized “anonymous” card. The access cards have an embedded chip and the fare is registered by tapping the reader or inserting it into a slot, much like credit/debit readers in North America. The access cards can be purchased or topped up at machines available at multiple locations. There is an English language option on the machines. Interestingly, tourists can’t get an “anonymi” card for seniors!

From where we were staying, we took bus #7 to the Israel Museum. The entrance fee at the Museum was NIS 27 for me. Barry got in free as my attendant. The Israel Museum is designated wheelchair accessible. But the galleries are on multiple levels. Ramps and elevators, while available, are not well signed. Even the staff sometimes couldn’t tell us where they were located. The accessible washrooms stalls are too small in which to turn a wheelchair around so heading in frontward and backing out was my only option.

Bus #7 is not wheelchair accessible. There is a small step up from the curb onto a platform inside the bus. Barry lifted my walker on as I navigated the step. I learned very quickly that I needed to ask the driver to wait until I was seated. The driver did not wait for Barry, or any other able bodied passenger, to sit down.

Tuesday, September 11, 2019~Yad V’Shem

We took bus #7 to Jaffa Centre where we transferred to the Light Rail for a trip to Yad V’Shem near Mount Herzel. Yad Ve’Shem was amazing and well worth the visit. But getting there is hard.  There is a long pathway to the entrance. The day that we went, the path was closed. Construction. Again, no mention of the closure on the web site, although it seemed to be common knowledge among taxi drivers – many cruised by the shuttle stop on the day that we were there. The shuttle runs from near the Light Rail stop to Yad V’Shem’s entrance. The shuttle is definitely not wheelchair accessible. Take a car or taxi and get dropped off at the entrance.

The venue, itself, is accessible. I checked my walker, left ID and got a wheelchair. No charge for the wheelchair. No entrance fee – although donations were accepted. The bathrooms aren’t really wheelchair accessible. The “accessible” washroom is not a standalone room but rather a slightly enlarged stall. I rolled myself in but the stall was too small to turn the wheelchair around and I could barely manoeuvre myself around it to get to the toilet. The cafeteria, on the lower level, is accessible.

 Wednesday, September 12, 2019~B’Hai Temple, Akko

We picked up a rental car from Europcar near the King David Hotel because they had the best rates and, by far, the best customer service. Once out of Jerusalem, we drove north along the shoreline of the Mediterranean Sea.  We stopped at the B’Hai Temple in Haifa. Guess what? The B’Hai Temple was closed. Construction.  Not on the website.

Drove to Akko. Like Jerusalem, the streets in the old city are narrow, poorly maintained and full of ruts.

We loved Akko. We had dinner at Uri Buri restaurant. Accessible. Wonderful meal. Israel is not the place to start your diet!

Thursday, Sept 12, 2019~Tunisian Synagogue, Crusaders tunnels, Rosh Ha Nikra

In the morning, we went to a Tunisian Synagogue, Shalom Orr. It is an active synagogue with three minyanim in the downstairs chapel every day and a service in the main chapel on Shabbat. Cost was a mandatory “donation” of NIS 10 each. The interior was entirely covered in tiny, colored, mosaic tile. Every inch. Ceilings, floor, walls. Dead Sea, for example – deeper parts darker blue, shallow parts, lighter blue. Excerpts from Torah, Tanach, poems, songs, all the birds, animals, fish, plants in Israel. Unbelievable! But not wheelchair accessible. There are two steps onto a walkway leading to the synagogue. It is like a split level home once inside – up one short flight of steps (about 8 steps) to the office and main sanctuary; up two steep flights to the women’s balcony; down a flight of stairs to the chapel.

At the Tunisian synagogue. Courtesy of Cheryl Katz

From there we went to the Crusaders tunnels. Cost about NIS 40. Very wheelchair accessible. Funny story. I spoke to the teller in Hebrew. I asked her if the site was wheelchair accessible. She didn’t know! So I went and looked. Sure enough, there is a lift down to the tunnels! When I came back and told this to the teller, she said that the lift was only for wheelchairs! (What the rest of us who were mobility challenged, but not in a wheelchair, were to do, she didn’t know). Needless to say, I used the lift.

This excavation is amazing – for kids as well as adults. Not to be missed. We spent about 3 1/2 hours in the tunnels and didn’t even see it all.

Then we drove to Rosh Ha Nikra on the Lebanese border. Not accessible. The “accessible” washroom at the bottom has a step. Once in the cave, one can only go about 100 metres before the first set of stairs. From there it gets tougher. Up and down. Path scraped out of the rock. Near the end, about 10 stairs are hewn out of rock followed by a steep uphill path that runs about 100 meters. One comes out at what used to be a railway station that carried goods and ran all the way to Tripoli. In 1948, the rail line was bombed and the entrance sealed by the Israelis fearing that the train tunnel would be used to smuggle arms into Israel.

Friday, September 13, 2019~Machaneh Yehuda, Jerusalem

Depending on your perspective, it is either very adventurous or totally nuts to go to Jerusalem’s famous market, Machaneh Yehuda, on a Friday. In the frantic hours before the city shuts down, the pressure is on to prepare for Shabbat. Machaneh Yehuda consists of two parallel alleys running off Ben Yehuda Street in roughly the city centre. Small alleyways dissect the two. Think rungs of a ladder. The northern-most upright of the ladder has a covered roof. But it is narrower and, on Fridays, many people are squished into that small corridor. There are 3 steps at the far end. Of the two, the other corridor, although uncovered, is wider with more room to maneuver and no steps at the end.

Then comes Shabbat in Jerusalem. It is magical. Nothing compares to the quiet and the peace that descends on the city on Shabbat. Everything. Just stops.

Sunday, September 15, 2019~Ein Gedi, Masada, the Dead Sea

A new week begins. The sleeping giant awakes. We rented a car again from Europcar next to King David Hotel in Jerusalem and drove to Ein Gedi, Masada and the Dead Sea. Ein Gedi is not wheelchair accessible.

Masada is. But the teller didn’t know if it was! And, it is not well marked! And, everyone we asked in advance of going there, tour guides included, didn’t know! Take the elevator (it goes from the parking lot, which is free) stopping on the main floor to buy a ticket (Barry paid NIS 77 for an adult ticket – apparently seniors’ rates are only for Israeli citizens!) and then back onto the same elevator to the top floor. In the elevator, the floor is labelled “administration”. Get off there anyway and go through the art gallery. You’ll end up in the same cinema room as if you had used the stairs. Access to the cable car to the top is through the cinema room.

Once top-side, there is a concrete path covering about 80% of the ruins. This is very accessible . Of the 20% remaining, 10% is pebbly. The remaining 10% is inaccessible – large stones and dirt.

The gift shop is accessible and can be accessed through the food court on the lower level. The food court is accessible. The washrooms are all accessible.  There is a free path that snakes to the top but it is really, really long and arduous. Not accessible. It, too, was closed on the day that we were there. Not on the website.

From there we continued on to the hotel stretch along the Dead Sea. It is accessible. Most hotels have a handrail system that goes right into the water to accommodate mobility challenged bathers. But unlike the public beaches in Tel Aviv, not even the hotels had accessible chairs with big wheels for navigation over sand. There is paid parking everywhere.

Tuesday, Sept 17, 2019~Toronto, Ontario Canada

Home. Unpack. Dirty laundry. Didn’t we make the bed before we left?

Cheryl Katz

Cheryl is a lawyer advocating for disability and human rights. She lives with her partner in Toronto, Canada.

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