Fred Maahs, Jr.
I grew up attending Catholic schools and spent many hours during my youth studying the Bible, the Holy Land, and the origins of my faith during religion class or in church. For me, Jerusalem and the birthplace of Christ were places that were held with absolute reverence. I never imagined that I would actually visit these holy places, especially after an accident that left me paralyzed from the chest down and using a wheelchair when I was scheduled to begin my first year at collegE.
I’ve always been a firm believer that things happen for a reason. The purpose of my trip to Israel is yet another affirmation for me that God has a plan for all of us.
Israel is working very hard to become a country that is accessible to everyone, and I was part of a group who visited as guests of the Israel Ministry of Tourism this past February. For many reasons, this would be a very special trip for me; informative, spiritual, and fun.
I flew from Philadelphia to Toronto, Canada on a small Air Canada Embraer jet. If you have bladder or skin issues, be sure to check layover times in Toronto. I had a five-hour layover, but you can easily spend some of that time at Pearson International Airport navigating the long Terminals and walkways from your arrival gate to the International Terminal. Plenty of accessible shops, restaurants, and kiosks lined the terminals. One thing to note for anyone with a mobility impairment, there are accessible dining spots located in the bars and restaurants but you have to move the heavy, steel chairs labeled with the international blue and white sign for disability.
When it was time for our departure, the gate agents easily and efficiently accommodated anyone needing special assistance and early boarding. Business Class seating for a 10 ½ hour flight is the only way to fly, especially when you have a disability. You have room to elevate your legs and this will help with circulation and swelling. You can recline your wide seat to a full sleep position. Great food and very helpful flight attendants make for a pleasant journey.
Arrival in Tel Aviv the next morning was easy and friendly. The ground crew and staff at the Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv could not have been more helpful. Make sure to book accessible transportation ahead of time. About an hour after landing, I arrived at The Prima Royal Hotel, located in a neighborhood setting in the heart of Jerusalem. My room on the 4th floor was a small, cozy space with some modern amenities. As a world-traveler with decades of experience, I can attest to the fact that one of the most important things to a traveler with a disability is the height of the bed, and although the bed-height in this hotel was a few inches lower than ideal, making transfer from bed to wheelchair challenging, and the bathroom was small with the commode situated next to a very small shower area, but the staff was very friendly and accommodating.
One of the things I immediately had to get used to, other than the uncommonly cold and rainy weather the first two days in Jerusalem, was Shabbat. I didn’t realize that just about everything closes down for Shabbat on Fridays in Jerusalem, one hour after sunset, for the next 24 hours – meaning no hot meals, modified elevator availability, basically nothing requiring electricity or gas was available during that time!
Saturday morning, I was greeted in the lobby by one of the friendliest, most knowledgeable people I have ever met, Eli Meiri. Eli would be our tour guide for the next five days. Once I was situated and secured in Eli’s lift-equipped van, we headed to the Israel Museum. We were able to see amazing exhibits, including the Model of Jerusalem from the Second Temple Period (time of Jesus), the Shrine of the Book (exhibiting the earliest biblical texts) displays from the first cities, the first human bones and graves, and many other beautiful and historically significant artifacts.
Everything in the museum was accessible – flat, easy, with wide tiled floors with ramps and lifts where necessary. You could easily spend a day or more here to see all of the exhibits.
The weather was not cooperating so we were unable to visit the historical Mehane Yehuda fruit and vegetable market in downtown Jerusalem, so we went back to the hotel for a short rest before dinner.
We enjoyed a fabulous meal at Adom Restaurant, located in the First Station, a renovated Turkish railway station. The restaurant had a warm, cozy vibe, lengthy wine list, and delicious food. The rest of First Station was easy to navigate situated in a mostly accessible location, although the parking lot could be repaved to ensure a safe, smooth walk to the Station.
Over the next few days, my tour mates, Stefano and Antonio from Italy, and Thomas from Germany, along with Eli as our guide, ventured into some of the most holy and sacred places in Jerusalem, then east to the Dead Sea and Masada, and finally to Tel Aviv and the beautiful Mediterranean Coast.
When we left Jerusalem with its lush trees and grass, we literally descended for miles and miles to the desert. On the mountainsides, we could see flocks of goats being herded by their shepherd and a smattering of settlements in the valleys. The beautiful green landscape of Jerusalem was quickly replaced with the tan and brown hues of the desert, also known as the Judean Wilderness. Jerusalem is about 800 meters above sea level and the Dead Sea, the lowest point on earth, is 400 meters below sea level. We traveled south along a winding road with the Dead Sea shore to our east and the mountains and cliffs to our west. Incredible sights in every direction.
We passed farms along the way that contained rows of thousands of palm trees growing on many acres of desert sand. These palm trees originated from thousands of years ago and was once a crop grown in the Kingdom of Judea as a source of food, shelter, and shade. Unfortunately, the palms were destroyed by the Roman Empire in an attempt to ruin the Jewish economy and they all completely disappeared by 500 A.D. In 1963, an archeologist excavating Masada, a fortress built on a mountaintop by King Herod over 2,000 years ago, found the ancient seeds in a clay jar. The jar was kept at a university in Tel Aviv for 40 years until 2005 when a botanical researcher planted a seed to see what would happen. Now, thousands of these palms grow in forests producing dates, a popular fruit enjoyed around the world. Who knew?
As we continued along the road to Masada, we could see the mountains of Jordan climbing above the Dead Sea shore off in the distance, until we finally reached our destination – Masada!
The enormity of Masada doesn’t really hit you until you are standing in the visitor drop off location and looking up! There were hundreds of visitors entering the welcome area of Masada and its curb cuts and ramps can be easily navigated by anyone with a mobility impairment. Once you enter the welcome area, there are escalators and elevators and the lines move quickly. After you arrive on the next level you must purchase a ticket for the cable car ride to the top. If you have a disability, there is a special ticket counter to purchase your ticket but it is very crowded and directional signage is difficult to find. For the very brave, you do have the option to hike very steep and narrow trails to the top. We took an elevator to the cable car entrance. Each car fits about 50 people. Space is a premium but anyone with a disability is given priority boarding and moving from the platform to the cable car is level and safe.
Ascending Masada in the cable car was breathtaking! The jagged rocks that form the foundation of Masada seem so close you could touch them, and the Dead Sea and Jordan were clearly visible. We reached our stop in just a few minutes. Once you exit the cable car you follow a wooden pathway built on the side of the mountain up to an archway carved into the rock. As you move through the archway you are taken onto a somewhat paved pathway covered in small gravel. A little tricky possibly, so be careful.
From there, hiking on the pathway to the top takes some time, some energy, and maybe a little help. Thank goodness I had back-up with my tour mates. They certainly got their aerobic exercise as we pushed hard to the summit. Once there, it was well worth it! We were literally standing on ancient ruins of the Palace of Herod in the Judean Desert! You can see for miles in every direction and for those who know and embrace this historically important place, I have to admit, they, like me, would need to close their eyes for a few minutes and imagine what it was like to have lived back when Masada was built. It is believed that Herod built Masada over a ten-year period using palms from the valley that helped to form a giant ramp from the ground to the top of the mountain.
We spent a couple of hours touring the mountain and then ate lunch in the cafeteria-style restaurant on site. There is also a very large gift and souvenir shop with many different items for sale, including plenty of beauty and health items from the Dead Sea. You can navigate most of the sites on Masada by using the paved pathways with caution as some are very steep. There are a number of areas that are not easily accessible and others that can be reached with some help. When coming to Israel, Masada is definitely a place you must visit.
We left Masada and then ventured to Ein Gedi for a quick drive through to see the David Canyon Nature Reserve and then drove on to a hostel just north of Ein Gedi. We stopped for a quick tour of the facility which overlooks the Dead Sea. The manager told us there were 18 fully accessible rooms, accessible dining hall, and grounds. A beautiful, accessible property!
After our tour of the Ein Gedi Hostel, we continued north to the Qumran Archaeology Park. This was a popular tourist spot, but more importantly, it was an active archaeological dig about 1.5 km from the Dead Sea, near the Israeli settlement and kibbutz of Kalya. It is best known as the settlement nearest to the Qumran Caves where the Dead Sea Scrolls were hidden. The property has an accessible board walk winding through and over the ancient ruins and bath houses which date back to the Hellenistic Period. Easy to navigate set in a beautiful vista overlooking the cliffs and caves where the Dead Sea Scrolls were hidden.
After our tour at Qumran, we drove toward Kalia Beach which is located on the Dead Sea. When you arrive at Kalia Beach, the parking lot and huts look like any other small beach resort – bright colors, palm trees, literally a handful of shops and restaurants, and plenty of people! To get to the beach, there is an accessible walkway down a long hill to the shore. There is also an accessible path into the water for anyone with a mobility impairment. We didn’t go swimming in the Dead Sea on this trip but many other people swam in the water which was very warm. It is believed the Dead Sea water has healing powers and by the looks of the crowds, everyone seemed quite content with their adventure. You are able to access Kalia Beach year-round, just be sure to check the hours it is open.
We left Kalia Beach and traveled back to Jerusalem for dinner at Medita Restaurant with Ms. Gura Berger, the Tourism Adviser to the East Jerusalem Development Company and the Old City Development Project. We enjoyed a fabulous family-style dinner in an easily accessible location. Parking may be a little tricky so be sure to arrive a little early to ensure you have accessible parking.
The next morning, we enjoyed breakfast at our hotel and piled our suitcases into the van for a long day of touring. We left the hotel and in just a few minutes found ourselves in the heart of the Holy City. Somehow Eli was able to navigate our van through the narrow and crowded streets to the Mount of Olives which overlooked the Old City, the oldest Jewish cemetery, and the Garden of Gethsemane. The view was breathtaking and I reflected on my many religion classes and the Bible which reminded me of the importance of this area more than 2000 years ago.
After leaving the Mount of Olives, we parked in an accessible parking garage at the Mamila Mall near the Tower of David. We toured the Tower of David and found it to be fairly accessible. Cobble stone-like pavers were used to help make the site more wheelchair-friendly on walks and ramps, but take it slow. The pavers are still bumpy. The Director of Tourism and PR was quite accommodating as she took us on a private mini tour and shared that soon the upper levels of the Tower will be accessible via an outside elevator. Quite an impressive site and the accommodations were very much appreciated.
From the Tower we trekked over to get inside the walls of the Holy City. Not only was it surprisingly accessible, but most of the storefronts and restaurants and even holy places were, too. I found it fairly easy to push my wheelchair around inside the Holy City mostly unassisted. Being adventurous with a never say never attitude, I did venture off the beaten path with the others from time to time and although I encountered very steep small streets, alleys and even stairs, my tour mates jumped right in and either pushed or lifted me to make the inaccessible possible.
Once inside the Holy City, I was taken back in time – centuries to be precise. The original stones and wood were still in place. We walked along the Via Dolorosa – the Stations of the Cross – and entered the Church of the Holy Sepulchre which can take your breath away. The church is in the Christian Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem and contains two of the holiest sites in all of Christianity: Calvary, the site where Jesus was crucified, and the tomb of Jesus where he was buried and resurrected.
The Aedicula, a nineteenth century shrine, is built around the tomb and is guarded by Greek Orthodox priests, a tradition since the 12th century. There were hundreds of people waiting in line to enter the Aedicula but as soon as the Greek Orthodox priests knew I wanted to enter, they asked the line of people to wait so that I could go in. The inside is very small, literally room for just a few people, very ornate and adorned with candles and small paintings of Jesus on the walls.
The entrance to the tomb of Jesus is quite small, also literally just with space enough to squeeze my wheelchair through the opening as I leaned forward to clear the short height of the entrance carved into the huge stone. Only one person at a time is permitted inside the tomb for just a couple of minutes. For me, it was a lifetime of reverence, belief and faith shooting through my body as I quietly recited the Lord’s Prayer while my hands held tightly onto the slab of marble sealing Jesus’ tomb. No words can possibly come close to adequately describing the emotion I felt right at that moment. It’s a moment that will remain with me for the rest of my life.
After our time in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, we visited the Muslim Quarter and Arab market (shuk), then on to the rebuilt Jewish Quarter, then to the Western Wall or Wailing Wall – Judaism’s most sacred site. It was quite accessible and very heavily guarded. The Western Wall is about 488 meters long. The highest point of the exposed wall at the Prayer Plaza – above ground – is about 19 meters. The Western Wall serves as a Jewish synagogue.
Once we left the Western Wall, we met Eli at our van and began our journey through the Judean Hills to Tel Aviv which took about an hour. Like most major cities, Tel Aviv has its share of rush hour traffic and many new, modern office buildings, condominiums, apartment buildings. By far, the accessibility and accommodation for people with disabilities is much better in Tel Aviv, however, when we checked into the Savoy Hotel, just across the street from the Mediterranean Sea, that wasn’t the case. As with most of my travel plans and after decades of experience using a wheelchair and requiring an accessible room on my travels, I had contacted the hotel via email weeks before my trip to ensure it was equipped for my needs. The hotel claimed to be a boutique hotel with modern amenities and accessible rooms. The first thing we noticed was the lift to get from the sidewalk to the lobby entrance outside of the hotel was not operating, so I had to traverse up the drive to the back of the hotel, move through an assemblance of an outdoor kitchen or staging area, and enter through a back door into a hallway that was stacked with tables and chairs! Once inside the lobby, I asked if the room was, in fact, accessible. I was assured that it was and took the elevator to my room only to find a regular room with portable grab bars placed in an inaccessible bathroom. I knew within just a minute this room was not, in fact, an accessible one. I contacted the front desk and asked for the manager but she was busy. There were multiple issues with the room, mostly in the bathroom and some with the position of the bed. I didn’t want to create a scene, especially since we were there at the invitation of the Ministry of Tourism. With some help, I had the furniture rearranged and rented a shower wheelchair. I met with the manager two days later and walked her through the room identifying each issue. There was really nothing she could do, other than raise the mattress height by adding another mattress which was way too low. She told me that other people with disabilities have stayed in that room and never said anything was wrong. But, after walking her through what made the room inaccessible, I think she understood. My only hope is that the room is much better now for future guests!
That evening, our team met in the hotel lobby for dinner. We drove to the Messa Restaurant, just a short ride from our hotel. It was a modern restaurant and the accessible seating was located 3 steps above the ground floor. The staff met us with a portable ramp consisting of two separate aluminum planks that had to be held down because the floors and steps were marble and slippery! Just be very careful if you have to use the “accessible” seating, but the meal and service were outstanding. I would definitely recommend Messa as a place to dine – just make sure to call ahead if you have any special needs.
The next morning, we ate our complimentary breakfast in the hotel lobby and met for our next adventure – the Mediterranean Coast! We drove to Caesarea National Park to see the remains of a Crusader City, a former Roman Capital city built by Herod the Great. The entire site was accessible with paved paths and ramped areas where there were inclines. The park had such a beautiful setting – literally right on the Mediterranean Sea. It included a Roman amphitheater, a hippodrome for racing horses, a bath house, a Herodian port, and an aqueduct system. Parking was easy in spaces reserved for people with disabilities and the entrance gate was wide. The park also incorporated modern, disability-friendly, drinking fountains! Well done!
Our next stop on our tour was in the Kiryat Tivon area, to the award-winning Tulip Winery, a 90-minute trip. The winery was situated adjacent to the Village of Hope “kibbutz’ established in 1964 for adults with developmental and cognitive disabilities. The winery employs about 50 of the 250 residents of the Village. I was compelled to support the winery and the Village and purchased a few of their best vintages! (yes, they did make it back to the US intact!)
We enjoyed our time and the wine tasting at the Tulip Winery and then drove on to Akko, an ancient Crusader seaport which was declared by UNESCO as a world heritage site, toured the ancient walled city with subterranean Knight’s Halls, a fisherman’s port, and bazaar. We had no issues touring the entire property which featured smooth floors, ramps, and even a lift and elevator. There was plenty of lighting in the subterranean portions of the site and the architecture was amazing.
After an educational time in Akko, we traveled back to Tel Aviv to Pua Restaurant to meet and dine with Yuval Wagner, a friend and one of the most recognized advocates for people with disabilities in Israel. Yuval is the President and Founder of Access Israel, a nonprofit organization focused on promoting accessibility and inclusion to improve the quality of life of people with disabilities and the elderly.
Pua is in the Old Jaffa section of Tel Aviv. The food was simple and delicious with an atmosphere that was a blend of eclectic and “homey.” The mismatched chairs at the tables and mismatched glasses and flatware added to the charm. The staff were very accommodating to the needs of our group which made it very pleasant and memorable, and I will definitely return. There is easy access to the dining area and restrooms.
The next morning, we traveled to the International Mediterranean Tourism Market (IMTM) 2020 at the Expo Tel Aviv, for a business-to-business meeting with about 40 travel agencies from Israel. Each group wanted to meet with us and discuss ways to partner and collaborate, and mostly be educated about the accessible tourism market. So, for a couple of hours, I had the chance to meet some great and enthusiastic people!
After our meetings we drove through Tel Aviv then on to the Carmel open-air market with plenty of stands to purchase spices, fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, clothing…you name it, all at one level, all accessible, and very crowded for a Wednesday at mid-day.
We left the market and went back to the hotel for a rest before dinner but some of us crossed over to the beach along the Mediterranean. The walkways were very accessible with ramps down to the sand and enough spots for shade. We found a small beach bar and restaurant and had a few Israeli beers while watching the waves. It was peaceful. It was my serenity. It was the perfect way to relax at the end of a truly remarkable visit to Israel.
Later that evening, we drove to our Farewell Dinner at Port Sa’Id Restaurant. This was definitely a spot for the younger crowd with loud music, outdoor tables, good food and drinks. We met Ms. Dana Gazit, the Director of Accessible Tourism Brand, Ministry of Tourism for Israel. It was a great way to thank Dana for our experience in Israel.
The next morning, each of us left for our trip back to our homes. Eli drove Thomas and I to the airport and he made sure I got safely to the security ticket counter. We did not say goodbye, but instead we said, “Shalom!”
I began this article by stating that I am a firm believer that things happen for a reason and that my journey to Israel was yet another affirmation that God has a plan for all of us. I do believe that the reason I had an accident and became paralyzed right at a time in my life when I was at my best – my strongest – physically, emotionally, psychologically, intuitively. God knew I could I handle it, and his plan, which became my passion, was to help others by becoming the voice and an advocate, a champion of sorts, for people with disabilities. Perhaps it was for those who didn’t have the means, or the ability, or maybe the platform, to be able to advocate for equal rights and opportunities for people with disabilities. I was fortunate because I did, and it was my decision to do something about it.
So, here I am, helping to promote the accessibility of the Holy Land to you, the reader, perhaps someone with a disability. You see, things do happen for a reason and I hope my reason has, in some way, helped you to decide to visit Israel and experience for yourself all of the sacred and revered places you have read about, in the Bible or otherwise.
Israel is so much more accessible than you may imagine and there is much more to see and do than I have mentioned here. I hope to get back one day soon and discover everything else Israel has to offer. And, I’ll be back here writing to you! Shalom!
My sincere thanks to the Israel Ministry of Tourism – you have a special place in my heart.
To the people of Israel, thank you for your hospitality and support.