Kosher Rafting on the Jordan River: ultra-Orthodox Tourists Found Their Wild Side

From studying at the yeshiva to windy jeep rides: Recent years have seen a sharp rise in the number of Haredim vacationing in Israel, with a clear preference for adventure

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Haredi girls at a water resort on Lake Kinneret.
Haredi girls at a water resort on Lake Kinneret.Credit: Gil Eliahu
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad

Two classes of 10-year-old ultra-Orthodox boys marched in a line down the Tzalmon streambed in northern Israel. Like us, they came to see the Parod Falls. The green expanses thrilled them: they laughed, messed around and were clearly having fun.

Yet it was also apparent that hiking in nature is not something they do very often. Most wore skullcaps but not hats; their shoes were unsuited to traipsing over rocks; and the clothes – white shirts and black pants – seemed odd along this watery ravine. Two of them jumped into the water with their clothes on. The teachers shouted orders in Yiddish and Hebrew. Some of the children threw snack wrappings on the side of the path. An hour later, they all got on a bus and disappeared.

There are many surprising statistics regarding the lifestyle of ultra-Orthodox Jews (aka the Haredim) in Israel, but arguably the most surprising concerns their vacation habits. There are some 1.2 million Haredim in Israel, and around two-thirds of those aged 20 and over have vacationed in Israel in the past year.

This is an amazing figure, similar to the rate of non-Haredi Jewish Israelis who vacation locally. In light of this, the ultra-Orthodox community is the biggest missed opportunity in Israeli tourism. (All figures are taken from “The Israeli Haredi Society Almanac,” edited by Gilad Malach and Lee Kahaner for the Israel Democracy Institute.)

A Haredi couple enjoys a bicycle ride. Credit: Gil Cohen-Magen

Some 800,000 Israeli Haredim vacationed locally in the past 12 months, but it seems only a few in the tourism industry prepared for them, tried to befriend them, guide them, educate them or make a profit off of them.

Where did these 800,000 vacationers go? Where did they sleep? What did they eat? Where did they spend their time? And what are their tourism habits?

It is easy to apply labels, and the reputation gained by ultra-Orthodox vacationers in recent years is not the best. The low awareness of hiking safety, of keeping natural sites clean, of protecting the environment – all these give other travelers pause when encountering Haredi sightseers. The large number of Haredi travelers and the fact that many of them travel in large groups (from yeshivas, institutions, communities, etc.) makes things harder. The demand for gender segregation at water resorts, whether beaches or springs, has aroused great anger and opposition from others.

The natural growth rate among the Haredi community is rapid. At the current pace, it will double in size every 16 years, whereas the Israeli population as a whole is expected to double only every 37 years, and the non-Haredi Jewish population every 50 years.

Haredi girls enjoy an outing at Sea of Galilee.

This is a young, relatively poor population, but apparently one fond of vacationing locally. Half of all Israelis traveled abroad in 2018-2019, yet only 16 percent of all Haredim did so, making this one area in which the ultra-Orthodox appear to be more patriotic than other communities.

The “Israeli Haredi Society Almanac” says: “The increase in the rate of Haredim vacationing in Israel reflects how this type of pastime is becoming a popular norm among the ultra-Orthodox, on a scale similar to that of non-Haredi Jews. In the coming years we will see an even greater increase from Haredi society in the consumption of leisure and vacation activities, in the wake of greater numbers joining the job market. This will lead to an increase in disposable income and due to the growing awareness of the leisure and vacation culture among this population and the growing middle class groups taking shape within it.”

Before this month, I thought that the lifestyle clash brought by this type of tourism was unavoidable. But then I discovered that mediation efforts can help.

Moshe Yitzhak Roshgold is currently making a serious attempt to mediate between Haredim and people involved in the Israeli tourism industry. He is the creator and organizer of an annual conference on leisure and vacation tourism for the Haredi community, which will take place at Binyanei Hauma in Jerusalem on April 6. The conference is not open to the general public.

Vacationers at Lake Kinneret earlier this year. Gender segregation is an issue for water sites hoping to attract the Haredi community. Credit: Gil Eliahu

Its goal is to introduce yeshiva directors to tourism professionals. As Roshgold explained in an interview, “The idea is to help the manager of a tourist attraction on a kibbutz understand what Haredi vacationers need and want.”

Roshgold, 38, is married with three children and lives in the West Bank settlement bloc of Gush Etzion. He says the explosion of Haredi tourism surprised him, too.

“When I saw the numbers, I couldn’t believe it,” he says. “Take this one example: Jordan River Rafting opens at 9 A.M. But there are days when they’ll open early at six to get 750 [ultra-Orthodox] girls in the river – and just like that they’ve earned another 22,000 shekels ($6,840) before the regular workday even starts. Haredi vacationers will show up for activities at hours no one else would even think of. Who else would arrange an all-terrain vehicle trip at 9 P.M.? So we have a yeshiva come with 120 guys who want to be all on their own, or the schedule just works for them.”

A Haredi man on a climber at the Anaba Park in Modi'in.Credit: Gil Cohen-Magen

Economic driver

Roshgold emphasizes the big numbers and the convenience of working with the Haredi community. He says they spend 2 billion shekels a year on tourism and vacations. “It’s a tremendous engine for the Israeli economy, and a lot of people don’t realize this yet,” he says. “A lot of Israelis spend their money abroad. The Haredim – for reasons of modesty and suitability, for financial reasons, because of the children, for religious reasons – stay in Israel. Whoever works with this community and is familiar with the magnitude of this trend understands the enthusiasm.”

Roshgold lists three ways in which ultra-Orthodox Israelis go on vacation. The main one is with the community – i.e., with the yeshiva, the neighborhood or the workplace. The second is with the family. And the third is with a son or daughter’s school or youth movement.

Most Haredi travelers go on organized trips. Only 10 percent travel independently as a family. Another 10 percent are yeshiva students who travel independently – meaning that the remaining 80 percent travel as part of an organized group. Most of them – and this is one of the biggest challenges – want to vacation on inflexible, set dates known as bein hazmanim (“between the times”). For instance, the academic year in yeshivas is divided into three sections; between each of these is a vacation period known as bein hazmanim. One example is the week after Passover, when everyone else goes back to school but ultra-Orthodox students have a week off.

Haredim exiting a cafe in Tiberias. The north is the most popular destination by far for the vacationing ultra-Orthodox community.Credit: Yaron Kaminsky

“You should see what happens then at Jordan River Rafting,” Roshgold says. “That week, the north is packed with Haredim. Hundreds of thousands of shekels are spent on tourism. Those are very busy days for the tourism sector because of the Haredi community. In June, after exams, the girls go on trips, and in August the yeshiva students go travel. The three weeks after Tisha B’Av are the annual peak: a yeshiva with 200 students will spend about 300,000 shekels for a week of vacation.”

What type of activities will they choose?

“Usually, it’s a combination of a hike and a tourist attraction per day. They go to the Canada Center [sports resort] in Metula; to Mount Hermon; to water parks; jeep rides; ATVs; rafting. Generally, they’re looking for ways to release energy. Mostly they’ll do a hike that lasts two or three hours. One of my goals is to promote longer hikes – I know what a good seven-hour hike in the Judean Desert does for the soul. It’s important not just to use the country but to love it too.

“I want the ultra-Orthodox child to get to know other sites besides the Banias and Amud [streams]. It’s too easy to only know the places that are close to Safed. I’d like to see them go to the Judean Desert too, for instance. The difficulty is good for body and soul. On a long hike, you ask yourself questions and come back a new person.

“It’s important to mention that we are also promoting the issues of safety and cleanliness, and respect for the environment. These are not things that are necessarily given high priority among the ultra-Orthodox.”

Haredi families visit the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo.

What type of lodgings are most popular for large groups of Haredi travelers?

“The vast majority trade between yeshivas, i.e., they’ll sleep in another yeshiva or seminary in a barter-type deal. The number of hotels that are kosher lemehadrin has been increasing lately, and that opens up more possibilities. In Tiberias, there are several places like this. Sometimes they go to a youth hostel. There are also groups that will camp out in the Jordan River area.”

How do they manage for food during the trip?

“Most of them will bring a cook along. Some older people might even bring an event manager or chef. As a rule, the Haredi community is more into style than the religious Zionists are. Our hospitality is at a higher level. If members of the Haredi community go to a hotel, it’s at a higher level. Events are fancier. More care goes into everything.”

Are all the trips to northern Israel?

“Just about. The Haredi community has chosen the north. Holy graves are important to them, so they’ll include visits to graves as part of the trip. They’re less into camping out in nature with the kids. They’ll seek out places that are more set up. When I camped out with my kids, I brought every possible piece of equipment.”

Visitors to the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo.Credit: Gil Cohen-Magen

What about keeping the outdoors clean?

“Look, anybody who doesn’t know how to use a particular machine will make mistakes if he’s unfamiliar with the user manual. Haredi hikers don’t litter deliberately – it’s because they’re unfamiliar with hiking and nature. They don’t always realize what the wind will do to the Bamba snack wrapper. This requires an educational process, and we’re putting a lot of effort into it.”

Outreach efforts

Hagay Dvir is tourism product manager at the Israel Nature and Parks Authority “For the past three years, we’ve been looking at the Haredim as a community we want to reach out to,” he tells Haaretz. “We’ve conducted market research studies in order to understand the community. We found that the INPA doesn’t necessarily have such a positive image in their eyes, or is not identified with sites they feel are suitable for them. This is a population that behaves in a unique way. Institutional tourism is highly developed and very extensive. It is really focused on certain dates – around Sukkot and Passover, and during the summer.

“This is a huge group,” he continues. “Tens of thousands of yeshiva students who spontaneously go out on a hiking adventure in the same week, with minimal planning and preparation. To reach them, we’ve invested in information campaigns with the organizations that run vacations for the yeshivas. We’ve done information campaigns about safety when hiking. We’ve built a specific tourism package that will enable them to get to know the nature sites, to see the biblical sites and ancient synagogues, places connected to Jewish heritage. We’ve improved the overnight campgrounds so they can stay there on Shabbat, and we’ve placed a very strong emphasis on the issue of safety. We’re already seeing a significant improvement.”

An ultra-Orthodox man takes in the view at Tiberias, northern Israel. Credit: Gil Eliahu

Dvir says the Haredim mainly travel in the north because that’s where the Jewish heritage sites are mostly found. They visit holy graves, places like Tzippori and Tel Dan, and are also extremely interested in water attractions.

Other popular attractions include the Tiberias hot springs, Beit She’an, Tel Hatzor, Korazim and Mount Arbel. Based on his awareness of the community, Dvir says that youngsters like to hike, while families with children will look for organized and comfortable picnic sites.

Last year, as part of its outreach efforts, the parks authority sought to conduct a pilot of gender-segregated swimming times at some of the pools at Ein Tzukim, in the northern Dead Sea area. The idea caused a furor and fierce public opposition, for fear it could be the start of a, well, slippery slope. The Justice Ministry recommended that the pilot be suspended. Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg, who has authority over the INPA, said she would adamantly oppose the gender separation initiative – so for now at least, that particular idea is dead in the water.

Members of the ultra-Orthodox community in the Galilean city of Tiberias.Credit: Yaron Kaminsky

Click the alert icon to follow topics:

Comments

SUBSCRIBERS JOIN THE CONVERSATION FASTER

Automatic approval of subscriber comments.

$1 for the first month

SUBSCRIBE
Already signed up? LOG IN

Rep. Henry Cuellar attends a campaign event on Wednesday, in San Antonio, Texas.

AIPAC-backed Dem Declares Victory Against Progressive Challenger in Texas Runoff

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and Atomic Energy Organization of Iran chief Mohammad Eslami at an event for Nuclear Technology Day in Tehran, last month.

Prospects for Reviving Iran Nuclear Deal 'Tenuous' at Best, U.S. Envoy Says

A family grieves outside the SSGT Willie de Leon Civic Center following the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas on Wednesday.

Israeli PM Offers Condolences After Texas Gunman Kills 21 at Elementary School

U.S. President Joe Biden, this week.

Biden Decides to Keep Iran's Revolutionary Guards on Terror List, Says Report

ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt.

Progressive Jews Urge ADL Chief to Apologize for Calling Out Democratic Activist

Democratic Sen. Bernie Sanders with Jessica Cisneros in San Antonio last week.

It’s AIPAC vs. Bernie Sanders in Too-close-to-call Texas Democratic Runoff