Turning Beit She'an From a City With an Attraction to an Attractive City

Group of residents teams up to create small businesses that cater to visitors.

When Bat-Zion Yona hollows out onions to fill with rice and herb,s or rolls up grape leaves and cabbage with the same stuffing, the preparation of the yifrah looks like a work of art. The delicacy is served often in the home of the Yona family, as was the custom in the home of Bat-Zion's parents in Iraq, and upon their arrival in Beit She'an 58 years ago.

Now Bat-Zion's love for cooking and entertaining have become a small business of home-cooked meals for tourists visiting the city, south of Lake Kinneret and just west of the Jordan River. The initiative begun by Bat-Zion and her friend Etti Vilnaamat sounds simple, but in their city it is a trail-blazing step and the hope is that such initiatives and others will add charm to local tourism.

Beit She'an Municipality says that 250,000-300,000 tourists visit the city each year. Most come to the Beit She'an National Park. The site of the vestiges of the ancient city, most of which were discovered in a major excavation operation 20 years ago, it is one of Israel's most impressive archaeological. But at the end of a tour of the area which lasts for about two hours, the visitors return to their cars or buses and continue to a restaurant in Tiberias, Nazareth or one of the kibbutzim in the area. "Unfortunately," says Lior Shimon Blau in disappointment, "we have not turned into a tourism city, but into a city with a tourist attraction." Blau, a Beit She'an resident, works for the Jewish Agency on joint programs with Jewish communities abroad.

Now a group of residents is trying to change the depressing situation. "We hope that we will make use of the huge tourism anchor in the city," dreams Blau. "We aspire to turn Beit She'an into a tourism city, expose this gem to visitors. We also hope that guests who sleep at bread and breakfast establishments in the area or in hotels in Tiberias will come to Beit She'an for a few hours. Until now this anchor, the national park, has been completely wasted and hasn't been exploited."

Etti Vilnaamat, 51, has lived in Beit She'an for 30 years. Employed for many years as a bookkeeper, she always had a strong desire to work in another field. "A few years ago I decided that's that, I've had enough with dreary offices I went to study pastry making," she said. "I finished with honors and went on to study bread baking, together with my husband who is retired from the police."

Later she decided to turn her hobby into a small business. She opened a pastry shop in the backyard of her home, and also gives baking and cooking workshops in schools and volunteers in various initiatives in the city, including a local theater of Ethiopian women. After hosting representatives of Jewish delegations from Cleveland in her home, she decided to expand the business and sell the special food she cooks. A course for tourism entrepreneurs, which was started about a year ago by the Beit She'an Municipality and the Jewish Agency helped her turn professional and develop her small business.

Bat-Zion Yona, 59, was six months old when she arrived in the city with her parents and her four siblings. For 35 years she worked as a physical education teacher in a city high school, retiring four years ago. Today she devotes a significant amount of time to volunteer activity. But when when she enjoyed a meal with a local family during a vacation in Georgia, she realized that she could do the same thing and even better. The enthusiasm of Jews from Cleveland also strengthened the feeling that the time had come to turn her hobby into a small business.

Along with Vilnaamat and Yona, 13 other residents participated in the course, including artists in ceramics, stained glass, painting and paper and the owner of a home winery. During the 14 sessions the group studied various aspects of entrepreneurship and tourism. "Bat-Zion and I thought: 'Why not turn the hospitality into additional income?'" said Vilnaamat. "We love cooking and entertaining, and that also fit in with our desire to show off Beit She'an to visitors...People know nothing about Beit She'an. They know there's an archeological site. Other than that, there are only negative images - crime, misery and failure. Our motivation is for guests to meet the people who live here."

As a final project for the course the members of the group decided to hold a fair for local entrepreneurs and their wares called Skitomarket, which alludes to the ancient name of the city, Scythopolis. The fair, in the ancient stone Saraya building, takes place periodically, and during next week's She'an Nights festival.

Yona serves a selection of Iraqi-Kurdish delicacies, while Vilnaamat combines elements of Egyptian and Persian cuisine in her culinary work. Vilnaamat says that she would be pleased "if additional women join and open their homes. "Many people would be happy to host, but there's a fear of failure, or the women don't know how enthusiastic people can be about their food. And if you can earn some money from it, then great."