A bearded man in black clothes walked though a stream, filled with the vacationers of mid-August, in the northern part of the country. As the water gushed over slippery pebbles, he made his way with a confident stride. On his chest was a carrier from which an infant's head peeked out. From time to time one of his other small children climbed onto his shoulder and jumped into the water. His wife, her head wrapped in a scarf, also carried a toddler and a large bag in her hands. Along the way she sang and recited poems to him. When they arrived at a little pool, along with other hikers, they stopped for a break.
"We've come here from Tiberias and we don't have a GPS," the woman related, smiling, adding that her family was renting an apartment in the town, from which they went on outings in the area. "I got pretty confused on the way," she continued, explaining that after coming across another ultra-Orthodox family at one point, they had followed them to the water hole. To their great surprise, they found many such families en route, the woman said. Hasidic garb was carefully folded up on the banks above the stream, while hats were passed carefully from hand to hand until a safe place was found for them on tree branches high above the water.
During the course of a few days' vacation in the northern Galilee and the Golan Heights earlier this month, secular people were conspicuous by their near-total absence among the masses of ultra-Orthodox and national religious daytrippers. For their part, the Haredi families who inundated the nature reserves and recreation sites en masse, and filled local hotels and attractions, are a sign of a new and expanding movement. The evident enthusiasm of the adults as well as the children when hiking in the open air despite the tremendous heat - after spending virtually all of the year within the four walls of the beit midrash (study house ) and in crowded neighborhoods back home - was plain to see. Indeed, in recent years, the ben hazmanim period - the three weeks of break from the yeshivas and the kollelim (yeshivas for married men ), from the day after Tisha B'Av to the first day of the month of Elul - has become a kind of ultra-Orthodox vacances, as the French call their near-universal August vacation.
"If in the past the ultra-Orthodox went on vacations mainly in the guise of visits to therapeutic mineral baths or holy sites," says Riki Shushan, an ultra-Orthodox journalist for the weekly Sha'ah Tova, "today there is no need to disguise the fact that they are going on holiday."
A new study, conducted at the University of Haifa Center for Tourism, Pilgrimage and Recreation Research, characterized the various types of ultra-Orthodox family vacations in Israel according to the vacationers' socioeconomic status. At the bottom are yeshiva students, who cannot afford all the trappings of a proper holiday, and tend to swap apartments with other ultra-Orthodox.
"The idea is for them to get a change of atmosphere," says Dr. Lee Kahaner of the university's geography department, who conducted the study together with his colleague Prof. Yoel Mansfeld. "In Jerusalem they enjoy the weather and the proximity to the Western Wall. In Haifa and Ashdod they enjoy the possibility of going to the beach every day. This is an inexpensive vacation that includes savings on the cost of food, which they bring from home, and on expenses of travel, by public transport or in chartered buses."
There are gemahim (free-loan societies ) and other agencies that arrange apartment swaps for Haredim. Some families spend a very small amount of money to sleep in empty yeshivas, which ultra-Orthodox entrepreneurs have made into improvised vacation lodgings. From there the families go on excursions or enjoy nearby attractions. Lawns that provide a sense of space, inflatable toys for the children and lectures for the adults seem to suffice.
"Children who live in the area of Geula [a neighborhood in Jerusalem], where can they ride a bike?" asks Shushan. "It is enough for them to see cows, to ride a donkey - this is an attraction."
One step up are those who pay for accommodations in bed and breakfasts or hotels, each family according to its means. Thus, for example, in one of the Golan communities Haredi children were seen riding bicycles a week ago with obvious delight. They never left the place during their entire vacation.
A certain proportion of the ultra-Orthodox public that can afford to, do travel abroad on organized vacations to hotels that have become popular religious destinations, with strict kosher lamehadrin certification and the like.
Yael Klinger, a mother of five from Betar Ilit, who works as the public relations director for the United Hatzalah emergency medical services organization, relates that at her place of work there isn't single employee who does not take a few days in the north with the family. The same holds for other people in her immediate community. Her family recently spent a week at a hotel in Tiberias that, she relates, was adapted during the ben hazminim period to cater to the needs of the ultra-Orthodox guests.
"The hotel was bursting," she relates. "Hasidim, Lithuanians [non-Hasidic ultra-Orthodox], Mizrahim. Everyone."
Klinger says the reason for choosing a hotel that is adapted to her lifestyle is connected to the nature of the vacation. "When I go away with my husband, the ultra-Orthodox atmosphere is less important to me," she says, "but when I go with the family [stricter conditions are] obligatory. I don't want to worry about kashrut, and I don't want to open cans or to cook. At the hotel we went to, I knew I'd have two glatt kosher meals a day."
Separate swimming at the pool is also a consideration. "I wouldn't go to a hotel where there is mixed swimming," she says, "because then my older children wouldn't be able to enjoy the water."
For her part, Kahaner relates that at the hotels and other sites catering to organized groups of Haredi vacationers, rabbinical supervision and observance of rules regarding modesty are mehadrin min hamehadrin - according to the strictest standards.
Klinger relates that a friend of hers complained, upon arriving at the same Tiberias hotel, that it was "just like Bnei Brak," referring to the ultra-Orthodox city in the center of the country. But she herself was not bothered by the super-strict religious standards. The hotel where they stayed had two pools, she says, one outdoors and one indoors; on one day the women use the outdoor pool and the men use the indoor pool and the next day - vice versa. To be sure that the swimmers of different sexes would not see each other, both pools were well enclosed with thick sheets of canvas; the outdoor pool was also covered with a kind of pergola so that no stranger's eye could - heaven forfend - see forbidden sights.
As compared to the strict supervision at such sites, out in nature, where some religious families hiked recently, there seemed to be a more tolerant atmosphere: In the narrow streams no one got upset that some of the secular women and girls were in bathing suits. Although some vacationers brought along loaded coolers, Klinger reports that nowadays there is no problem finding glatt-kosher restaurants. For example, many have opened in recent years in popular places like Tiberias, Eilat and even at the Tel Aviv Port.
Klinger notes that in general, the number of recreational sites for the religious crowd is increasing steadily - "places you'd never imagine, like a fancy spa at a nonreligious locale that is suddenly offering a strictly kosher meal, and massages by men for men and by women for women. The owners of the facilities have learned the 'terminology.' It's a completely economic thing."
According to her, the increasing demand among religious people to take vacations derives from exposure to the media: "The ultra-Orthodox are on the Internet. They are exposed to and they look for sites like everyone else. This public knows that the Holy One, Blessed be He, gave us the world to enjoy it. And there is a period in life that is devoted to family. From the religious perspective there is no problem with going away." However, she adds, "the fanatics, the conservatives, will go to Meron or to Safed" - sites with particular religious significance.
Shushan says that if in the past it was customary only for certain leading rabbinical figures and wealthier religious people to go on vacation, now it has become much more of a popular thing. "The population has grown, the economic situation is improving, there are more vehicles," she says. "Anyone who doesn't have one, hires transport or obtains private cars. They find a way."
She tells of families who opt for rural getaways, "renting three or four rooms for the whole extended family, next to a pool. And they even kosher the kitchens themselves ... This is a time to relax. People who usually wear long suits will go around in T-shirts and will trade their hat for a cap or cowboy hat. Young people go around in a bathing suit. The atmosphere is more sporty." She notes that for families whose boys are not at home during the week because they learn in yeshivas, it's also an opportunity for enjoying quality family time.
Such relaxation and recreation is accompanied, however, by safety concerns voiced by the media: Yeshiva boys have traditionally gone out to "conquer" destinations like the Judean desert during their summer vacation. In recent years they have also been hiking the Israel Trail. This year, relates Shushan, a group of yeshiva boys organized the first trip of its kind to Jordan.
In the wake of disasters that befell such groups in previous years - drownings in streams and dehydration in the desert - the ultra-Orthodox press now publishes safety rules before and during the vacation period.
"Yeshiva boys look for adventure just like any other boys of their age but they are not aware of the dangers," explains Shushan. "They don't know what wadis are, what it means to walk in a streambed. A secular guy reads newspapers, he even watches 'Survivor.' He knows what nature is and how to survive. He was in the army. Now [religious] families have started to go out with small children, too, real babies. Therefore, detailed safety rules are printed in their newspapers - like the importance of taking drinking water and a head covering. To let people know you've gone out, to walk on a proper path. To take flashlights. A lot of practical information."
'Loosening of constraints'
Sociologist Oz Almog, from the University of Haifa, who in recent years has been researching the ultra-Orthodox population, says that some of the activities of the vacationing families is a natural development of the trips yeshiva boys have been taking for years: "Those young men have now created families and are taking them on outings. It's not by chance that the rabbis are very disturbed [about this growing trend] - it's gotten completely out of their control."
Almog notes that the trend among ultra-Orthodox to go on vacation indicates that "the sector is a lot less poor than is depicted." According to him, it reflects "the loosening of the rabbinical restraints. It's a distancing from the supervisory center, from the scrutinizing eye."
Such outings are naturally accompanied by excess, Almog adds: "When Israelis started having cars, they started showing up everywhere, even with their barbecues. At that time there were jokes about people fanning the barbecues on every strip of lawn, even traffic islands. Today, the ultra-Orthodox are the ones who are 'excelling' at this. When the 'all-included' vacation packages to Turkey began, the Israeli piled food on his plate. Among the ultra-Orthodox, vacations and recreation have received legitimization so they are taking it all by storm. It's the lust of people who are discovering life outside the shtiebel [neighborhood synagogue]. They will close the gaps very quickly."
According to Almog, the most significant facet of the religious vacation trend is the "strengthening of the link" between people's ultra-Orthodox identity and their Israeli identity. "When we were children we'd go on trips even as an educational matter, to acquire love of the land. It was the ideology of the youth movements."
While he doesn't see any specific ideology that characterizes this ultra-Orthodox trend, Almog says something is nonetheless changing in this society.
"The ultra-Orthodox agenda in the past was anti-Zionist," he says. "But when you travel around the country you see flourishing locales, properly maintained parks - you meet the beautiful Israel. Both the natural and the human landscape. This diminishes the demonic image of the Zionists and the secular, and brings the new generation of ultra-Orthodox closer to their Israeliness, to identification with the state. When your feet step in the crannies of this land and walk through streambeds, you acquire a feeling of belonging. Thus, by means of the vacations and the outings, their connection to the state is being created."