Asked if she would take another group of seniors to Israel, Toby Ehrlich declared, “Absolutely —though not just yet!”
Ehrlich, corporate marketing director for the the Oscar and Ella Wilf Campus for Senior Living in Somerset, was one of nine staff members who led an eight-day trip to Israel in early November.
They accompanied 12 residents from the campus’s Martin and Edith Stein Assisted Living Residence and the Lena and David T. Wilentz Senior Residence.
Accompanied by a physician, a registered nurse, and health aides, the seniors visited Yad Vashem, Masada, Ein Gedi, and many other sites.
They arrived back in New Jersey just before the conflict with Gaza erupted.
The travelers ranged in age from 63 to 97. Staying first at a hotel on Kibbutz Kfar Blum in the Upper Galilee, and then at the Inbal Hotel in Jerusalem, the group did much of what younger tourists do. Yad Sarah, an Israeli organization that assists the elderly and disabled, provided walkers and wheelchairs when needed.
“Everyone chipped in to help the residents, and there were no major problems, thank goodness,” said Ehrlich.
The high point, Ehrlich said, might have been their visit to the Kotel in Jerusalem. Able to park their bus close by, the participants had a chance to place prayer notes between the storied stones, including ones written by fellow residents of Wilf during a craft project carried out weeks before their departure. “The Wall looked just like the one we created with boxes” on the campus, Ehrlich said.
Learning that they were one of the oldest groups to visit the desert fortress at Masada, a videographer for the national park asked if he could film them. It was cooler than usual on top of the plateau, but very windy, making it hard for some to walk around, but Ehrlich said it was still one of the most thrilling stops.
Holocaust survivor Inge Markowicz, 83, said it was her first time in Israel. “I loved the trip,” she said. “It was fantastic — an experience I never thought I would have. The staff worked very hard. It’s a blessing that we could all go.”
Jacob Weinglass, 92, also a survivor, hadn’t been to Israel since 1961. He was astounded by the greenery and all the paved roads. The group met up with his grandson who lives in Israel, and — for the first time — Weinglass got to see his great-grandson. Another great satisfaction, he said, was being able to add his family’s names — as Markowicz did for hers — to the list of Holocaust victims and survivors at Yad Vashem.
Ellen Kabot, a writer and former teacher in her 60s, was one of the youngest residents on the Israel trip. “It really is unlike anywhere else in the world,” she said. A favorite moment? Bobbing in the Dead Sea.
One of the highlights turned out to be a get-together with folks from home: The group shared a Havdala celebration with a group from New Brunswick, led by Rabbi Bennett Miller, senior rabbi of Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple and newly appointed chair of ARZA, the Zionist arm of the Reform movement.
Wilf Campus CEO Susan Harris, one of the staff members on the trip, described the trip as “the dream of a lifetime for seniors who never thought they could still set foot in the Land of Israel. It provides promise for the future, and renewed hope — promise to make it happen again, and hope that it actually can.”
She recalled a resident touching the Kotel, almost in disbelief that she was there. “That said it all,” Harris said. “We fulfilled the promise and have lived our mission in a way that makes the impossible possible.”
Subsidies from The Foundation of the Wilf Campus for Senior Living allowed participants to pay only $1,000 each for the journey. Stein Residence executive director Anna Simmons said that the risky decision paid off. “What could be more meaningful or relevant than to be in a place where history continues to be made daily?” she asked.
It also had enormous benefits for those who stayed behind. “Others who physically couldn’t make the trip were caught up in the excitement,” Simmons said. “They watched and waited for daily updates and to see us on Skype.”