Beverly Nathan and Merle Baumberg, front, enjoy a camel ride in Israel.

Dream trip to Israel complicated by coronavirus pandemic

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Dream trip to Israel complicated by coronavirus pandemic

Beverly Nathan and Merle Baumberg, front, enjoy a camel ride in Israel.

Tel Aviv’s Ben-Gurion Airport has been the site of quite a few rescue missions, and last month, a group of 34 travelers from the North Shore and Florida were part of another one. As the coronavirus pandemic gripped the world and Israel began mandatory quarantines of all international arrivals, the group left their whirlwind tour of the country two days early, arrived at an airport jam-packed with travelers trying to catch the last flights out, and boarded a last-minute flight to New York.

Now that everyone’s back safe and sound, they choose not to focus on the chaos the pandemic caused in the trip’s last few days. Instead, travelers are full of ebullient praise for Taste of Israel trip organizers Rachel Jacobson, Talya Paul, and Gate 1 tour guide Noam Savion. “I thought it was wonderful,” said Michele Soep of Peabody. “It was a fabulous trip – the people were super, there were a lot of laughs, and we went to some amazing places. People say that going to Israel is life-changing, and they’re absolutely right.”

The trip, which Jacobson has led each March for the past three years, left Boston for Tel Aviv on March 5. In that antediluvian time before the full-on pandemic, attendees reported feeling concerned about traveling abroad, but not enough to cancel. “I was a little bit concerned, but I felt that if the travel agency was okay with us going, then I was absolutely okay with it as well,” said Dawn Sudenfield of Salem. “Who ever dreamed it would turn out that way? We were just being cautiously optimistic.”

But they went, and for the first few days, the carefully choreographed trip was off to a roaring start. The group crisscrossed the country, getting a private tour of the Dead Sea Scrolls, floating in the Dead Sea, hiking Masada, riding camels, touring archaeological digs, wandering the Old City, and even celebrating a group bat mitzvah ceremony at the Kotel. Attendees praised Jacobson, Paul, and Savion for not only planning a great itinerary, but also for making sure that everyone stayed safe as the pandemic grew increasingly serious. They was given hand sanitizers and face masks, and Savion arranged the trip so that the group could avoid large crowds. The group mostly avoided shops, and were able to maintain distance from each other through headset devices that allowed them to listen to Savion. “You could say he invented social distancing,” said Debby Brooks of Marblehead.

Just as the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic and the entire world began to shut down, an elderly member of the group fell ill and had to be taken to the hospital. Their Tiberias hotel was concerned that he had the coronavirus and they had all been exposed to it. They were put into quarantine and forbidden to leave their hotel rooms until it was determined the man tested negative. If he did, they could leave. If not, everyone worried if they’d be able to make it home.

For 20 hours, everyone was confined to their rooms, and meals were delivered by hotel staff. People sat around, watched TV, texted each other for updates on the group Whatsapp thread, and occasionally snuck out into the hall for a dance party. “I was not in great shape, but the support around me was just amazing,” said Sudenfield. “We really all got each other through.”   

Thankfully the man tested negative, and the group was released from quarantine right before that hotel, like many in Israel and all over the world, shut down entirely. “We knew that we had to make a decision,” said Jacobson. “We started hearing that airports are closing, and less and less airlines are flying, and El Al was planning to stop their flights.”

The tour leaders asked people who wanted to go home early, and 11 people said they did. Using that unique Israeli blend of savvy and chutzpah, the trip leaders worked with the tour company to find a direct flight for everyone back to New York right before Ben-Gurion greatly reduced departing and arriving flights.

“We hit the lottery when it comes to leaders,” said Brooks. “We were in the best of hands.”

2 Responses

  1. Fabulous article. Thank you very much.
    It was a great trip. Memories we will remember as a gift.
    Thank you Rachel, Talya, Gate1 and a shout out to our Guide Noam and our driver Kobi
    P..S it was a Blessing to be Bat mitvah and to share this special trip with part of our family.

  2. Rachel Jacobson, the one and only organizer of groups for the Holy Land, does everything from love and concern to everyone, and is worth joining such an exciting journey.

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