Making holiness accessible

Israeli nonprofit offers wheelchair users a chance to visit Jerusalem’s Old City before Yom Kippur

With specially equipped vans and trained tour guides, the medical charity Yad Sarah brings 18 people to the Western Wall for a Selichot tour

Chava Mizrachi, 72, has a passion for travel and, together with her friend Shoshi Zanker — both of whom use wheelchairs — has traveled far and wide on private group tours for people with disabilities to Dubai, and Holland, to the fjords of Norway, to Greece and France.

But it had been 30 years since she had been able to make the short trip from her home in Rishon LeZion to the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem because of the logistical complications of transportation and parking that it would involve, even with the assistance of her children.

But after three decades, Mizrachi was able to do just that, going to the holy site, along with her friend Zanker, as part of an annual Selichot tour run by Israel’s Yad Sarah charity just before Yom Kippur. In the period preceding Yom Kippur, Selichot, a set of penitential and supplicant prayers, are recited before dawn, offering the opportunity to see the Old City of Jerusalem buzzing with spiritual life from sundown to the predawn hours of the morning.

Arriving to the Western Wall courtyard in the early hours of the evening just before the crowds, Mizrachi, who was raised in a religiously observant home, did not expect the rush of emotions that overcame her when women made way for her so she could reach the Western Wall, touch the ancient stones and say a quiet prayer among the crowds of women.

“It has been so many years since I have been at this place,” she told eJewishPhilanthropy afterwards, wiping away tears. “And something about being here, now for Selichot, really touched me. I did not expect that.”

The Selichot tour is one of several specially organized trips provided by Yad Sarah through its Nechonit service, which offers transportation to wheelchair users and others who require special accommodations. (The name is a Hebrew portmanteau of neche, meaning disabled, and car, mechonit.) Each year, the Nechnoit program’s volunteer drivers offer more than 23,000 door-to-door rides for any individual, including tourists, with disabilities to anywhere in Israel. Mizrachi said she is a frequent client of the service for help getting to medical appointments, to and from the airport and other destinations.

In 2016, Yad Sarah launched its Mangishei Derech initiative (“making the way accessible,” in Hebrew) that sought to bring more travel opportunities to wheelchair users in coordination with volunteer tour guides. Since it launched — with a temporary hiatus during the COVID-19 pandemic — Mangishei Derech has run over 30 tours, not only to the Old City but other popular tourist destinations in Israel.

“Yad Sarah’s organized Nechonit trips are a way for us to provide access to meaningful experiences and connect people facing similar challenges, creating an environment of inclusion, unity, and dignity,” Moshe Cohen, Yad Sarah CEO, said in a statement. “Particularly during the High Holy Days, all individuals should have access to the sites and experiences related to the holiest time in the Jewish calendar. We believe accessibility goes beyond what is necessary and is about creating equal opportunities in all areas of life, whether it’s transportation to the spiritual wonders of Selichot in Jerusalem, a doctor’s appointment, or the beach.”

Vans used by the Yad Sarah medical charity for a tour of the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City on Sept. 21, 2023. (Courtesy/Yad Sarah)

The Selichot tour has been a yearly offering of Mangishey Derech since it was initiated in 2016 by volunteer tour guides, but this was the first one since the COVID-19 pandemic, said Yaron Aviv, Yad Sarah’s national coordinator of volunteer drivers.

For the tour guides, preparing trips for the disabled travelers involves careful planning and organizing to make sure the facilities at the locations are accessible, noted volunteer tour guide Gilat Carmi Shiloh.

“Sometimes what a site considers ‘accessible’ is not the same ‘accessible’ we need,” she said.

For example, she said, while a site may have an elevator it may only be able to accommodate one wheelchair at a time, which would make it time consuming to transport all the participants. Many places do not have accessible bathrooms, she added. Nevertheless, they have been able to organize tours to places such as Megiddo, the Qumran Caves, Masada, Ein Gedi, Tel Aviv and Caesarea.

“There are people on our tours who otherwise would only get out of the house to go to medical appointments,” said Shiloh. “These trips are like a breath of fresh air for them. It is really a great joy to be able to do this despite the complexity.”

The 150 Yad Sarah volunteer drivers are carefully vetted and go through rigorous training and testing before they begin to drive one of the 16 wheelchair-accessible vans, said Aviv.

One of the main difficulties for Yad Sarah drivers is actually their encounter with Israeli drivers on the road, noted volunteer driver Ze’ev Moshkowitz. Notorious for their fast and furious style of driving, many Israeli drivers don’t have patience for a van driven at — and not above — the speed limit, or for vehicles that sometimes must block a road to get passengers on or off the van, he said.

“I am a different driver when I am driving for Yad Sarah,” Moshkowitz said. “I make a switch and just ignore all the people who are getting impatient. I can’t drive fast with my passengers, and I need to take the time to properly get them on and off.”

Founded in 1976, Yad Sarah has 123 branches throughout Israel staffed by more than 7,000 volunteers providing a variety of health and home care services. Although the organization is best known for its nationwide medical equipment lending service, its volunteers also drive its wheelchair accessible vans, reach out to people who are substantially confined to their homes, to advocate for Israel’s elderly population that is at risk for abuse, provide in-home geriatric dental care and staff its play center. Yad Sarah serves over 1.2 million Israelis of all ages annually, according to the organization.

Thursday night’s Selichot tour began at the Haas Promenade in Jerusalem’s Armon HaNatziv  neighborhood, overlooking the Temple Mount, where Shiloh’s talk about the city’s history was interspersed with poetry reading and singing. From there, the 18 participants — who came from cities across the country — headed to the Old City of Jerusalem and the Western Wall.

Idit Hib and her mother Leah Hib stand on the Haas Promenade overlooking the Old City of Jerusalem on Sept. 21, 2023. (Courtesy/Idit Hib)

For Idit Hib from Ramat Gan, and her mother Leah Hib, 75, who had a brain aneurysm five years ago and lives in a nursing home, it was the first time going on a Selichot tour.

“Without Yad Sarah and this program we would not be able to do this for my mother. They think it through to the tiniest details, from the safety belts in the vans to the places they visit,” said Idit. “We don’t have a car that can take a wheelchair and moving her in a regular car is very difficult. These tours are an opportunity for my mother to get out of the nursing home and not only see different sites, but also meet with other people who, like her, are in wheelchairs.”

For Rahel Feldman, 82, a former educator, the Selichot trip came just shortly after spending four months in rehabilitation following a leg amputation. A lover of travel and nature, Feldman said she had been a devoted participant in nature tours given by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel as well as traveling abroad on her own.

“I have climbed Machu Picchu and I have trekked; I have seen blossoms in the field in Israel. I have gone to cities abroad. There is not one place in Israel that I have not visited. Today I can’t say that I have missed out on seeing things I wanted to see,” she said. “These trips with Yad Sarah give me back a small bit of the memory of what it was like to travel. I loved coming to the Western Wall on the eve of Yom Kippur when I could walk. So being here during Selichot, to be able to listen to the blowing of the shofar near the Kotel is a celebration. It is like receiving ol malchut shamayim [the duty to serve God].”