EDDIE’S KOSHER TRAVEL & INTERNATIONAL YOUNG ISRAEL MOVEMENT (IYIM) at LEONARDO PLAZA, TIBERIAS
By: Yael Ehrenpreis Meyer
Friday, Erev Pesach, 1:00 pm: We pulled up in front of the Leonardo Plaza Hotel in Tiberias with just under six hours till Yom Tov. We tumbled out of the car to be greeted by our hosts, Australian olim Chana & David Walles, and – to the delight of our three-year-old daughter – by two welcoming “Pharaohs.” In true Eddie’s Travel style, the system was so organized that it was only a matter of minutes before our check-in was complete, our baggage delivered to our room – and we on our way to the dining room for our festive welcome lunch. This was definitely the kind of erev Yom Tov I could get used to…
Leil Haseder, 8:00 pm: As if a magic wand had been waved, our five hundred too-hot-and-tired fellow travelers, from Melbourne, Miami, and Modiin, as well as London, LA, New York and Jerusalem, had been transformed in a matter of hours into Pesach princes and princesses, complete with elegant hats, pooffy dresses, and stiff white shirts. It is no easy matter to create a hotel seder that looks and feels like home – but as we entered the dining room I beheld tables where every Zeida and Abba would be proud to conduct seder for his children and grandchildren. We were right in the middle of it all: From our table’s vantage point we could enjoy not only our own seder but also the frog-throwing and wild- animal-impersonations on one side, the Mah Nishtana cheering on the other side, and the enthusiastic standing-on-their-chairs singers right beyond them.
Shabbat, 10:30 am: A beautiful tefillah was taking place inside the shul, with Chazan Aron Walles leading the first of what would be eight days of beautiful davening. Just a few feet away, in the hotel’s charmingly outfitted Kids’ Club, another beautiful tefillah was taking place, as the staff of seminary-students-turned-madrichot led a circle of three- to seven-year-olds in their first Yom Tov shacharis. As the scholar-in-residence, Rabbi David Gottlieb then began his morning shiur inside, the kids at tefillat yeladim left the hotel for a guided “Adventure Walk.” Although neither child nor counselor, I joined my daughter on the expedition – and was pleasantly surprised to discover we were just a two-minute walk to the Kinneret promenade!
Motzei Shabbat, 8:30 pm: It’s hard to believe that the whole “first days” are over – even after ten years, keeping only one day of yom tov still seems strange. Well, that one day has been wonderful – and now, it’s time for our first evening entertainment! Lenny Solomon, founder of Shlock Rock – which, like Eddie’s Travel itself, is celebrating a 25th anniversary – who has joined us for the entire week, is starting off a week-long music fest with a “kids kumzits.” In the atmospheric semi-darkness, the youngest Pesach participants (and lots of the not-as-young) sing, clap and dance to Shlock Rock favorites.
Sunday, 11:00 am: I could get used to mornings like this... Daniel set off on the long “trek” all the way downstairs to morning minyan, while Etelle and I finished reading Dr. Seuss out on balcony overlooking the sea. The three of us then headed down for our three-course breakfast (matzah with scrambled eggs; fruit and honey; coffee and cheesecake) while discussing the pressing matter of the day: How to spend our first day of chol hamo’ed. We could join the first of the week’s tiyulim: fruit picking on behalf of the food relief agency Leket, head down to the beach, walk over to the Rambam Heritage Center… The list was nearly endless. We continue to ponder the many possibilities of what we “could be” doing… while splashing around with our little girl at the shallow end of the pool. A good choice.
Monday, 8:00 pm: Another great day. A busload of families had left for kayaking and other adventures, while we enjoyed swim time followed by lunch on the veranda overlooking the pool, where the Eddie’s Travel tent offered all-day snacks. We timed our visit to the “tea tent” for 3:00, when a complimentary lunch was served daily. Then we headed downstairs for the International Young Israel (IYIM) Hachnasat Sefer Torah. IYIM runs a Redeem-a-Sefer-Torah project, in which supporters from around the world can sponsor the repair of a no-longer-in use Sefer Torah and its donation to the IDF. Tonight, we would be celebrating the contribution of a Torah by our hosts, Eddie and Chana Walles, to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Eddie’s Travel – including 25 years of Pesach programs right here in the Tiberias Leonardo Plaza. It was an emotional moment as IYIM President Cees Harrishburg described the joy our soldiers express upon receiving a Torah for their base, and how this very Torah would be given a home at the Iron Dome base, which just the week before had protected the Jews of southern Israel from the latest rocket barrage. The lively dancing that followed came to a climax with the sudden entrance into the hall of the largest, widest, tallest, gigantic-est, Rabbi Nachman of Breslov! The black-and-white giant danced, cartwheeled, and bopped to the music as everyone joined in to celebrate.
Tuesday, 4:00 pm: It was “face painting” time at the Kids’ Club, and my daughter couldn’t wait. Sporting colorful stars on her cheeks, she was sitting down to do arts and crafts, when she turned to me with an urgent question: “Ima, what show will we see tonight?”
8:00 pm: Etelle needn’t have worried. We were now seated on the floor of the lobby salon, surrounded by other kids and kid-wannabees, as Lenny Solomon launched an hour of “Shlock Rock for Kids.” Our exhausted dancer then curled up in her stroller, leaving her father and I free to head down with our now sleeping toddler to our own show. It was “Comedy Central” night, with comedians Mark Schiff of LA (who performs with Jerry Seinfeld) and Yossi Fachler of London – a line-up that ensured the packed hall was laughing non-stop.
11:00 pm: Our night is still not over! This isn’t in the schedule, but by popular demand, Lenny had promised a night of Billy Joel, accompanying himself on the hotel piano. I look around at all of us seated on chairs and couches and floors around the piano, and am struck again by the genuine camaraderie that has developed among all of us – Americans, Australians, South Africans and Brits, visitors to and residents of Israel – over Yom Tov. I had never thought of a hotel experience as particularly “homey,” but here I find myself bidding “good morning” to our fellow seventh-floor residents, comparing notes with parents at the Kids Club, and schmoozing with strangers in the elevators (especially when it is that long journey up on the Shabbat elevator!). I hadn’t known anyone when we arrived but I feel like I am singing “Piano Man” amongst friends.
Wednesday, 9:30 am: This program is just so incredibly organized. Every morning, the bulletin boards have been updated with the day’s family, child, and teen program schedules, a schedule which accounts for both the spiritual – Daf Yomi, daily shiurim – and the physical (should I go to the gym or try out today’s “Zumba for Women”??), while also ensuring that children of all ages are entertained round the clock. I credit the Eddie’s Travel team with keeping things running so smoothly. The rabbi, counselors, entertainers, even the hotel’s housekeeping and dining room staff, are always smiling, eager to help, and willing to go the extra mile to maximize the quality of our experience.
Thursday, 2:30 pm: Here we are, “erev” a two-day Yom Tov (quite the novelty for us Anglo-Israelis!), and where am I? Sailing the deep blue seas. Literally. Today’s group activity, a Kinneret cruise, is one that every hotel guest, from the oldest to youngest, can enjoy!
9:00 pm: The sea is certainly the theme of the day. Our holiday dinner is over and dozens of us head down the short path to the tayelet, the Kinneret promenade, for the annual Shirat Hayam ceremony. The setting: dozens of men, women and children, standing together in the semi-darkness, looking out at the water, as Rabbi Gottlieb begins to recite the pesukim of Az Yashir aloud. Completion of this recital is followed by a spontaneous outburst of song and dance under the moonlit sky. And then – as if having heard our Song of the Sea – the ocean itself bursts into song: the city’s nightly Light Show, an extravaganza of surging water, color and light, had begun.
Friday, 12:00 pm:
“I want to live in our hotel house,” announces my three-year-old. “They have very nice things here – the pool, the Kids Club, the hot dogs, the concerts…” She continues to apprise me of the many advantages of retaining residency at the Leonardo as we head downstairs to play. Daniel, meanwhile, has just gone into shul for Rabbi Gottlieb’s main lecture of the day, "From Pharaoh to Bin Laden - Should We Celebrate the Death of Our Enemies?" Certainly, one of the highlights of the program has been the in-depth halachic and hashkafic shiurim given by the program’s Scholar-in-Residence, Harav David Gottleib, former Rav of Congregation Shomrei Emunah in Baltimore, and now of Ramat Beit Shemesh. Rabbi Gottleib’s dynamic and well-attended presentations developed a range of halachic sources that elucidated key questions of the holiday. With topics ranging from inyani d’yoma of Pesach to discussions of whether victory over our enemies is to be celebrated or Kriyah torn at the Kotel, each shiur became “food for thought” and discussion throughout each day.
Shabbat, 9:30 am: Can this really be our last day? Happily, even for us Israelis, there is an Acharon Shel Pesach this year, so we get to enjoy one extra day of our incredible vacation. The three of us head to the dining room for Kiddush – and one more round of matzah latkes and cheesecake. Then it’s back to davening, with mussaf in the main shul, and tefillat yeladim for the junior set, as we all try to remember not to say ya’aleh vayavo anymore, much as it still feels like Pesach.
12:00: Davening may be over, but no one is getting up to leave shul. Everyone has read the schedule and so is eagerly awaiting the special lecture: "Presidents and Prime Ministers," a verbatim account of critical encounters between past U.S. presidents and Israeli premiers. The crowd is soon joined by our speaker, British-born Yehuda Avner, former Israeli ambassador to Britain, Ireland, and Australia, and he is truly a delight to listen to. We’re now all determined to immediately begin reading his book. Meanwhile, though, we have lots to do this afternoon – eat lunch, join the guided walking tour of Tiberias, eat an afternoon snack at the tea room, attend an afternoon shiur, eat seudah shlishit…
7:40 pm: And before we know it, our last day is over. Everyone gathers in the shul for havdalah. I look around – there’s the family from the next room, that’s the woman who gave my daughter a snack, he’s Daniel’s old friend from Australia, there’s that cute kid Etelle made friends with… In just over a week’s time, we’ve morphed from hundreds of strangers from the four corners of the world into one large family here in Tiberias. And what a wonderful Pesach this family has celebrated together! Wow. Yes, it’s finally time to head upstairs and pack – with a brief break for the “Mimouna” chametz party – but I’m already counting down the days until next year…
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