By Josh Bernstein
Special to the TJP
If you want to know where your Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas dollars are going and are looking for a super fun and easy family outing next time you travel to Israel, then you must plan a visit to our partnership region in the Western Galilee. Our family was fortunate to have the opportunity in June to travel to Israel for a long-overdue family vacation, and to visit our daughter and son-in-law whom we had not seen since before COVID. Throughout the nearly monthlong trip, we spent half our time in the Jerusalem area and half in the Tel Aviv area. On June 23, we took a break from the beach to travel north up to our partnership region in the Western Galilee, where Noa Friedman-Epstein, the associate director for the Dallas-Western Galilee Partnership, hosted us with unparalleled hospitality.
The idea for this excursion came about when Peta Silansky, the Dallas Jewish Federation’s manager for Israel and Overseas, heard that we were planning a trip to Israel to visit our daughter, and she offered to plan a day of touring for us in our partnership region. Peta asked me a few questions about our family, including how many were in our group, their ages (Shaya, 14, Micah, 17, and Zach, 20), whether we had visited Israel and/or the Western Galilee before (yes to Israel, but no to the Western Galilee), whether we were planning on renting a car (we were not) and, most importantly, what kind of activities our family enjoyed. I explained that our family enjoys outdoor activities and interacting with people with special needs, and that we love visiting breweries when we travel. In addition, I told Peta that our 14-year-old candy-holic daughter would love any sort of candy- or chocolate-related activity. Peta immediately got to work brainstorming with Noa to create an itinerary. About two weeks prior, Noa emailed me a proposed itinerary. Honestly, I couldn’t have created a better lineup myself.
We began our day by taking an early train from the Tel Aviv HaHagana station up to Naharia; it was a smooth and easy ride which lasted about two hours. We texted Noa our arrival time and she warmly greeted us as we exited the train and walked us to our private van and driver, which she had arranged. After a break for coffee, water and snacks, our first stop was the Rosh Hanikra grottos on the Lebanon border, about a 10- to 15-minute ride from the train station. Although the kids were still groggy from waking up early and skeptical about spending the day with their parents, they immediately perked up when they saw the incredible beauty of the scenic overlooks and how the crystal-clear ocean had carved out tunnels and grottos over time.
Our second stop was the Ma’arag Art Center for people with severe physical and mental disabilities, in Kfar Vradim, a beautiful hilltop village about a 15- to 20-minute drive from the grottos. Ma’arag, which literally translates to “tapestry,” is an amazing place where artists and individuals with varied physical and mental disabilities, backgrounds, religions and levels of functioning create and exhibit all kinds of artwork and crafts alongside one another. This nurturing environment is full of love and respect, where everyone is seen as capable, and the staff makes an effort to find their talents and give them purpose. It is located intentionally in the center of town and directly between two elementary schools to promote reverse-integration, a principle whereby the local children and adults are exposed to the disability culture. My wife Jordana and I marveled at this ingenious concept and repeatedly asked ourselves why we don’t have anything like this in our own community. The participants, young and old, Jewish and non-Jewish, lit up when our family walked into their workshops and we told them we were from that far-off land of Texas. They were all eager and proud to show us what they were working on and attempted to communicate with our teens in whatever mixture of Hebrew and English seemed to work. The facility director shared with us that as a nonprofit institution, they rely almost entirely on public and private funding, and although various Israeli Ministries support Ma’arag, they truly rely on every dollar received from the Overseas Partnership in order to sustain their incredible programming. Specifically, the Dallas Partnership2Gether has supported a vocational training program at Ma’arag that provides practical training and essential skills to prepare individuals with disabilities to integrate into the labor market. Following a tour of the facility, we were treated to the most delicious lunch at their café. We couldn’t leave without a visit to the gift shop, where we purchased a matzo plate, some wooden toys and other lovely Judaica items, all hand-crafted and hand-painted by the participants at the center.
Our third stop was Israel’s first craft brewery, Malka Brewery in the hills of Tefen, about a 10- to 15-minute drive from Kfar Vradim. We were given a private tour of the brewery by one of the Malka engineers and team members responsible for making their delicious products. We learned about the beer-making process as well as the story behind Malka’s origination in 2006, and their growth from their humble beginning as a one-man operation to their current location in a state-of-the-art brewery and tap room located in the Migdal Tefen Business Park. We learned that Malka Brewery is a member of the Western Galilee Now Association, a consortium of 60 small businesses, mostly family owned or kibbutzim, oriented toward tourism or employment tourism centers, which our partnership has supported for the last six years. The Malka Brewery is just one example of a success story which has benefited from our help. After the tour, we were treated to unlimited samples of each of their five ice-cold beers. I liked the IPA best, Jordana preferred the Red Ale and our older son loved the blonde ale. Before we headed out, all the kids enjoyed picking out some cool Malka merch, including T-shirts, socks and hats to wear back home.
Our last stop was to Odette Hand Made Chocolates, a tiny chocolate “laboratory” in Regba, about a 15- to 20-minute drive from the brewery, and just outside Naharia, where we met the fascinating and incredible Shlomit Zmir. Shlomit shared her story, and how she retired from the IDF after nearly three decades working as a materials engineer and senior officer supporting and developing the Iron Dome defense system. Shlomit was diagnosed with cancer; she said to herself that if she survived to the five-year milestone, she would move up to a quiet part of the Western Galilee and pursue her passion — chocolate — and the rest is history. We were treated to a hands-on workshop in her tiny lab where the kids were given the opportunity to pour and spread chocolate, make and eat fresh mikupelet (a special flaky chocolate candy unique to Israel), and each of us made our own chocolate bowl, and chocolate candies to fill it up and take home for later. Of course, we “sampled” unlimited quantities of everything Shlomit had in her kitchen throughout the process, as she was incredibly proud to share her creations and really enjoyed seeing the smiles on the kids’ faces, and ours, as we savored each new bite. We learned that mastering the mechanics behind making chocolate is only half the battle, and that starting a new small independent business can often pose even bigger challenges, particularly in a small town in northern Israel. Shlomit explained that she was fortunate to participate in a small business course called BMC — Business Meets Camera — supported by Dallas’ Partnership2Gether, which taught small independent businesses how to use the internet to market themselves in today’s business environment. Thanks to our Federation dollars, Shlomit is on her way to becoming a huge success, again, and is scheduled to open a larger chocolate-making facility nearby this coming year. Judging from her drive and attention to detail and how incredibly delicious her chocolates tasted, none of us had any doubt about Shlomit’s future success in this new endeavor. Shlomit also expressed that she could not wait to visit Dallas to share her chocolate with our community.
At no time throughout our amazing day did anyone ask us to pay for a single thing, or give us a donation pitch or ask us to contribute tzedakah to any cause. On the contrary, as active Federation members, we were treated like kings and queens and really got to spend time with locals who have personally benefited from our Federation dollars and were super-appreciative to be able to share their warmth and hospitality with us. Of course, we happened to be in the market for some beautiful handmade Judaica from Ma’arag, some cool Malka merch from the brewery and some of the most delicious chocolate we have ever tasted. We were sad to say l’hitraot (until we meet again) to Noa and our driver, who dropped us back at the station around 5:30 p.m. Overall, it was a hugely informative, fun and successful day, even for our teenage kids, whom we forced to get up early. Our only regret was that we did not contact Noa and visit this region sooner! Another trip like this will definitely be on our agenda next time we are in Israel, and a visit to the Western Galilee Partnership Region is a must for anyone and everyone, particularly families visiting from DFW.
If you are traveling to Israel and interested in visiting Dallas’ Partnership2Gether region in the Western Galilee, contact Peta Silansky at firstname.lastname@example.org or 214-615-5250.