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Missions Are Not Just for Kids: Elderly Go to Israel, Breaking Mold

March 15, 2004
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Walkers and wheelchairs rumble over the uneven stone alleyways as nursing home residents from New York make their way through Jerusalem’s Old City, stopping to gaze, posing with giggling schoolgirls, and sometimes weeping.

Most of these visitors touring Jerusalem — on a weeklong trip — are in their 80s and 90s. For some, it is their first trip to Israel. But for all it is likely to be their last, and they can’t believe their luck at getting here this time.

All residents of the Hebrew Home for the Aged at Riverdale in the Bronx, the group of 10 came to the Jewish state last week for what organizers dubbed the “Chutzpa Mission.” The chutzpah members were accompanied by a doctor and a team of nurses and orderlies.

In addition to touring Jerusalem, the group is floating in the Dead Sea, taking a cable car to Masada and exploring the Golan Heights and the Galilee.

Arthur Rosenberg, 82, looks up from his wheelchair at the rebuilt stone archway of the 19th-century Hurva Synagogue in Jerusalem, which was destroyed by the Jordanians in 1948. He asks to have his photo taken in front of it. This is his second trip to Israel.

“It’s something I never thought I’d be able to do again. It’s a miracle I was chosen to come,” said Rosenberg, a World War II veteran who fought in the South Pacific and who worked in a “million things” during his working days, from bellhop to sales rep to businessman.

Setting off in his wheelchair toward the Western Wall, he clutches an envelope full of notes from grandchildren and other relatives to wedge between the stones at the holy site.

The steady hand pushing his wheelchair and sharing his enthusiasm is Kofi Ankomah, an immigrant from Ghana who works at the Hebrew Home as a nurse’s aide.

Walking alongside the residents is a beaming Daniel Reingold, the executive vice president of the senior home and the driving force behind the trip.

“Why shouldn’t 90-year-olds live their lives? It’s all about the possibilities of aging,” he said.

Reingold was first struck with the idea, he said, during a Rosh Hashanah sermon this past fall by his rabbi urging community members to travel to Israel.

He said he hopes the trip will send a message to younger Diaspora Jews who, like other tourists, have stayed away from Israel during the last three years of intifada. If these elderly residents can make the trip, they have no excuse not to, Reingold said.

Reingold is the first to admit it was not easy to take on the logistical challenge of bringing a group of elderly people 6,000 miles across the world.

Planning was meticulous: His staff met weekly for more than two months to prepare for all possible scenarios and contingencies. They decided what medicine to bring, how many walkers to pack, what criteria to establish in order to determine who was physically able to make the trip.

Every last detail was thought through. Aisle seats on the plane were booked for residents to ensure speedy access to toilets. Staff members walked with them every hour to help avoid the development of thrombosis. Arrangements were made with Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem to accommodate any emergencies. Special salt-free, low-spice menus were arranged.

Wheelchair access was checked into, arrangements were made with police and other authorities to bring the group’s mini-bus as close as possible to sites — in the case of the Western Wall, they were dropped off at its plaza, about 50 feet away from the Kotel itself. Organizers even made sure that the box of candies distributed on the bus was sugar-free.

The cost some $1,800 per person was covered by the Hebrew Home’s board and a local fund-raising drive. Most of the residents there live off of retirement funds and social security and would not have been able to afford the trip otherwise.

Reingold hopes this trip can be used as a model for other nursing home officials who might want to take their residents on long-distance trips.

The excitement surrounding the trip began long before the group took off from New York. The 2,500 or so residents that remained behind joined in symbolically by tucking notes inside a mock-up version of the Western Wall put on display at the home.

At the real Western Wall, the group posed for photographs, positioned in a row, smiling and sporting their turquoise baseball hats emblazoned with the words “Chutzpa Mission.” Some leaned on canes and walkers; others sat in wheelchairs.

At 78, Rosa Tatz is the youngest of the group and it is her first trip to Israel. A survivor of Auschwitz, tears spill down her cheeks as she approaches the holiest site in Judaism.

Her fellow residents rest their hands on the massive blocks of stone, tuck notes in between the cracks and pray. She too approaches the wall. She lowers her head and then begins to sob.

“I don’t forgive, not even God, for what was done,” she says, repeating the names of those in her family who were killed in the Holocaust.

Sadie Hankin, who is about to turn 91, also was emotional at seeing the Kotel for the first time in her life.

“You think of the ones who have gone and you say a prayer for them,” said the sprightly Hankin, her white hair cut in a bob and her glasses hanging on a chord around her neck.

She says she is having the time of her life.

“I’m enjoying every bit of it — except the walking. These are very old roads, but of course they cannot get rid of them, they are even older than I am!”

The trip marks the first time anyone in her family has come to Israel.

She clasps in her hand a card given by her granddaughter Alexis, a college student in Washington, which reads — in reference to her grandmother’s trip — “When you gotta go, you gotta go.”

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