February is Jewish Disability Awareness Month, and Four Questions will be featuring two different people with disabilities and how they work within the Jewish community. First up is Ben Soloway. Ben, who is currently based in Boston, offers tours of Israel for people with mobility limitations. For more information about his tours, contact Ben at Ben.Soloway@gmail.com.
Tell me about the tours you offer in Israel.
The tours I offer in Israel combine sensitivity to the mobility needs of each participant—I myself am disabled and walk with the aid of two walking canes—with my experience in and passion for Jewish education. I studied at Pardes in Jerusalem, which is actually where I met my wife. She’s the reason we’re actually in the Boston area now, so she can finish her Ph.D. at Boston University.
The tours I offer are designed for people in wheelchairs, family groups with small children and/or elderly relatives, and people with mobility limitations. This means taking into consideration many factors, including transportation that can accommodate wheelchairs and/or baby strollers; hotels that have handicapped-accessible rooms for a person to maneuver independently; and, significantly, tourist sites that are accessible or that can be made accessible (with smooth surfaces, ramps, accessible bathrooms, etc.).
My background in and passion for Jewish education, as a formal and informal educator, was ideal training for being a tour guide. As an Israel tour guide, Israel is your classroom. It’s not about just going from point A to point B and giving visitors merely the dry facts about a place, but creating a compelling and engaging story for tourists to help them connect to both the given site as well as to Israel as a whole.
The tours I offer are inspired by the premise that, at this time, when there is a lot of talk about Israel as a “birthright,” we should be doing as much as we can to be true to our word and make a trip to Israel as attainable as possible for as many people as possible.
There are tour organizations in Israel that work specifically with people who have mobility limitations. I have relationships with those groups. What I provide, however, is a package that is not simply accessible, but is also a rich, engaging, entertaining, educational tour. My tours can be tailored to the abilities, needs and wants of each individual or group that I guide.
In addition to offering tours, you’ve lived in Jerusalem for a time. What’s your favorite part of the city?
I really love the Machane Yehudah shuk. The shuk is Western Jerusalem’s central market. It is full of the sounds, tastes and foods that combine to create a rich tapestry of the city’s diverse Jewish cultures. Conceptually, Israel is a country and culture built on bringing Jews together from disparate places. The shuk is where the foods of those cultures come together. You can buy all manner of seasonal produce, pita, hummus, olives and halvah, but you can also buy French patisserie desserts, Indian food, exclusive cheeses from around the world and even a version of English fish and chips.
The shuk is one of my favorite places to show people because it really is a multi-sensory experience of the diversity of Israel and also reflects the holidays and time of year in terms of the foods available. Personally, the shuk is also one of my favorite places to hang out. Some people make aliyah for the weather or the women; I made aliyah for the food. I love wandering through the shuk and eating lunch in any number of the hole-in-the-wall restaurants that serve home-style Mizrachi food. Living in Boston, I miss that a lot.
You’ve lived in Boston and New York, you specialize in tours for people who are disabled in Israel, and you’re originally from London. How does America stack up in terms of accommodating disabled populations?
I’m not wheelchair-bound and I can navigate staircases, but accessibility is at the forefront of my thinking. In the U.S., there’s a pretty consistent level of delivery. There are services in the U.S. that a disabled person can expect to receive at a bank, school, place of work or restaurant. There is an expectation that is usually met that there will be accessible bathrooms, or a ramp, elevator or chairlift. Buildings are designed this way from scratch or adapted. The service culture of America also compensates when infrastructure is lacking. Someone is always willing to help.
Accessibility legislation similar to that in the U.S. also exists in the UK and Israel. I think Britain is roughly comparable to the U.S. in terms of handicap accessibility. Israel is much more of a patchwork. The legislation is there, and you see more and more large institutions, such as banks, schools and major tourist sites, that comply with the legislation. There’s a willingness to make it happen, but disability rights are often not a top priority. However, Israel does have a really motivated and grassroots culture of action and activity. A lot of NGOs work with and advocate for increased accessibility, but systemic change is a gradual process.
If I only have one day in Jerusalem, give me the whirlwind tour itinerary. What do I absolutely need to see?
In general, I pride myself on offering tours that are tailor-made to clients’ needs and interests. Being based in Boston means I am able to meet face-to-face with local clients so that we can create the tour they want. That said, let’s imagine that you are a group of wheelchair users from the Greater Boston area coming to Jerusalem for the first time. We start at the Tayelet in the East Talpiot neighborhood. From here, we will be able to see a spectacular panoramic view of both old and new Jerusalem. The Tayelet sets the scene for our day together: an exploration of timeless Jerusalem and how different people throughout time have viewed, interacted with and loved the city of Jerusalem.
From the Tayelet, we travel to the wheelchair-accessible upper part of the City of David. This is the original section of Jerusalem founded by King David and including the First Temple. We then enter the Kotel Plaza via the Dung Gate, which provides staircase-free access to the Western Wall. Time permitting, we drop by the Davidson Center, located just next door, for an interactive experience of Second Temple Jerusalem.
In the afternoon, following a picnic lunch in the Knesset’s rose garden, we explore modern and contemporary Jerusalem. We tour the Knesset and take in the sleek and innovative design of the Supreme Court. We view the latest addition to the Jerusalem skyline, the Bridge of Strings, a modern—and controversial—interpretation of the ancient symbol of King David’s harp. We end the day with dinner in the new Mamilla Mall, located just outside the Jaffa Gate, and providing a view of the Old City walls from a stunning vantage point of today’s Jerusalem.
Learn more about what the Boston Jewish community has to offer for individuals with disabilities.