Touring Israel Virtually With Russian-Speaking Seniors

Russian-speaking older adults saw the virtual sights of Israel, including Jaffa in Tel Aviv. Photos courtesy of Arielle Shemesh

Nearly 50 homebound seniors traveled from Philadelphia to Israel last month — virtually, of course.

The Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia’s Missions program, which takes people on educational trips to Israel, Europe, Central America and more, has been on hold since the start of the pandemic. But many in the local communities still feel the travel bug and a desire to connect with Jewish communities around the world.

This gave the Jewish Federation’s Mission co-chairs, Susan Schwartz and Paul Fires, an idea: Why not use the video technology that’s become a part of everyday life to take isolated older adults on a virtual trip?

Together, with Missions and Travel Manager Arielle Shemesh, they organized a virtual tour for seniors, many of whom are Holocaust survivors, who participate in KleinLife’s programs for Russian speakers.

“The KleinLife community represents a significant portion of our elderly population who are the most at risk. They’re homebound without any physical contact or mental stimulation,” Schwartz said. “We felt this virtual mission would be a wonderful way to bring Israel into their homes, and give them something to look forward to each week.”

The Missions department worked with KleinLife, a Jewish Federation-supported community resource center in Northeast Philadelphia, to identify participants.

Despite technological barriers for this age demographic, many were able to join this travel experience through the use of Uniper, a video chat software that connects virtual platforms to television screens and computers. With loneliness and social isolation further heightened during the pandemic, funding from the Jewish Federation helped bring this technology to seniors in the local community as a way for them to stay connected from the comfort and safety of their homes.

“It is hard to think of a more deserving group than the people who enjoy KleinLife’s wonderful services and programs,” Fires added. “Add to the mix that many in the KleinLife community have limited mobility for a variety of reasons, it seems natural to bring the Israel mission experience to their doorsteps.”

Each week, between 35 and 50 seniors joined the call. Led by an experienced Russian-Israeli tour guide, the group visited different regions and landmarks during the sessions. Virtual tour bus stops included Jerusalem’s Old City and Mahane Yehuda market, Tel Aviv’s Jaffa Port, the beachside resort town of Eilat and the Dead Sea.

KleinLife seniors, including many Holocaust survivors, experience a virtual mission to Israel.

The tour group also met representatives from some of the Jewish Federation’s supported Israeli nonprofits that serve seniors and Holocaust survivors. For example, they visited Leket, the leading food rescue service in Israel, and Yad LaKashish, which gives impoverished older adults a purpose and means of living through teaching and using artistry skills.

Finally, the sightseers virtually visited the Jewish Federation’s partnership region in Netivot, where they spoke with a young Russian immigrant, Kosta, about his experiences making aliyah and raising a family on Israel’s Southern border, a beautiful and diverse region where rocket fire is a constant reality.

Overall, the three-part virtual excursion received overwhelmingly positive reviews.

“I have not been to Israel for a long time,” said Leon Fleysh, a Holocaust survivor from the former Soviet Union who participated in the mission. “Last time I was there was 12 years ago. I pretty much felt like I was there through this trip, and the experience made me want to be there in person. I would really like to travel to Israel, to be in that atmosphere, and feel myself as part of the Israeli community.”

Other travelers, such as Mila Brayman, who is also a Holocaust survivor originally from the former Soviet Union, agreed with Fleysh’s sentiment.

“I really love Israel and traveled there in the past,” Brayman explained. “I felt like I was there again and got to know a lot of new things, because I hadn’t traveled to all of the places our tour guide showed us during this virtual mission.”

The Jewish Federation’s Missions programs not only take people to Israel, but also to visit Jewish communities and places of interest around the world. Prior to the pandemic, the last in-person offering was a civil rights tour of the American South that featured historic locations in Selma and Birmingham in Alabama and other significant cities.

It will still be some time before group travel can return to non-virtual experiences, but the Missions co-chairs are proud, albeit not surprised, of what they have been able to accomplish and offer the community throughout the pandemic.

“The Missions’ success is not at all surprising,” Fires said. “The joy we take from seeing this impact is why we do what we do.”

While these challenging times have limited programming and outreach in some ways, they have also allowed for increased creativity, resourcefulness, and, in the case of this latest KleinLife virtual mission, accessibility.

“This just reinforces to me the power of the collective, and the commitment of our community,” Schwartz said. “It’s a very rewarding feeling to know that with a little brainstorming — and our fabulous professional team — we can improve and enrich lives, one day at a time.”

For more information about travel experiences with the Jewish Federation, contact Shemesh at [email protected] or 215-832-0629.


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