BY NICOLE JANSEZIAN, TRAVELUJAH—
Israel’s cobblestone streets, landmark churches, Roman amphitheaters and ancient cisterns may be enticing to many tourists, but can be daunting to someone in a wheelchair.
This prospect, however, did not dissuade Rick Huntress and a group of 17 – five of whom were in wheelchairs – from visiting the Holy Land.
“This is a trip that I had always wanted to do – to actually see where Jesus lived, taught, and gave His life for me,” Huntress told Travelujah.
When an accident in the US Air Force Reserves left him paralyzed and in a wheelchair in 1997, Huntress had dismissed the idea of ever traveling to the Holy Land. But two years ago his daughters visited Israel and returned home raving about their experiences.
“They came back with so many wonderful pictures, stories, and blessings that I was more determined than ever to go myself,” Huntress recalled.
He contacted Craig Hartman, who organized the trip his daughters took, and expressed an interest in a tour to Israel that would be suitable for him. With Huntress’s guidance, Hartman, director of Shalom Ministries, organized a tour paying attention to which sites a wheelchair would or would not be able to do.
After two years of planning, five people in wheelchairs, plus two older men who preferred a slower moving tour, signed up for the trip.
“All of us took a leap of faith in signing up for this trip, and all of us are so thrilled that we did,” Huntress said. “We gave a very strong testimony to ourselves, the able-bodied people in our group to and everyone that we came in contact with that we can do whatever we put our minds to.”
The rugged sites in Israel can be challenging to people with disabilities. In 2008, Israel’s Tourism Ministry participated in a project to shore up accessibility at tourist sites around the country. According to the ministry, Masada is now accessible to wheelchairs and those with visual disabilities. Several beaches are wheelchair accessible and some include sun beds for the disabled. Most of Jewish National Fund recreational facilities include wheelchair-accessible paths and bathrooms.
Despite warnings by friends that it would be a difficult trip, Craig and Donna Holtermann of New York joined a non-handicapped tour in September 2009. Donna has multiple sclerosis and is in a wheelchair.
“The biggest discouragement is the long plane ride,” Craig explained. “That’s the hardest part of the entire trip. Once you get to Israel it is like going anywhere else. We did almost everything we wanted to do.”
That included going to sites and eating at restaurants that were not handicapped accessible. At almost every place they went, if getting in was going to be difficult, someone nearby always jumped in to help.
The Holtermanns had such a good experience in Israel that they came back a second time just seven months later, this time on their own. They booked a handicapped accessible room in a Jerusalem hotel, centrally located between the Old City and downtown so they were in walking distance of most sites.
“We didn’t use public transportation and, everywhere else we wanted to go, we walked,” Holtermann said. “The Via Dolorosa was the only place I had a really hard time. Everything else was tolerable.”
Holtermann said there were a few things they couldn’t have done without help, such as swimming in the Dead Sea and a baptism at the Jordan River. And the only place they didn’t visit in Jerusalem that they would’ve liked to was the Mount of Olives – the hill was too daunting for him to push a wheelchair, Holtermann said. Also at the Western Wall, they needed someone of the same gender to help Donna get to the wall to pray, he noted.
Huntress’ group also encountered a few challenges. Each time someone offered assistance. For example, on the Galilee boat tour the workers “pulled, pushed, and lifted each of us to make that possible. They went way above and beyond any expectations,” Huntress said.
“Many sights that we visited, wheelchair users would not have been able to do unless they had some very strong and willing able bodied helpers,” Huntress said. “Each sight had its own unique set of challenges, but we were able to do everything that we set out to do.”
Sometimes seeing sites took determination. On Mount Carmel, Hartman wanted to make sure everyone in the group got to the lookout on the roof so that they could see the layout of the land.
“The only ‘minor’ thing standing between us and the roof top were two large flights of stairs,” Huntress joked. Those in the group not in wheelchairs lifted each of those in wheelchairs slowly and arduously up the steps until the entire group reached the roof.
Huntress was rendered a t-8 paraplegic during an Air Force Reserve training mission in 1997. As his team was loading cargo onto a C-130 trainer, the 2-ton cargo door dropped unexpectedly and crushed Huntress beneath it. He underwent surgeries and months of rehabilitation. On his blog (http://www.travelujah.com/blogs/posts/Rolling_on), Huntress, from Greenville, South Carolina, discusses the different challenges of Israeli travel for wheelchairs at each site he visited.
For a handicapped specific tour, Hartman said much planning is involved and that some sites are not doable or require creativity to accomplish. But that should not deter someone in a wheelchair from visiting Israel, he said.
“They should come to Israel because it will change their lives as they see the Bible come alive and they will never read the Bible the same way again after being there,” Hartman said. “I learned a great deal through my interactions with our special friends and that has impacted my life and I know the same will happen to anyone who helps these folks get there.”
Access Israel provides detailed information on accessible sites and accommodation, restaurants, festivals, car rental agencies and other useful information for special needs travelers on its website: www.aisrael.org.
Yad Sarah lends tourists and visitors wheelchairs, crutches and other aides without charge, requesting only a security deposit. More information is available at the Yad Sarah website www.yadsarah.org.il; by phone: +972.2.644.4555 or by email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Visitors to Israel in wheelchairs can order airport pick-up in advance through the Yad Sarah Exhibition and Guidance Center at +972.2.644.4633 or by email: email@example.com
Mobility Rental Israel will deliver mobility equipment and health-related products to tourists anywhere in the country, including hotel, residence or airport. More information at the website: www.mobilityrentalsisrael.com; phone: +972.3.948.0401; or email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Nicole Jansezian writes for Travelujah, the leading Israel-based social network focusing on Christian travel to the Holy Land. People can learn, plan and share their Holy Land tour and travel experiences on Travelujah.