In the Jerusalem Hills
March 22, 2016
Although the cliché says that a nice part of vacation is getting there, spending hours on the road before or after a weekend away can also erase the relaxing benefits. Yearim, an extensively renovated and rebranded hotel in the Judean Hills, is only 21 kilometers from my Jerusalem apartment. That means seeking a country weekend away from the city in well-appointed lodgings doesn't require the usual long ride north or south.
Yearim, which means "forests" in Hebrew, is the hotel at Kibbutz Ma'aleh Hahamisha.
Not to be confused with Cramim, the Isrotel high-end spa a few minutes away, Yearim includes many of the features of the expensive spa hotels while maintaining some of the charming features of its long history as a modest guest house.
And history it has. Kibbutz Ma'aleh Hahamisha (Ascent of the Five) was founded in 1938 after five young men from the earlier established Kibbutz Kiryat Anavim were murdered while paving a path to the nearby Hill of the Wind. Fifty thousand mourners turned out for their Jerusalem funeral. In response, members of the Gordonia Movement (named for Polish-born A.D. Gordon, who believed in building the state with manual labor) founded Ma'aleh Hahamisha on the border with Jordan. There was a dairy and chicken coop and field crops, but already in 1940 the kibbutzniks took advantage of their pastoral location and view and fresh 800-meter-high mountain air to build a guest house that was associated with the health funds as a low-frills health farm.
The 17 meeting halls added later have made it a popular convention site.
But if you've been there in the distant past as I have (my first visit was as a volunteer with soldiers wounded in the Yom Kippur War in 1973, and later for conferences), forget the utilitarian and lackluster hotel of yesteryear. NIS 40 million was invested in upgrading the facilities. Today, you'll find white hallways with picture windows on riots of cyclamen. Purple pansies and babies' breath grace the extravagant lawns on the 10-hectare grounds with walkways and wooden benches.
The hotel rooms have minimalist design - like most kibbutz architecture - with an inspiring view towards Jerusalem and over the village of Abu Ghosh. There's superb lighting for reading, a feature often missing in hotels, and free Internet. Every room has a mini-bar and a refrigerator, and there are flat-screen TVs with YES cable. Eighteen of the rooms also have balconies. The bathrooms have been redone in marble, with oversized showers and Dead Sea cosmetics. Each floor has its own lobby/ sitting room decorated with pastoral art.
On the Thursday and Friday I was there, one of 12 festive cultural weekends was taking place. Manager Kfir Elkarif says that local tourism is stable and it is easier to plan special programs in these troubled times, so this expanded program to draw Israelis is proving wildly successful. The hotel's theme is "Eretz Yisraeli," reflecting local culture, cuisine and nostalgia.
To kick off the month of Adar, a program on humor (in Hebrew, and not suited for the Shabbat observant) drew some 400 guests from all over Israel: comedian Yossi Vider and actor Assaf Ashtar, who did a program on Hebrew songs. The how-to part of the program was given by Lenny Ravitch, a 79-year-old former American, who describes himself as "a humor and optimism expert." His presentation focused on how to embrace the humorous side of even the most frustrating daily situations, be they traffic jams or (in his case) a heart attack. He kept the audience in constant laughter.
The weekend program from the hotel also includes exploration of nature and history in the Judean Hills or shopping (housewares, candles, food) in nearby Abu Ghosh. There is a Friday bus trip to visit Ein Kerem. Being a Jerusalemite who works in Ein Kerem, I skipped it to take advantage of what turned out to be a fascinating walking tour through the kibbutz. Our guide, Michelle Pritab, also a former American, combined her personal journey 30 years ago from Long Island following an Israeli backpacker (later, her husband - he drove by on a tractor) with the history and workings of the kibbutz, which has undergone privatization.
A few highlights: At the entrance to the kibbutz stands a striking sculpture of the Warsaw Ghetto by Holocaust survivor Andre Reves. The kibbutz received new members after the Holocaust, and the guest house became a sought-after retreat for survivors who received health subsidies. A fresco painted by an Argentinean kibbutz volunteer depicts the early days of the kibbutz, including the five young men for whom it was named.
The kibbutz florist nursery pioneered the sale of orchids in Israel and remains a source of orchids and a clinic for ailing orchids or a guest house for orchids whose fastidious owners go on vacation. Like much of Israel, it has a history. Opened more than 40 years ago, it was burnt down by terrorists in 1992 and was subsequently reestablished.
The kibbutz swimming pool is open to hotel guests in the summer. Yearim has two other pools: an outdoor pool, also opened in the season, and a large, wellkept indoor pool with separate large whirlpool baths and saunas. A well-equipped work-out room is open to guests from early morning until late at night. The spa offers a dozen different treatments in spotless, scented treatment rooms. My excellent deep-tissue massage by Orly showed a high level of professionalism.
Vacation periods feature children's and youth programs.
The impressive upgrade of the hotel includes the food. The dining room is divided into sections in bold colors. Four colors of chairs and décor on a white background make it bright and cheery, with a menu pleasing to gourmets. The back-to- Israeli-roots theme is expressed in baskets of abundant eggplants, tomatoes and cucumbers as decorative elements, making it feel like a gentrified outdoor market.
Mountains of interesting salads are neither over-seasoned nor over-oiled, and another table offers unseasoned salad fixings with a variety of homemade dressings. The main courses are arranged around a horseshoe, with a chef presiding at each station: fish, poultry and meat. I liked the chef artfully arranging braised bream on my plate over a bed of stuffed vine leaves and vegetables.
Breakfast features a five-star variety and an abundance of cheeses, pastries, salads and cereals, with the addition of homemade jams and pickled vegetables, a delicious reminder of the nostalgic Israel theme.
Observant Jews will enjoy using the round wooden basins provided for ritual hand washing. There's a synagogue with a Torah scroll. The hotel doesn't guarantee a minyan, of course. During my stay, a large modern Orthodox family from Ra'anana was celebrating a 70th birthday party, and there were other guests from Jerusalem, Ma'alot and a moshav near Gaza, so there was a congenial synagogue group. My only complaint about the visit was the zealous kashrut inspector who catalyzed a rebellion among the modern Orthodox women by bringing additional barricades to cage off the women's section. The humor-inducing skills provided by Lenny Ravitch were helpful.
On Passover, the hotel is taken over by a religious travel company. Although it is under separate management, Yearim often works with the nearby upscale Sequoia wedding hall.
And speaking of upscale, an additional hotel is about to open on the Yearim grounds. Named Gordonia for the pioneering youth movement that set out to populate and develop these hillsides, it will offer luxurious suites, each with private swimming pool and a lounge with a butler, along with generous outdoor event space.
So keep your eyes on them there hills as the nearby countryside reinvents itself without relinquishing its debt to the past.