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On lightning vacations, Ultra-Orthodox pour onto segregated Israeli beaches

Israel's ultra-Orthodox have only three weeks of yeshiva break, and they take their brief summer vacation very seriously.

The Sea of Galilee Authority and the Interior Ministry opened an extra beach in the north for a three-week period. The beach will offers segregated bathing hours for women and men to accommodate ultra-Orthodox vacationers.

Aug. 8 marked the beginning of "bein ha-zmanim," “between the times,” or semester break for yeshiva students. Hundreds of thousands of yeshiva students, who during the “zman” (literally “the time,” what they call the semester in the yeshiva world) studiously pore over the Talmud, close up their books and venture out on their brief summer vacation, which lasts exactly three weeks. 

In contrast to its studious image, the yeshiva world takes vacation seriously. Danny, an American who studies at the Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem, told Al-Monitor, “I’ve planned my vacation far ahead of time. A group of us got together and we’re going to hike large parts of the Israel Trail, visit nature reserves and beaches, and my goal is to finish the bein ha-zmanim with a deep familiarity with the sites of the Land of Israel, north and south.” 

Danny said he is considered a prodigy at his yeshiva and did not leave his Talmud behind. “We study in the morning, but from 1 p.m. every day we go out on day trips. Yesterday we visited Masada and the Dead Sea, today Nahal Dragot and Ein Gedi and tomorrow we’ll be in the north. Just as we put effort into study during the zman, we put effort into the bein ha-zmanim, which we see as a zman in itself.”

He explained, “I think that a young man who expends his energy during bein ha-zmanim returns refreshed and can study better during the zman itself. Thus says the verse in Isaiah [40:31]: ‘But those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength. They shall mount up with wings like eagles.”

Danny and his peers flocked to nature reserves, gender-segregated swimming beaches and parks, ultra-Orthodox families picnic and took over city parks in Tel Aviv, Herzliya, Raanana, Kiryat Shmona and Rosh Pina. 

However, many places are unavailable to the ultra-Orthodox public. They can only visit places where modesty is followed, and many also make sure that the site does not violate the Sabbath. Then there are of course budget limitations. The ultra-Orthodox community, together with Israeli Arabs, are the poorest group in Israeli society, and many families include several children. In the few places they can visit, there are huge crowds.

Take the beaches, for instance. “In Israel there are no fewer than 115 swimming beaches,” Knesset member Rabbi Uri Maklev of the United Torah Judaism party told Al-Monitor. “But only 14 segregated beaches are available to the ultra-Orthodox. Since at every such beach the lifeguard can only watch a limited area of 150 meters, the masses have to crowd into small pieces of sand and sea, and there’s no wonder these are full to the brim.” 

At all the segregated beaches in Israel, whether Ashdod, the Sheraton beach in Tel Aviv or Ashkelon, and the crowding is like nowhere else. At the segregated beach in Ashkelon gather tens of thousands of people, who arrive by public and organized buses from all over the country. Black waves of swimmers rise and fall with the water, while on the beach there isn’t one free inch of sand. It’s all occupied by people or bags of clothes, since there are not enough changing rooms for the many beachgoers. 

The Berger family from Jerusalem were sitting on the beach. They got to Ashdod by public transportation in the morning, and the boys went to the beach while the girls and their mother went to the nearby Ashdod Yam park. “It’s interesting here,” said the children, enthusing that they met cousins and friends from all over the country. In the evening the two halves of the family reunite and grill dinner at one of the parks in the area, which is likely full of ultra-Orthodox daytrippers who came to the southern city from all over the country. 

Folks from Ashdod, on the other hand, can be found in Jerusalem. There’s a very common practice amid the ultra-Orthodox of switching apartments during these weeks. Many residents of seaside cities swap their apartments with residents of Jerusalem or Zafed to enjoy a refreshing change of scenery. In any case, in any ultra-Orthodox town, whether Modiin, Beitar, Beit Shemesh and of course the attractive seaside cities of Ashdod or Netanya, local kiosks and synagogues are full of out-of-towners.

Beaches and parks are not the only leisure venues. In recent years the ultra-Orthodox leadership has allowed greater investment in culture, and the bein ha-zmanim has also become a time for ultra-Orthodox filmmakers to fill screening halls just for women and girls who bought tickets ahead of time and arrive with family and friends. These activities are often subsidized by the local councils via budgets that are growing year by year. 

Of course, there are some who go abroad. In recent years, quite a few ultra-Orthodox Israelis have discovered the joys of traveling. Destinations are mostly in Europe, especially Switzerland and Austria. However, only a small fraction of the community can afford to travel with the whole family. Several grand rabbis even spend their three-week vacations at posh kosher hotels in Davos.

Although vacation abroad has become more attainable for the ultra-Orthodox — there are a number of companies that offer kosher vacation packages at hotels abroad — most of the ultra-Orthodox community, especially young people, have never seen the inside of a plane, and vacation for them means somewhere Israel, the Golan Heights to Dimona and Ofakim (Eilat is still out of the question for the ultra-Orthodox, considered too sinful). 

Then the beaches, parks and nature reserves empty out. On the first day of Elul (Aug. 28 this year), when the shofar is blown to prepare for the Jewish New Year and the cry “Elul!” is heard from yeshiva heads, all is back to normal. Beaches that were packed a day earlier are abandoned and desolate. 

On this day Elul zman begins at the yeshivas, as well as at boys’ elementary schools (girls’ schools coincide with the secular school year, on Sept. 1), and the sounds of study resume in full classrooms. T-shirts, sun hats and daypacks are put away along with sweet memories of vacation, until the next bein ha-zmanim. 

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