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March 11, 2016 4:08 am

Enterprising Spirit Sparks the Tourism Treasures of Israel’s Western Galilee

avatar by Judy Lash Balint /

Arbel Cliffs, overlooking the Sea of Galilee. Photo: Wikipedia.

Arbel Cliffs, overlooking the Sea of Galilee. Photo: Wikipedia. – Yoney Skiba welcomes guests to the full-size Ethiopian hut in the yard of her home on Kibbutz Evron, near Nahariya, close to Israel’s northern border with Lebanon.

Skiba, who came to Israel as a child in the 1994 Operation Solomon, offers a brief talk to tourists about her aliyah experience and Ethiopian-Jewish culture; points out various authentic Ethiopian artifacts and artwork in the hut; prepares traditional injera sourdough flatbread; and demonstrates the preparation of Ethiopian coffee. Ethiopian-Jewish music heightens the experience that she offers to groups, students, Jews, and non-Jews interested in learning about the culture of a significant Jewish community and its efforts to integrate into Israeli society.

Skiba’s Mevrahatey (My Light) initiative is just one of hundreds of projects adopted by the Treasures of the Galilee umbrella group, with the goal of jumpstarting tourism in Israel’s Western Galilee region. Some of the most offbeat and creative tourism initiatives in the area are headed by enterprising women like Skiba, who are looking to increase their business.

Founded by philanthropist and Nahariya native Raya Strauss Bendror, Treasures of the Galilee brings together community activists, academics, CEOs, mayors, and religious leaders from the Western Galilee to help fund tourism projects like Skiba’s in an effort to create jobs and stimulate the economy of the region.

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With cities rich in history like Akko (Acre), the natural beauty of the northern coastline, spectacular national parks, and one of the most diverse populations in the country, the Western Galilee deserves to be a top destination for visitors, Strauss Bendror explains.

After scouring the area for the best tourist sites, restaurants, B&Bs, galleries, wineries and craftspeople, Strauss Bendror and her team provided copywriters and photographers for each place so they could beef up their online presence, and all are now included in an app and website that make it easy to pinpoint places of interest and plan a trip.

While it lacks the religious sites of Jerusalem, Akko’s Old City is captivating and filled with fascinating sites from hundreds of years of history and different occupiers.

One of the unique tourism initiatives in Akko supported by Treasures of the Galilee is Salima, a basket-weaving workshop and store run by Sima Oren in the restored Knights Hall in the Old City.

As she skillfully weaves slim branches of date palms into a colorful basket, Oren talks about her dream: bringing Arab and Jewish women together via weaving. The handmade works by women from the Akko area are sold under the “Women Weaving Peace” label, which includes Arab and Jewish women (ranging from secular to religious), new immigrants, Druze and Bedouin.

Oren offers weaving workshops for visitors in Hebrew and English and uses them to invoke her optimistic mission statement. “It’s fantastic that we’re in this beautiful Crusader Hall,” she says, “but the real crusaders are each one of us, who live in a new situation that no one prepared us for. We need to empower each other and we can accomplish that by doing what we love together.”

A short drive from Akko, in a restored building that once housed the kitchen of Kibbutz Shomrat, former furniture marketing executive Yonat Mazan explains how Treasures of the Galilee helped her become the operator of the Alto Dairy Farm. Standing in front of a display case filled with more than 15 types of hard cheese, soft cheese, low-acidity yogurt, and a special variety of low-fat goat milk cheese, Mazan describes how her family built a business that now incorporates a popular kosher café, visitor center, and factory store to showcase the kibbutz’s goat milk products. Her husband, Ariel, is the dairyman, and her five grown kids all play a role in the demanding business.

For anyone exploring the area, the café is a perfect place to stop for a leisurely brunch, sample some unusual cheeses, or pick up picnic supplies.

Still further north, a sharp switchback drive through some of Israel’s most spectacular hill scenery brings visitors to Adamit National Park and the famous Keshet Cave. But instead of turning around and driving back down the hill after the park experience, Treasures of Galilee is promoting a culinary and cultural adventure to the nearby Bedouin village of Arab al-Aramshe.

Set in what is today a peaceful and rural setting, where sheep amble across the roads and spacious villas dot the hills, this village abuts the border with Lebanon and provides an opportunity to take a look at the fence and the UNIFIL (United Nations Interim Force In Lebanon) forces presiding over the peace.

Muhammad and Sued Mizal run the Sof Ha’Olam Smola (Turn Left at the End of the World) tourism experience from their home in the village, and they attract visitors via the Treasures of Galilee website.

After a tour of the village and its bordering area with Muhammad, including an explanation of their experiences during the First and Second Lebanon Wars, the family invites visitors to an authentic homemade Bedouin culinary experience (not kosher) on their terrace overlooking the beautiful rural scenery.

Over the meal, Muhammad talks about the Bedouin in general and the Bedouin of Arab al-Aramshe in particular. He recounts the special relations between village residents and Jewish Israelis; relations that began even before the establishment of the state, when a strong bond was formed with the surrounding kibbutzim. “We helped them before the State was established and they helped us upon the establishment of the state and prevented our deportation,” he says.

Spending time with the Mizals is an eye-opening experience that will broaden understanding of Israel’s place amongst its neighbors.

Like many Treasures of Galilee projects, it may not be tourism in the traditional sense, but it’s part of the Western Galilee, a fascinating and beautiful destination not to be overlooked.

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