In March 2020, Israel – like many other countries around the world – closed its borders. Since then, according to the country’s Central Bureau of Statistics, international tourism has dropped by some 99%. Hotel rooms emptied out, busy lobbies went silent, and those famous Israeli breakfast buffets remained uneaten. While you might assume this spelled the end for most hospitality establishments in Israel, there were actually some hotels that managed not only to stay open, but indeed to stay full. These were hotels leased by the government to serve as “Corona Hotels” and host two distinct populations: Israelis who had already contracted the virus and were waiting until they were no longer contagious and could safely return home, and Israelis returning from abroad who needed to make sure they weren’t bringing coronavirus into the country.
Corona Hotels brought complete strangers into close, and prolonged, contact. Unsurprisingly, many of the “guests” were from segments of the population that don’t typically mix and mingle. At times this melting-pot-like experiment created friction, but it also allowed for unusual interactions to occur. Forced to cohabitate, people had to learn to get along, and—in some cases at least—even respect each other.
Our episode today examines two different Corona Hotel experiences – one a heartwarming tale of coexistence, the other a dark account of agony.
While Zev Levi desperately tries to book a hotel room, Mishy Harman explores why he is unsuccessful. To do so, he talks to a sales and marketing manager at Isrotel, a chain of nineteen high-end hotels throughout Israel that all shut down during the pandemic.
Back in the early months of the pandemic, the Dan Hotel in Jerusalem became the set of a real-life version of a reality TV show. The premise? Some two hundred Israelis – Jews, Muslims, religious, secular, young, old – all recovering from COVID-19, were forced to live together in a closed hotel until they received two negative test results. Since all the residents of the hotel had already contracted the virus, they could do all the “normal” things that the rest of the population – under strict lockdown regulations – could not: Give each other high fives, dance, hug, do Zumba. What was even more surprising than what they could do, however, was what they did do. Slowly but surely, people from all walks of life, who would probably never otherwise interact, started to get along. Even the Passover Seder – often a meal that brings up tension and familial discord – ended up being an opportunity for reconciliation. And since many of these interactions were captured on video and shared on social media, the entire country really was tuning in to watch this IRL COVID-19 reality TV show.
Rough Translation’s host Gregory Warner and NPR’s Jerusalem correspondent Daniel Estrin follow an Israeli comedian, a Bedouin hospital janitor and a committed hotel reception manager, who are all wondering whether this kumbaya-fest was a one-off fluke, or rather a possible direction forward.
This story comes from Rough Translation, an NPR podcast and radio show that tells stories from around the world which offer new perspectives on familiar conversations. It was produced by Tina Antolini and edited by Lu Olkowski with help from Derek Arthur, Jess Jiang, and Autumn Barnes-Fraser. John Ellis composed the music, with additional scoring from Blue Dot Sessions and mastering by Isaac Rodrigues.
When – in mid-April – Sivan Goren Arzony picked up her phone in Somerville, MA, she never imagined it was the start of her very own personal Via Dolorosa. Back home on Kibbutz Gal’on, Sivan’s father – Arnon Goren – had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. The prognosis was grim, and Sivan realized that if she wanted to see him again, she better hurry. But, of course, this was at the height of COVID-19 and flying – especially with three little kids – wasn’t a trivial matter. And what’s more, Sivan and her husband knew that – as per the Israeli government’s guidelines – upon arrival they’d be carted off to a Corona Hotel, where they would need to quarantine for two full weeks. Aboard the more-or-less empty flight over, Sivan went back and forth between extreme anxiety about her sick father and more comforting thoughts about the all-expenses-paid government-mandated hotel vacation. But just as soon as they pulled up to a nondescript and balcony-less building at the entrance to Jerusalem, Sivan realized that she was in for a ride. Journalist Dina Kraft, host of Hadassah’s The Branch, documents what brought a calm and collected scholar of ancient Indian poetry to openly cry in front of a young Home Front Command officer.
The episode was mixed by Sela Waisblum and scored by Joel Shupack with music from Blue Dot Sessions and sound-design help from Yochai Maital. The end song, “Bomba,” is by Hadag Nahash and Johnny Goldstein.
Thanks to Henriette Chacar, Hussein Shakra, Daniella Cheslow, Assad Joubran, Elizabeth Senja Spackman, Robert Krulwich, Karen Duffin, Sarah Gonzalez, Sana Krasikov, Mira Burt-Wintonick and NPR’s Middle East editor Larry Kaplow. Thanks also to Brigadier General Yoram Lerdo, Atar Nussbaum, Danna Harman, Charlotte Halle, Kurt Hoffman, Wayne Hoffman, Sheila Lambert, Erica Frederick, Jeff Feig and Joy Levitt.
Project Kesher is a non-profit organization that empowers and invests in women. They develop Jewish women leaders – and interfaith coalitions – in Belarus, Russia, Ukraine and Israel, deliver Torahs to women who’ve never held one before, broadcast women’s health information on Ukrainian Public Radio, and help Russian-speaking immigrants to Israel advocate for equal rights.
Kolech is Israel’s leading Orthodox feminist organization. They fight for gender equality and the prevention of violence against women and girls in Israel. Among their many activities, Kolech advocates for female leadership, runs educational courses, advances civil legislation and offers halachic solutions to agunot and mesoravot get.