Sharing Israel for pleasure

He came up with the idea because he wanted to travel around Israel, but as a new citizen, he didn’t own a car, and many olim can't afford to participate in group trips.

 Moshe Haiym Polacco (photo credit: Courtesy Moshe Haiym Polacco)
Moshe Haiym Polacco
(photo credit: Courtesy Moshe Haiym Polacco)

Moshe Haiym Polacco works in hi-tech, holds a managerial position and has an office in the Diamond Exchange District. Like many Israelis, he loves to travel. Whenever possible, he travels with his wife around the world. But unlike many people, his passion and hobby is to lead free tours in Israel for anyone who wants to join him.

His first tour in April 2015 was taken by 18 people. Now his Facebook group Metaylim Be Sababa has more than 4,000 members, and “around 1,800 of them, at least once, participated in a trip,” says Polacco. 

He is not a professional tour guide (although he doesn’t exclude the possibility that one day he will be), and he doesn’t run a travel agency. He just invites friends and strangers (who often become his friends later on) to join him in discovering Israel in the most accessible way – via public transportation.

How did he come up with the idea?

He came up with the idea because he wanted to travel around Israel, but as a new citizen (he made aliyah in 2013) he didn’t own a car. While volunteering at various olim hadashim organizations, he realized that he was not alone in this situation and that many olim cannot afford to participate in organized trips. “They cannot pay NIS 200 to go to the Dead Sea,” he says.

 METAYLIM BE Sababa: On a trip. (credit: Ronit Slyper) METAYLIM BE Sababa: On a trip. (credit: Ronit Slyper)

Metaylim Be Sababa tours are free (apart from the individual transportation costs or site entrance fees) and open to any age (unlike many other events for olim). “I wanted the group to be as inclusive as possible,” says Polacco. And he really welcomes everyone with the same big smile and enthusiasm. 

He is extremely curious about everything that can be seen in Israel, starting with the popular travel destinations and ending with two gazelles in a park in Jerusalem; from Hanukkah lights in Bnei Brak to a recently opened mosaic museum in Lod; the shuk in Ramle to a walk along part of the Israel Trail on the coast from Herzliya to Tel Aviv. He simply loves sharing Israel with others. 

During the last seven years, he created 70 day or half-day routes (in 2018, Ronit Slyper wrote a book based on his hikes: Tripping out of Tel Aviv: Day Hikes by Public Transportation in Central Israel). 

Most of the trips have taken place on Friday mornings, Hol Hamoed or Election Day (the November 1 trip was to the Carmel Hai-Bar Nature Reserve). “Friday mornings because that way, both religious and non-religious people could join the tours before putting the Shabbat food on the plata [warming tray],” explains Polacco. 

In the past year, though, due to his new work schedule, the Friday trips were moved to Sundays, which changed the demographics of the participants and became very popular among senior citizens – both olim and Sabras.

To Polacco, guiding is a fun hobby; but in a way, it is also a tribute to his mother, who was an Israeli tour guide. Hava Aviva was born in Marrakech, Morocco, in 1948. As a three-year-old, she moved with her parents to Israel. She grew up as a proper Israeli, served in the army and never thought of leaving Israel. Until 1979, when she met Israeli-born, Italian tourist Meir Polacco. 

They kept in touch and “had a letter relationship,” says Polacco, writing to each other for months. Finally, she visited him in Italy, and shortly thereafter they got married in Haifa. “They always planned to come back to Israel,” he says, but instead they built their family in Italy. 

Polacco and his sister, Rachel, grew up in Genoa in a small Jewish community (“there were a few hundred Jews”) and “a very Zionist home. I grew up with the idea that home is Israel,” says Polacco. His parents spoke to each other in Hebrew, which, in the future, made aliyah much easier for Polacco. 

They used to visit their relatives in Israel when Polacco was a child. They also talked about his paternal grandfather, who was Italian, and in 1947 moved to Kibbutz Givat Brenner south of Rehovot. “Most of the people in this kibbutz were Italian and German. My grandfather is buried in the kibbutz.” 

Polacco’s father, Meir, was born on the kibbutz. Until the age of six, he lived in the beit hayeladim (the children’s house). "All that changed when in 1959 the Italian government recognized the rights of Holocaust survivors to reclaim their lost properties," says Polacco. “My grandmother, at that point, decided to leave the kibbutz and move to Italy.”

Twenty years later, Polacco’s father came to Israel as a tourist and fell in love with the tour guide, Polacco’s future mother. She died when Polacco was 18. Despite living all those years in Italy, she is buried in Acre. Since then, Polacco knew he would live in Israel one day. It was just a matter of the right moment. 

That moment was put on hold. Polacco studied electrical engineering and biotechnology, specializing in bioinformatics, and became very active in the local Jewish community. With the help of social media, he managed to find his Jewish childhood friends whom he had lost track of. He decided that the key to getting everyone together would be Shabbat dinners. 

“I told Rabbi Giuseppe Momigliano that we should rebuild the young Jewish community of Genoa. The rabbi asked me what I needed. I said, ‘Food, pasta.’” In 2006, the group Genoa JOY was created. “The name stood for ‘Jewish Organization of Youth,’ but most importantly for us was the joy, the happiness,” says Polacco. 

For a few years, developing Jewish life in his city was very important to him, but when he turned 30, he felt something was missing in his life and that those youth activities were not for him anymore. 

“I was not where I wanted to be: still single, not satisfied with my career [working in Milan for a radio communications company], and not in the place I wanted to be.” Polacco needed a change. And unexpectedly, right on time, he received a call from a friend, Yohanan, who had just made aliyah: “Moshe, you are wasting your life in Italy. Israel is the place to be,” he said. 

A few months later, Polacco came to Israel to check it out. He was still hesitant about what to do with his life, but he followed his friend’s advice. “Yohanan convinced me to go for a job interview at his place of work. The company wanted to hire me.” That was the turning point. “I went straight to the Misrad Haklitah [Aliyah Ministry] to start the aliyah process.” In January 2013, he came to Israel as a tourist and never went back.

Shortly after, he started to volunteer in various organizations for olim. He wanted to meet new people and be active. “I was putting plates on Shabbat tables, for example.” But the same friend who encouraged him to move to Israel pushed him to do more and to organize his own events. “He saw in me a social potential,” smiles Polacco. And in April 2015, he created a group of olim who wanted to meet up and discover Israel. “Together with Naama Sassoon [a native Israeli] and Oranit Eileen [originally from Argentina], two friends I met over Shabbat dinners, I started the Facebook group Metaylim Be Sababa.”

The idea was brilliant. Thanks to this group, many olim and native Israelis not only traveled together but also became friends and have celebrated holidays and birthdays together. This, for olim who had moved to Israel without any family, was priceless. 

Apart from work and Metaylim Be Sababa, Polacco continues to volunteer. For example, in October 2015 (Parashat Noah, as he reminded me, the same parasha that we read on the week of our interview), he was volunteering at the Shabbat Project in Tel Aviv’s Neveh Tzedek at the historical train station. He was making challot among 300 women from all over the world. The only man. 

In 2018, he entered a leadership course for olim to improve his skills. In 2022, together with his wife, Vicky (Victoria made aliyah from Ukraine many years ago and they married in 2016), he helped the Ramat Gan Municipality Olim Department organize a Seder for new immigrants, including olim from Ukraine who had recently escaped the war. 

Polacco is constantly active, but he has one golden rule: “Low stress to me.” And following this rule, he doesn’t want a list of participants for each trip. “I prepare the route, we know exactly where we are going; people just need to arrive at the bus stop or train station on time, and they know something beautiful will happen,” he says. “It is very important to me not to start a day with messages about who is coming and who is not.” Whoever wants to join him just shows up. “Be’sababa!”

Asked how he sees his future, he replies: “When I close my eyes and I think of myself as an old Zionist Israeli, I see myself as a tour guide. So one day I may take the course and change [my] profession. After hi-tech jobs, a lot of people need to work in low-tech. But for now, it is my hobby.” 

He then adds with a smile: “I am really in love with this country, and I feel very lucky that I can share this miracle country with others.” ■

The 2022 Shabbat Project is this Friday night and Saturday, Parashat Vayeira. www.theshabbosproject.org 

Moshe Hayim Polacco, 41 From Genoa, Italy, to Bnei Brak, 2013