Instant Israel: Virtual Reality Travel to the Homeland

Dead Sea

Known for its innovative programming and value-based approach to care and enrichment of older adults, CJE is proud to announce “Instant Israel,” a unique, multi-faceted program that will immerse older adults in engaging, life-like tours of historically significant places in Israel by utilizing Virtual Reality (VR) technology and 3D panoramic imagery. It was developed by CJE’s Community Engagement (CE) Department that plans to partner with groups such as Kahal, local synagogues and other Jewish student organizations to recruit volunteers to be trained as “Tour Guides.” All will have actually traveled to Israel, many on Birthright trips (free heritage trips for Jewish young adults).

Stairs on Isaeli street

Thanks to a generous $100,000 grant from the JUF Breakthrough Fund, CJE is embarking on this intergenerational endeavor with VR “tours” expected to begin late this fall. The Community Engagement team knew it was the ideal concept to introduce older adults to technology in a fun, interactive way. VR technology has been around for a while (you’ve probably seen the crowds at VR adventure or theme parks in local malls), but using it for intergenerational life enrichment programming is an intriguing novelty that dovetails well with the needs of CJE’s older community members. It has the potential to provide participants with an incredible life enrichment experience that includes stimulating educational engagement and socialization. An additional long-term benefit to the Instant Israel experience is that it will be a unique and alluring gateway for more people to discover CJE’s growing portfolio of innovative programming.

Instant Israel is intentionally designed to provide seniors with the opportunity to reminisce about their travel experiences and inspire lively conversations between generations which, according to emerging research, can contribute to an increase in brain activity. Imagine the wonder of a 65-year-old woman (who has spent her entire life in Rogers Park and never traveled outside the US) as she puts on a headset and finds herself on the ancient ruins of Masada overlooking the lowest point on earth—the Dead Sea!


VR Senior Man

For those unfamiliar with the term, virtual reality (VR) can be defined as experiencing, through the use of technology, simulated and immersive environments that are either similar (or completely different!) from the real world. Virtual reality can be used for entertainment (gaming), recreation or adventure (travel), education (medical or military training) and much more.
There are a variety of VR headsets on the market. In general, they all contain an LCD or LED monitor and built-in stereo speakers to provide a realistic experience. VR headsets require something to be played in them. These can be games, applications, or 3D movies. VR technology offers us a way to have a simulated experience of a computer-generated or 360° videotaped and photographed environment.
When you put on a VR headset, you are disconnected from your actual surroundings and absorbed inside a life-like “alternative reality.” Instead of simply viewing a screen in front of you, VR places you inside of the experience itself. It feels so real and immersive that it can convince the brain that it is somewhere it is really not.
Imagine looking around as you wind your way through a crowded exotic marketplace in Jerusalem with all its vibrant sights and sounds whirling about you—all from a seat at your synagogue or local senior center. That’s virtual reality!

An exciting development is the high tech industry’s eagerness to partner with CJE in many areas of facilitating the program. Highly innovative international organizations that are engaged in utilizing high tech to help older adults have been in discussions with CJE, and the results are promising. These organizations could provide guidance on how to further enhance a VR program, how to locate the best equipment and could work with us to maximize the “travel” experience for older adults.

Prior to applying for a grant from the JUF Breakthrough Fund, Catherine Samatas, Manager of CJE’s Community Engagement Department and Instant Israel’s Program Manager, reviewed the proposed program with CJE’s famed Bureau of Sages, a research advisory board comprised of Lieberman Center community members who meet regularly to give feedback to researchers on senior-related topics. Samatas found out that there would be a steeper learning curve with some older adults, but overall the feedback was very positive—older adults could enjoy and benefit from the VR experience. Indeed, the Bureau of Sages’ opinions helped shaped the action plan of the year-long pilot project.

The goal this year, according to Samatas, is to focus on the benefits of using VR technology with older adults in a meaningful, intergenerational context. That’s why each tour is planned to accommodate small groups of older adults. Samatas anticipates “this activity will generate some very lively conversations and socializing between all the participants, young and old.”

Samatas is looking forward to her first “trip” to Israel as well as learning more about what VR technology can offer to our residents and community members: “We are thrilled to have this opportunity to test the feasibility of using VR videos in programs for older adults and to document the program’s impact on enhancing social connections in the Jewish community. Going forward, CJE will utilize the outcomes of this project to develop future VR programming that could improve the health and quality of life of older adults—after all, that is the core of CJE’s mission.”


To learn more about all the educational and enriching programs offered by CJE’s Community Engagement Team, and to see if there is an Instant Israel group program that you could join, call Casey Shipman at 773.508.1312 or visit for updates.