Summing up 10 days in Israel is going to be quite the task. I originally intended for this post to be more diary style about my Taglit Birthright trip, in which I would share what I did each day of my trip. This, however, might have seemed a little mundane for those who couldn’t relate.
Instead, I’m going to write about my preconceptions versus the reality of my trip. Honestly, I went into this trip having my own expectations and everyone that I talked to gave me different answers on what to expect. Hopefully future Birthright participates can read this, and it will help ease any worries that they have and will let them know what they’re getting themselves into.
To start, for those who don’t know what Birthright is, here it goes… Taglit Birthright is an organization funded mainly by 3 different groups: the Israeli government, local U.S. Organizations, and private investors. Their goal is to give 18-27 year olds, who have at least one grandparent of Jewish descent, an opportunity to explore their Jewish identities and the State of Israel. Taglit hopes that at the end of the 10 days at least some of the people that take the trip will make “Aliyah” to Israel, which is the process where they become Israeli citizens since all Jewish people have a birth right to live in the Jewish state.
Now here it goes…
Is anything in life truly free? Unfortunately not. But I figured that since this trip is marketed as a free trip, that 99% of it would be.
About 80% of the trip was free – so I’m not complaining at all! The first thing that you don’t think about when signing up, is that they only offer flights from JFK (New York) and LAX (Los Angeles). Therefore, you need to figure out your traveling and living arrangements to those airports (flights, buses, taxis, hotels, friend’s apartment, homeless man’s box, etc). In Israel, I was surprised that 2 out of the 3 meals each day were included. Other than that you have to pay for gifts, snacks, and adult beverages :). ALSO, after you finish the trip you get your $250 deposit back. So that’s cool.
I thought we were going to be riding camels to each one of our destinations… KIDDING GUYS! My assumption was that we would take a bus everywhere, but we would go from one place to the next in a very efficient manner.
My assumption was correct that we would take a bus; however, we did a lot of back and forth driving that didn’t make lots of sense. Our trip was centered around Tel Aviv, so I’m not sure if this relates to all trips, but, we started in Tel Aviv, went to the North, then to Jerusalem, then back to Tel Aviv, then to the desert, then back to Tel Aviv. It seemed like a lot of trips to Tel Aviv at a lot of separate times, yet I appreciated it since some of the best naps of my life happened on that bus. Those seriously were some of the only moments that we had to rest.
Going in to this trip, the thing I was most worried about was not knowing the other people I was traveling with. Typically, I’ve heard that people go with a friend or family member. Also I should mention that this particular trip was for people between the ages of 22 and 26 (they generally have separate trips for different age groups: one group for 18-22 year olds and another for 22-26 year olds). I was worried that at the old age of 26 I would be the “grandma” of the trip, and I would be surrounded by thirty immature 22 year-olds. My brother, who had previously gone, recommended not going with any one that I knew. That means no friends, no family, and no acquaintances. Alone. By going by myself I truly had to put myself out there and make the effort to get to know the others. This is not something I was necessarily scared of, but I was nervous that the other people on my trip would have people that they already knew, and therefore they would be super cliquey and not friendly. In addition, I was worried that there would be people who would be really negative and not fun to be around.
During the first 10 minutes at the airport, I met my future BFF of the trip – Emma (hey girl heyyyy). Two hours later we boarded the flight, and we met our other future BFF of the trip, Beckett, who sat in between us on the flight. Everyone was very friendly, especially the staff. Our tour group leader Shany (pronunced “Shah-knee”) was an Israeli woman, and she was AMAZING. Such a bad ass, while also being super caring and hilarious. The other people on my trip were honestly not what I expected. There were 34 of us and we ranged in age from 18 to 27. I was surprised to find out that, like me, a lot of people were traveling alone. There were also some cousins, brothers, and sisters. We were from all around the country: Cali, New York, Boston, Austin, Chicago, Vegas and even from Italy and Canada! It was very interesting how much you learn about someone in only 10 days, but also there are so many things that you will never know about that person. We had a great group, and I’m honored that I had the chance to meet and travel to Israel with them all.
So I’ve had many friends talk about the Israeli’s they met on their trip. Funny, that’s kind of the only thing they talk about. All they said was “Fall in love with an Israeli”. Silly people; that won’t happen. Something fun that we did the night before we actually met the Israeli’s on our trip, we shared all of the stereotypes that we could think of. So I’ll list some of them – Sexy, Tan, Bad ass, soldiers, etc.
All of those stereotypes ended up being true. Look how sexy they are (see image below :-P). They were all such friendly, fun, and interesting people. Having them there was a great way to learn intimate details about living in Israel and what it is like to live in a Jewish country. In Israel, Judaism is more a part of the culture than a religion. Also they taught us all about the difficulties since it’s not easy to live in this volatile country. Politics gets old. Family is very important to them. Additionally, it was interesting to learn about how they go to the army when they’re 18 years-old for 2+ years; then once they are done, they travel for as long as they want, and after doing all that they finally go to college. This is so different from the U.S. where going to college immediately after high school is the norm, and it’s frowned upon to deviate from that path.
Hot. My brother told me it would be a dry heat though.
Not a cloud in the sky…and really freaking hot. My brother lied, it was humid. Maybe not as humid as Houston per se, but there was definitely some moisture in the air.
I love Mediterranean food, so this was the part that I was most excited for. I assumed the program would be providing some of the meals, but I wasn’t entirely sure which meals and how many meals a day it would be. Since I think of bagels and lox as a Jewish thing, I honestly expected Israel to be FULL of bagels and lox. I guess I was a little ignorant on that one….
In Israel, I ate LOTS of falaful, shawarma, schnitzel, hummus, and fresh vegetables. Also Israel is known for their pickled food. We received 2 meals per day, which were provided by Birthright – these meals were typically breakfast and dinner. I can’t say that I had any bad food while I was there (I am also not really a picky eater at all). Since were were in Israel, the meals were mostly kosher. In a typical day my meals would be:
- In the morning, the breakfast generally included eggs, bread, hummus, and assortment of fresh vegetables. On top of that, they had all of the dairy products you could think of – sliced cheese, cottage cheese, labneh (similar to greek yogurt), yogurt, and more.
- For lunch we typically were on the go so we would stop at a “fast food” place meaning a place that would serve you food fast (not a McDonalds or Burger King). Fast food in Israel is basically the time when you indulge on your falafel, shawarma, and shnitzel.
- For dinner, the meals were all delicious. There would be chicken, fish, potatoes, hummus, cooked and fresh vegetables, and different types of salads (beet salads, pasta salad, etc). Also beware of the FISH BALLS. I thought it was a meatball, and I was terribly upset after biting into it and realizing what it actually was. On the last day some of my friends and I went to “Olive” (אוליב) in Tel Aviv. It was here that I finally sated my craving for lox with a lox sandwich with cream cheese and veggies (seen below). Another tip – if you are a low carb eater similar to myself, you can order your shawarma and falafel on a plate without having to worry about eating all of the delicious pita. I tried to do that a few times, but the pita was just TOO GOOD! My biggest food regret was I did not get a chance to eat shakshuka – which is an Israeli breakfast dish (poached eggs in tomato sauce). Next time!
Since my brother and many of my other friends had already gone on this trip, I knew drinking was a thing. I thought it would be pretty lenient because we are all over 21 years old.
So the drinking rules for Birthright is basically a Catch-22. You arrive to Israel and they make you sign a no drinking waiver. A what?!! Yes, a no drinking waiver. Honestly, I think it is purely to cover their butts if anything happens to a participant who can’t handle their alcohol and does something dumb. It was also VERY confusing because they took us to a winery which included a wine tasting. That doesn’t seem to make sense, does it?! Don’t worry everyone, you can drink. You just can’t be extremely open about it – the trip leaders just turned a blind eye to it. My advice for any future Birthrighters is – when buying alcohol and bringing it back to your room just don’t be obvious about it. Put it in a dark bag or a big purse. Don’t be overly hungover during group activities. Being hungover in 90+ degree weather is NO FUN. But drinking heavily is part of being in your 20’s, so still have fun. Just be responsible. Yes I sound like a mother right now…oy vey.
Going into this trip I knew that it would be very active. Certain themed trips are apparently more active than others. I read my itinerary before going so I knew that I would be doing something active everyday, but I wasn’t entirely sure how long each activity would take and how much downtime we would have.
The activities were NON-STOP. I felt like we were constantly on the go – which was fine with me. We only had “10 days” in Israel, so we might as well do everything we can within that time crunch. We were constantly going, going, going – hence why I slept for 15 hours a day when I got back from my trip. There was hardly any time to rest. Lots of short naps happened while in transit because of this.
We had the chance to white water raft the Jordan River. This was a hilarious experience, my poor friend Beckett kept having to get out of the water and push us off rocks that we got stuck on. Apparently it only rains 40 days out of the 365 days of the year (typically during the winter time). Therefore, they were in a drought and the river definitely proved this to us.
On our trip, we went on a bunch of hikes, one was at the Arbel Nature Reserve and National Park which looked over the Sea of Galilee and we also did the 7 minute hike up Masada and the hour long hike down it (Masada picture below)
While in the desert, we had the chance to visit the Bedouin Tents; while we were there we road on camels. Surprisingly it did not hurt as badly as people said. I think our camel was just more gentle than the others. We got to wear really sweet helmets too! The Bedouin tents were cool because while we were there, we could chill at night by a fire, make s’mores, and play card games. A good get-to-know-you experience. The stargazing in the desert was unbelievable! The sky was so clear with stars everywhere, and I even saw a shooting star!
One of the best (and hottest) days was when we had the chance to float in the Dead Sea. We rubbed mud all over our bodies and then cautiously walked into the sea. I say cautiously because the Dead Sea is the saltiest body of water, and it’s the lowest point on Earth. Because of this, any cut or orifice on your body stings because of the high salinity. The water was surprisingly really hot. Once the mud rinses off, my skin felt the softest and smoothest that it will ever feel in my life. Everyone kept asking other people to touch their skin because everyone’s was just SO SOFT. Fun fact – nothing can live in the Dead Sea, hence why it’s called the DEAD Sea. It was a very amazing experience to let your feet go and your body just floats effortlessly.
My trip was unique from other Birthright trips because we went on a Graffiti tour – I am pretty sure this isn’t a typical Israel excursion. It was interesting getting to see the graffiti throughout the city of Tel Aviv. We walked around in Florentine, which is known to be a crummy area but it is slowly getting popular. Similar to Brooklyn, New York I’d think.
Other activities we did were visiting the: Western Wall, Golan Heights Vineyard, Cesaria, Tzfat, Machane Yehuda Market in Jerusalem, Yad Vashem (Holocaust Museum), Herzl Cemetery, Tech Center, Jaffa (old part of Tel Aviv – kind of hipstery), beach in Tel Aviv, Sarona Neighborhood, Rabin Square, Yitzhak Rabin Center, and Independence Hall.
Yad Vashem (the Holocaust Museum) and the Herzl Cemetery were very emotional parts of the trip. We walked around in the Holocaust museum for over 2 hours. They built the museum so that by the end of the experience your feet and back ache in order to make you appreciate the hardships that the Jews and other sufferers went through during that time period. While at the Herzl Cemetery, we walked by the tombstones of people who were in the Israeli government along with hundreds if not thousands of fallen soldiers. Since Israel is in a constant state of war, it was very sad how they had a new plot of land ready for the next soldiers to take their spot. Sorry to darken the mood! The trip couldn’t be just rainbows and butterflies!
Was hoping for a nice 4 star hotel (maybe a 3 star since it said hostel on the itinerary…)
The hotels/hostels we stayed at were not too shabby. One of the places grossed me out a bit, but I survived (there was hair (not mine) on my sheet/pillow!!!). All of the places other than that were very cleanly. Below is the Bedouin tent we stayed in one of the nights. Another one of the not most hygienic places we stayed, but it was a cool experience. The other great aspect of the living accommodations was that the leaders assigned you 2 new roommates for every hotel you were in. This was a good way to get to know other people on your trip that you may not have had the chance to talk to.
Religiously Associated Trip
In short, I thought the leaders would be shoving Judaism down our throats.
Not as religious as I thought. This trip was a more pro-Israel trip than a pro-Judaism trip. We had the opportunity to go to the Western Wall, which is a very holy place for Jews and religious area of Jerusalem. Another day we met with a rabbi who was originally from California where we discussed Jewish ethics. The rabbi looked like your typical Hasidic Jew, with the curls by his ears, black coat and black hat. He was very funny, chill, and down to earth. We sat around and engaged in some case studies where we related Jewish principles back to our modern life.
The other big thing I learned is that being Jewish in Israel is COMPLETELY different from being Jewish in the United States. Being Jewish in Israel is more of a cultural thing than religious. Instead of getting Christmas off, they get the week of Hanukkah off. It was all very interesting because I figured that everyone who was Jewish would attend synagogue for the holy days, but in Israel that is not thing for most Israelis.
I figured there would be markets we could go to.
My assumption was correct. The markets were WAY cooler than I thought they would be. I fell in love with the one we went to in Jerusalem. There was so much fresh food everywhere. I imagined what it would be like to go to that market for your daily cooking needs. SO COOL. We also went to Tzfat which is a small artsy town where I bought some jewelry. We also had the chance to go to the Ahava stores (beauty products – lotions galore) while we were at Masada. I bought some great lotion and face wash. I wish I had bought more!
I was really hoping that everything would be okay, but I was secretly terrified since there had just been a shooting two weeks prior to my arrival.
I felt very safe during my trip. We had a “body guard” with us the entire trip. Also everywhere we went seemed to be calm and normal. The safety there is similar to the safety anywhere, are you ever truly safe? We even went to the look out where Israel borders Lebanon and Syria. We also went to a look out point over the West Bank. This definitely made the turmoil between Israeli’s and Palestinians more real. There was a wall keeping the Palestinians out of Israel. We also drove by one of the entry points into Israel which I think was very unique.
All in all, I had a great trip to Israel. I wish I could have extended my trip, but I unfortunately had to go back to work. I haven’t mentioned “extending your trip”, which a lot of people did on my trip. Basically if you want to travel around Israel more or even neighboring countries, Birthright will allow you to extend your trip and let you choose a different returning flight. The only thing is, is that if you go to another country or even continent, your return flight will still be out of Tel Aviv’s airport. I would highly recommend doing this.
I really could have written so much more about my trip. There was so many things we did and saw that should be mentioned. I feel very fortunate to have had the experience to visit Israel. Writing about this weeks later is making me want to go back NOW. Hopefully I’ll be back soon! For those who are 18-27 years old, I would highly recommend this trip. If I’ve convinced you to go, click on this link to sign up and go on your free trip to Israel!