A few years ago, I found out that Taglit-Birthright changed their rules and I suddenly qualified for their free ten-day trip to Israel. I’m all about free trips, and definitely saw the value of a free flight to another continent (not something that comes around every day), so I signed on with Israel Outdoors for a trip departing New Year’s day 2014.
The ten-day tour went as expected: tons of activities jam-packed into ten days with a bus full of other young Atlanta Jews. Group tours have never really been my style (let us remember the teacher trip to the north of Thailand in 2013 shall we? The broken bus, the pork rinds, me losing my mind, etc.) so if I’m being honest, I was counting down the day until I could be on my own and do things at my own pace.
I spent a total of four weeks in Israel after my Birthright trip – and weirdly never wrote a thing about it?? I hung around Tel Aviv for about a week, Couchsurfing and revisiting places like Shuk Carmel by myself – which is very different from going in a group of 30 Americans – where I bought fresh figs and ate them on a bench by the beach.
I stayed one night in a hostel and went on a pub crawl; I stayed another night with a friend of a friend and celebrated Tu B’shvat with them. I then stayed with my friend’s cousins just outside of Tel Aviv while I organized a work exchange in the desert for the remainder of my time in Israel.
I worked at a hostel in a small desert town called Mitzpe Ramon, which sat on the edge of a massive “crater” (actually a makhtesh, a crater-looking geological formation caused by erosion of ancient volcanic sediments). My co-volunteer was from Germany and our daily responsibilities included checking in guests, cleaning the hostel, and providing tips about the town and hiking through the makhtesh. In exchange, we received free accommodation in one of the hostel’s shared rooms and a stipend for groceries.
It was a slow, quiet three weeks in the desert. My co-volunteer and I spent almost all of our time together, going on hikes if we had a day off, or doing yoga on the porch during our downtime. We cooked magnificently resourceful Shabbat dinners on Friday nights and invited the hostel guests to share in the experience by contributing their own potluck dishes. We sang a lot and cleaned a lot more.
I had one weekend off and decided to go to Jerusalem by myself. I wandered around the Armenian, Muslim, and Christian quarters of the Old City, which I hadn’t gotten to see during the Birthright tour (we had only gone to the Jewish Quarter).
Wandering Jerusalem solo was really special. I did a tour in the tunnels below the Western Wall and walked on 2,000-year-old streets that used to border the temple. I lit a candle in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. I was invited to drink coffee with an Arab shopkeeper. I went back to the market in Jerusalem we had rushed through with our tour group and stopped to haggle for some olives and fresh halvah.
Finally, when my time in Israel was up, I flew to Istanbul and had a whole other kind of adventure (one I HIGHLY recommend).
In conclusion: EXTEND YOUR STAY AFTER BIRTHRIGHT! DO IT!!! For ideas on what to do during that time, check out this post.
Wait for me Israel! I’m coming soon 😀 Thanks, Michelle!
I would love to visit Israel and it really seems like you had an amazing time. I am also not usually fond of group tours so I am particularly envious (in a good way!)of the slower independent part of your trip. The solo wandering of jerusalem sounds like a dream.
Yes, Jerusalem solo was completely fascinating, and so important to my understanding of the Old City. If you ever make it there, definitely do the tunnels tour – it’s unbelievable how old those roads are (so old that they’re buried!) and you get to WALK on them!!
It’s so amazing to read articles about other cultures and religions, not just traveling and sigh seeing. As a Catholic , I Had to google a few terms , but I’m learning, so it’s all good
How lucky to be able to travel to this amazing place! Very cool, really interesting to read.
What a great opportunity to experience ancestral history in both a group and on your own. Awesome trip!
I had a similar experience when I went to Rajasthan. Coming up close & experience one’s ancestral history can be both overwhelming and joyous. I’m glad you loved it 🙂
Hi Aditi! Thanks for your comment. Yes, it’s an experience you definitely don’t forget.
I really wanna go to Israel! Did you travel solo there? did you think it was safe for a Western woman? I would love to go but am a little scared… what about the conflict? Did it affect your travels?
Honestly, take my advice for credit: I’ve spent 6 months there, and it’s really is safe. No more secure place in the world no matter what you hear on TV! x
Hi Linda, Thanks for commenting! I’ve been to Israel twice – once in 2004 and then again in 2014. In both cases, we had a guard with us – a guy with a gun and emergency training who came with us everywhere we went. This is a common feature of group travel in the country, but even without the guard, I think I would have felt safe. (For example, when traveling on my own after the group trip in 2014, I obviously didn’t have a guard and was completely solo and I felt safe in all but a few instances of being alone and lost in a city – a time when I would have felt vulnerable no matter which country I was in.)
But regardless of having a guard with you or not, the country is well-prepared for emergencies. Conscription is required for 2-3 years for every citizen, so all are trained in the army at some point and there are active soldiers in uniform with guns everywhere you go. Places like shopping malls have tight security at the entrances, and getting through immigration at the border means answering a LOT of questions. So there is definitely heightened security compared to other places in the world, but it’s all for the best. It makes you feel safer in the end.
I would love to visit Israel one day it is on our list of must see places. I love that picture of you sitting and watching the sunset. Glad you took advantage of this opportunity.
Wow this sounds like a great opportunity and you planned everything so immaculately. We would love to grab such an opportunity 😉 And Israel is on our bucketlist we hope to make it soon
Michelle, I think we’re going to get along. So you know, I’ve just spent 6 months in Israel. I call it home by now, and I know so too well the Taglit birthright expedition program, since it’s this one who makes me want to try a stay longer trip there. I’m so glad you’re talking about it! I saw you went to Ein Gedi and this picture reminds me of mine in the desert haha! Good to know you loved it! x
Hi Liana! Haha yes sounds we will 🙂
Wow, 6 months! Where in Israel are you based? Thanks for commenting 🙂
Group tours are also not for me. I don’t like walking with a crowd of people and having my every minute of life organized, I prefer wandering on my own and exploring off the beaten path places. Nice pictures you took, they make me wanna visit this place too.
Hi Epepa, yes I have the same feelings about group tours most of the time. I really struggle to enjoy them!! There’s just something really special about being on your own…
Sounds like a fantastic trip! You did so well to extend it and take your time travelling solo.
Israel as a nation has always intrigued me. The history, the people and the cities are just something different. And I get all this from reading excellent informative articles like these. I love your writing – it is more of a conversation with the reader.
Hi Tamz, thank you for the compliment, that really means a lot
Israel is a place steeped in history with a different magic altogether, really envy you for getting a free trip to this lovely country, I am sure you enjoyed it every bit.
And I had to google what birthright trip is! I have been reading a lot about Israel nowadays. And I am happy to see this side of Israel!
This all looks wonderful! I have never been to Israel, but I am dying to go. I especially would want to eat the hummus and halvah. I’ve only eaten fresh halvah like that in Russia.
I had NO idea they have halvah in Russia. Good to know I can satisfy any future cravings if I ever make it to Russia!
That is awesome! A free trip!? Too bad I don’t qualify =( I have done a few tours and usually feel burnt out after them. Seeing everything is nice but jam-pack is no longer my style.
Great post you have there! I love hummus, and find it to be one of the less sinful dips to have. Israel is on my list for future, and I am bookmarking your post for the same.
Wow sounds like a lovely trip. It is great to get to travel on your own and experience a different culture.
This was a really joyous post to read, you’ve got a great tone – friendly with just the right amount of information. Your couch surfing experiences and time at the hostel will be a great memories for you!
Thank you Jessica!
Going to Israel soon. Would love to know what hostel this was at which you stayed.
Hi Adam, sorry I somehow missed this. When I was in the desert, I stayed at The Green Backpackers. When I was in Jerusalem, I stayed at Abraham Hostel. Hope that helps!
This looks like an amazing post Birthright trip. I did not have the opportunity to do Birthright as I spent a year in Israel after high school, but I can imagine 10 packed days of traveling would not be enough at all. You should definitely check out northern Israel and all the beautiful green hikes it has to offer next time you go back.
Hi Steven! Thanks for commenting 🙂 I actually almost volunteered in a hostel in the north instead but it turned out the dates didn’t work with them so I ended up in Mitzpe Ramon. Next time.
Great information! We are looking into going to Israel next year. My husband really lived Tel Aviv. While we were being drenched in Germany he was soaking up the sun there. I was jealous. Lol
Ah yes Tel Aviv does have lovely weather. If you fly from Germany you won’t be alone: I met SO many Germans traveling through Israel. There must be some really great flight deals between Berlin and Tel Aviv or something.