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.