The airlines staff ask you a lot of questions when you check in for your flight.. A LOT of questions. But when you arrive on the Birthright trip, you are greeted by an Israeli guide whose first words are “Welcome home.” This trip is so different.

Taglit Birthright, in case you haven’t heard of it, is a free 10-day trip to Israel for 18-26 year olds. It is funded by rich Jewish donors all over and the Israeli government/people. Yes, FREE! Ahhh, so cool.

My Bonus Week!

awesome host and yoga instructor Bat!
Mostly when I travel, I seem to always be moving around pretty quickly, trying to see as much as possible, so for this week, I decide to just hang out!  A close friend I made in Vienna has an Israeli boyfriend (whom I've never even met since he lives in New Zealand) who practices a lot of yoga.  He kindly put me in touch with a yoga instructor friend he has in Tel Aviv.  It turns out she is an instructor at the Bikram studio there! And she opened her home so willingly to me- a complete stranger.

Sigal and I

I went to yoga everyday, met up with some group members, got to know the streets, markets, and old town quarters of Tel Aviv, and met up with more friends-of-friends for some great local food.   I really got to know one Israeli group member named Sigal better, spending 3 of the days together with her since she lived just outside Tel Aviv.  This was a really special time for us since the group was 40 people so this felt much more personal.  We went to the beach and the markets and I also invited her with me when I went to visit my step-cousin Ari and his family.  This was a really special day for both Sigal and I.  For me, I was meeting a recent addition to my extended family for the first time and lucky me, he lives in Israel!... but both of us had a special experience bonding with Ari's three children and seeing the moshav (small town) where they live.  He is a winemaker there and it is such a charming place to raise a family.

My hostess is named Bat and we had a special time together also.  I couldn't believe how awesome she turned out to be.  Bat was a great model for healthy lifestyle and wisdom about life.  I just couldnt get enough of her and luckily she let me ask questions about everything.  She was busy studying Ashtanga yoga and preparing for a sweat lodge with her shamanic leader and group in the desert near Jerusalem but we did get to spend some time together on my last day, eating at an Indian restaurant where everyone sits on the floor and only locals seems to know about.

I really feel that everyone I met in Israel was special and I each relationship meaningful.  Most people will ask me if I felt safe there and the answer is yes.  The Taglit Birthright trip does not focus on politics or Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but rather the history of the land and the Jewish people.  This trip was a unique experience to me, definitely a highlight of my travels.

Day 10

Today is the last day! We drive to Tel Aviv, sadly we only have until this evening here together so we gotta make the most of it.  We visit Independence Hall, where the first prime minister read the declaration of independence in 1948.  Next we visit Rabin Square, named for being the site where prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was assasinated in 1995.  Then onto the Carmel Market where we are let loose in the chaos! (Tons of Birthright kids are here!).  After felafels and shopping we go the the beach and play around till we see the sun set over Jaffa, the old port.  We walk up the hill in Jaffa where there are old ruins, now housing art galleries and restaurants.  After dinner, we part ways with the group, some of us are going back to the states but myself and more than half the group have extended our stay a little longer, so we can explore more!

view of Tel Aviv from Jaffa
Old Jaffa
last day together!

Day 9

Today we visit Tzfat, a holy city which is a center for Jewish mysticism or Kabbalah.  We separate into boys and girls and enter a mikveh where we have an empowering discussion and learn about the cleansing process that takes place in the rainwater baths there.  Tzfat is beautifully located on top of a hill and lots of cool people seem to live here!  They also have neat art galleries and of course, we eat our daily delicious felafel or shawarma for lunch.

Our Israeli friends tell us about how special this trip turned out to be for them- so much more than just a week of from the army! We bid them farewell at the train station and spend the night in a coastal town called Haifa.  We have a surprise party for one of group members, he didn't see it coming! Then we get to enjoy a night at a bar in Haifa.

Day 8

 Now we are in the North of Israel, in a territory called Golan Heights.  We start the day with a hike to Banias waterfall, where there is a stream with an overturned war tank from WWII.  It's so pretty here and Israeli's truly love this place because a stream is a rarity in Israel.

Then we visit an old army fortress on a mountain top near the Syrian border.  From the top, you can see the United Nations and behind that you see Syria.  Golan Heights is still technically part of Syria but is mostly occupied by Israel.

Our next stop is an olive oil mill where we not only get to watch how olive oil is made and everything that goes into the production of quality products, we also get an unanticipated political rant from the very intelligent owner!

All this outdoor sightseeing is really keeping me pretty cold most of the time... or freezing rather... if you know me you understand this.  So I'm stoked that the next stop is hot springs at a resort on the Sea of Galilee!  I'm feeling pretty good now!

After dinner we do some activities on Israel and cultural identity that have been organized by our Israeli group members.  We learn more about each other, Israeli history, and the Israel Defense Force in which some of them are still serving.  It is remarkable how much we can learn from each other.  One girl, who is in charge of a squadron consisting of Americans who have moved to Israel to join the IDF, says she feels so much reassurance to see our group of Jewish Americans who are not so religious like her squadron members; she says this makes her feel more comfortable with her Jewish identity because she is not all that religious in her daily life.