This summer season marks the 13th anniversary of Birthright Israel, the audacious program that brings diaspora Jews aged 18-26 to Israel for a free trip. In honor of Birthright’s Bar Mitzvah, we’ve compiled a list of 13 completely unofficial dos and dont’s to help participants make the most of their experience. Several of us here at Jewlicious have worked as Birthright staff and these represent our collective wisdom. So here they are, presented in no particular order:
1. Choose your trip provider wisely
Birthright Israel trips are run by a collection of different trip providers. Some of these are simply private tourism businesses and others are associated or affiliated with an underlying Jewish organization. Birthright Israel, the organization at the top of this entity, sets out strict and extensive criteria regarding the content of these trips, but even so, your experience may vary significantly depending on who you choose to go with. As such a little research can go a long way to making sure that your trip provider meets your needs. The Birthright Israel Web site contains information about each trip provider as well as links to their sites. You should talk to your friends who have been on Birthright before and gather their opinions. They’ll all say their trip was the best so try and listen critically. Just don’t sign up for a trip from the first provider that comes your way, and don’t just go on a trip because your equally uncritical friends are all going too. For instance, Mayanot is a great trip provider, but it always amazes us how many people sign up not knowing that they are affiliated with Chabad – not that there’s anything wrong with that!
2. Don’t eat falafel/shwarma all the time
Birthright Israel provides you with two meals a day. Thus during your trip, you’ll usually have a lunch break somewhere with multiple food options – most of which will include falafel. However, if you are someplace cool, like say the Shuk in Jerusalem (Machaneh Yehudah) or Tel Aviv (Carmel Market) don’t just go and get yet another falafel or shwarma – or Aroma salad/ice coffee. For instance, the Jerusalem shuk contains a wealth of yummy food, much of which reflects the cuisine of the Kurdish/Iraqi Jews that live in the neighborhood. So go find some kubeh (meat dumplings), some stuffed vegetables, a nice plate of hummus or shakshuka, some juice from the Yemenite healer man – just don’t waste the opportunity to try something new and tasty by just having a falafel. Again.
3. Don’t eat at McDonalds
That’s just solid advice wherever you are, but its also a euphemism that urges you to avoid the familiar. I know that when one is far from home, familiarity can bring a sense of comfort. But still, it’s just a ten day trip. Why not put down that Coke and try a Malty instead? And it’s more than just about food choices – it’s about taking the opportunity to learn something new. Talk to the Israelis on your trip about their lives and hopes, challenge the narratives about Israel presented by your tour guide, get to know the other participants on your trip – the ones from other colleges or cities or social circles. It’ll be worth it and it will make your trip that much more interesting and meaningful.
4. Extend your ticket
Come on! You’re flying thousands of miles, going to a country you have little experience with, why not stay a little longer and explore a little on your own? Even if you have a job waiting, try like the dickens to get at least a couple of days more and spend some time getting to know Jerusalem or Tel Aviv a little better. If you have a more flexible schedule, you can visit the rest of the country, or find an inexpensive program for a week or two, like say Livnot that costs as little as $100 a week for full room and board and a program that includes hiking, learning and service projects in the always fascinating city of Safed. That’s just one (very good) example of the many options available to you. You’re definitely not going to have many more opportunities to fly to Israel for free so for goodness sake, take advantage!!! Once again, we cannot tell you how many times we’ve had to deal with disappointed participants who, 3-4 days into the trip find out that they really want to stay longer and simply can’t, but could have had they planned it earlier.
5. Don’t join the ISM after your trip
If you are an Anti-Israel activist and want to use your Birthright eligibility in order to score a free ticket to Israel just so that you can go and join an anti-Israel group in the West Bank, please don’t. Because of the very real danger involved, it goes against Birthright Israel rules. If they get wind of your plans beforehand, they will cancel your ticket; if they find out during the trip, they will send you home. I’m sure your intentions are good, and you feel your values are commendable, but why tarnish that with dishonesty and deception? If you are so hell bent on joining the ISM, then demonstrate your commitment to the cause by paying for the ticket to Israel yourself. Or better yet, read up about what the ISM is really all about. Oh and while you’re at it, read up about BDS as well.
6. Take off your headphones and listen to your tour guide
Your tour guides are highly trained professionals. They train for years in order to earn the certification that allows them to take you around the country. They know so much, it’s incredible, and if you show them just a bit of encouragement, they’ll return the consideration in spades! Ask them questions, make requests, engage them in thoughtful conversation, but for goodness sake, do not have your headphones on while they speak. It’s dumb because you’ll be missing out and also, it’s rude as fuck! They do not talk endlessly, there will always be time for music. Please, please take off your headphones…
7. Don’t get stoopid drunk
Maybe you’re under 21 and from the the US and this is the first time you have been able to drink legally (drinking age in Israel is 18). Or maybe you think that drinking makes you more attractive to the opposite sex (it doesn’t). Or maybe you’re a habitual drunk. Who knows? In any case, you’re an adult. Your trip allows you to go to stores and buy whatever you like, no one checks your bags. This isn’t High School. Again, you’re an adult and the assumption is that you’ll behave like an adult. Part of that means learning moderation and being considerate of others. If you drink excessively and somehow don’t get caught, you’ll be hung over the next day and obviously sluggish. This will detrimentally affect your trip – which isn’t free at all – it’s very expensive. Israeli tax dollars that could be used to help poor people eat are being used in order for you to have a meaningful experience. It can’t be meaningful if you’re in a haze. If you do get caught, you’ll be kicked off the trip which will cause an administrative hassle, and result in more wasted money that could have provided underprivileged children with puppies. You cad!
8. Don’t do drugs
See #7 above and add to that the possibility of getting ripped off, the possibility of getting arrested, the possibility of jail and the possibility of … oh never mind. Read our post titled The Unofficial Guide to Drugs on Birthright Israel. It will tell you everything you need to know.
9. Don’t hook up with someone on the trip unless you’d hook up with them outside the trip
Again, that’s just good life advice. You don’t want to end up like this girl – she, an arty hipster type, he, a frat brother in finance. A wasted hand job led to the inevitable conclusion after the trip. This and other pieces of excellent, albeit unofficial sex advice for adult Birthright Israel participants can be found here.
10. Read up about Israel before you come here
Many of you are avid travelers and wouldn’t think of going to a foreign country without reading up on it ahead of time. But on Birthright you seem to be the minority. Maybe it’s because the trip is free and you know it’ll be guided so you don’t care? However, you will enjoy the trip so much more if you read up a bit about Israel ahead of time. You can read a travel book or a history book, look up stuff on the Internet, whatever. Having some idea of what’s going on generally in the region makes for a much better experience! Everything won’t seem as foreign to you, you’ll be able to ask more informed questions etc. Don’t be that person who asks “So what’s the deal with the Palestinians anyway? What’s that all about?”
11. No matter what, cover yourself in mud at the Dead Sea
In all likelihood, after visiting the mountain fortress of Massada, you will visit the Dead Sea. Depending on where you go, Dead Sea mud may not be immediately available. Stop whatever you are doing and get some. You may have to ask around, you may have to buy a bag of it for 15 shekels, whatever. Just do it. It makes for a great photo opp and it leaves your skin smooth as a baby’s butt. Also read up about environmental aspects of the Dead Sea in order to appreciate the experience that much more.
12. Beg your tour guide/trip provider for a meaningful Shabbat experience
In all fairness, some Birthright Israel trip providers allow participants to enjoy a meaningful Shabbat experience. This can include a Friday night visit to the Kotel / Western Wall at the start of the Friday night Sabbath, or home hospitality meals at the homes of cool observant Jews or at the very least, a Sabbath meal led by trained facilitators who attempt to add meaning to the experience. However, some trip providers are content to just have a Sabbath meal with maybe a token blessing over the wine and that’s that. Please inform yourself ahead of time as to the nature of your trip’s Sabbath plans and if nothing meaningful is planned, switch to another trip provider or insist that your trip include a proper Sabbath program. You’d be surprised how receptive trip providers are to that sort of lobbying. Sabbath in Israel is actually pretty special. Visiting Israel and not enjoying at least one peaceful, spiritually fulfilling Sabbath would be like going to Mardi Gras and not getting drunk. Or something like that. Yeah, sorry. Worst. Analogy. Ever.
13. Send a thank you note to Gidi
Gidi Mark is the head of Taglit Birthright Israel. He and his staff work tirelessly all year long to make sure that your trip happens and that it’s great. They raise funds, assess effectiveness and try to come up with more and better ideas to keep you entertained and inspired. It’s a tough job. Birthright Israel doesn’t just happen you know. So, if you enjoyed your trip, why not send him a quick email? He’ll pass on your gratitude to his fellow staff people, his philanthropists, government officials and the trip providers. Go ahead, your Mom would be proud! Believe me, if someone gave me $5,000, I’d send them a thank you note! Now, apparently it might be a bad idea to just post his email address here, so just use the contact form and we’ll send it to you. Alternatively or in addition, you could alkso share your experience with others using facebook/twitter, or write a blog post or encourage your friends to go too. And even if you have a critical opinion of the trip, share it with Gidi. It’ll show you care and perhaps help make future trips better.
So yeah, Mazal tov on your Bar Mitzvah Birthright Israel! Today you are a man!
Ok, that too was a bad analogy. Again. Sorry.