The Unofficial 13 Dos and Don’ts of Birthright Israel

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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!

Yummy. But not every day!

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.

Gidi Mark, CEO of Birthright Israel

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.

Founder of Jewlicious? Publisher? Man I hate titles. I coined the name Jewlicious and I slave over the site. I live in Jerusalem and I need to get some breakfast.

46 Comments

  1. Naomi

    6/11/2012 at 11:44 am

    Really disappointed by this post! Not up to par with your usual stuff Jewlicious! Not only is it not really that funny, but am very surprised that you neglected to mention that Mayanot puts a RABBI on each trip – something that never fails to shock their participants!

    • ck

      6/11/2012 at 5:17 pm

      I don’t think I was going for funny. This is all serious advice… As for Mayanot, seriously not a bad trip provider at all. But try and find a rabbi on their site. It’s pretty funny.

    • Todd

      6/12/2012 at 4:43 am

      I agree with Naomi…. Serious or not, it wasn’t CK quality…. I’m disappointed.

    • ck

      6/12/2012 at 6:00 am

      Aw come on you guys! If we write something salacious then the old people yell at us. Now that I am writing something that contains solid advice, readers are dissing me? I can’t win.

      • Benji

        6/27/2012 at 1:02 am

        CK, this was an awesome post. Really.

      • Sara

        8/29/2012 at 12:59 pm

        You can’t please everyone, so please yourself. If you like it, if it’s read, then that’s enough.

        I personally thought it was all sound advice!

  2. Adam

    6/11/2012 at 12:19 pm

    Number 3 does NOT apply if you keep kosher.

    If you keep kosher, and you have the opportunity to eat McDonalds FOR THE FIRST TIME IN YOUR LIFE – Do it!

    (At least get some fries. McD fries are very unique and fantastic)

    FYI: Not all McDonalds location in Israel are kosher. In fact, only about 20% of them are, so be sure to check for their kosher certificate first.

    • Jen

      6/11/2012 at 4:59 pm

      The one in the airport is kosher!! The one by Ben Yehuda street is not.

      • Mel

        11/13/2013 at 2:53 am

        As an FYI, there is no longer a McDonalds at the airport. I just came back from a non-birthright trip where I was obsessing over finding a kosher McDonalds. Found it the last day and took photos to torture my mother. :)

    • ck

      6/11/2012 at 5:19 pm

      No. Never eat at McDonalds. Ever.

  3. Guillermo

    6/11/2012 at 12:56 pm

    Can you please suggest to me what a 16 year old boy can do for 3 weeks during the summer? A friend’is coming for some program but then staying an additional 3 weeks. Initially he plans on staying at my place in tel aviv. I was thinking he can go to ulpan gordon, but I dont know if they take 16 year olds. What else could he do? Are there programs for a few weeks that dont have offiicial start and end dates…that he can join whenever?
    thanks.

    • Laurie

      6/18/2012 at 3:25 am

      Try the Alexander Muss High School in Israel. they have programs year-round and may have something going on that a visitor can join.

      I also thought that the post was pretty on-target with some good suggestions. One point though — I know plenty of people who were able to extend their ticket while they were on their BRI trip, even one who extended last week, on Day 10. You may have fewer options for return flights than if you plan ahead and extend before you arrive in israel, but if you can be flexible, there are always opportunities to extend for a few days, a few weeks or longer.

  4. ck

    6/11/2012 at 5:31 pm

    Wow. I remember when I was 16. I went to Israel and started a one year program at Hebrew U. If he’s mature enough, just let him travel! Otherwise, call up the Jewish Agency and see if they have programs available… there’s got to be something!

    • gugs

      6/27/2012 at 1:31 am

      I traveled to Israel by myself when I was 15. I slept at a relative but was pretty much left on my own the whole time – not sure what my parents were thinking but if they are mature enough it’s fine.

  5. Eve

    6/12/2012 at 6:03 am

    You know that no matter what you do or say, [redacted] is going to hate you guys, right?

    Ed. Note: If you are going to make unsubstantiated accusations of any kind, including against an identifiable person, prepare to have your comment deleted or modified. We are leaving this up as a warning to you and to others.

    • ck

      6/12/2012 at 6:07 am

      I have no idea what you’re talking about Eve. [redacted] works tirelessly on behalf of Birthright Israel and the Jewish world and we have nothing but admiration and gratitude for the work that she does.

      • Eve

        6/12/2012 at 9:25 am

        Don’t be coy ck. You ought to know exactly what I’m talking about. Let’s just say that throughout the organized North American Jewish community, there are certain individuals who make it a point to cock block you every chance they have. No amount of fawning praise is going to change that because some of them absolutely hate you. Wasn’t there a large event planned for September I think that had eager community partners and then suddenly it just evaporated overnight? Didn’t you wonder how that happened?

        • ck

          6/12/2012 at 9:27 am

          I don’t think this is the proper venue for this discussion. You can email me at jewlicious at gmail dot com and I will be glad to entertain whatever it is you want to share with me. Otherwise can we focus a little more on the main topic? Why do you even care?

        • Eve

          6/12/2012 at 9:29 am

          Fair enough.

          Why do I care? I’m a fan! I’ve been reading the blog for years and I heard Rabbi Yonah speak recently in Toronto; he was great! Now back to Birthright Israel – best trip ever! Thanks Gidi Mark! Thanks Liz!

          • Rabbi Yonah

            6/15/2012 at 11:30 am

            Thank you Eve for the compliment!

  6. Meir

    6/12/2012 at 6:08 am

    Actually, I found it to be practical and useful for anyone exploring the trip. Sometimes you loose the message when you go for the funny bone.

  7. Sharona Halickman

    6/12/2012 at 10:30 am

    Women 18-16 who want to extend their trip can apply for the Torat Reva Fellowship and Study in Jerusalem for 5 moths for only $1000 (or $2000 for the year). Check out the details on toratreva.org.

  8. Jackie

    6/12/2012 at 11:13 pm

    Don’t understand all the criticism….I thought this post was witty, insightful and clearly the author is trying to target his audience (teens/young adults). It’s not as shocking as some other stuff on jewlicious but rather some solid advice that I plan on sharing with my siblings!

    Oh and thanks for the tip about Gidi, I’ll make sure to write them a thank you note

  9. Jack

    6/16/2012 at 12:23 am

    Hello everyone. You are graciously invited to visit my web site… thestarofkaduri.com

  10. Meryl

    6/17/2012 at 2:06 am

    Such a good point about livnot! Extend and do the program in tzfat, I guarantee you won’t regret it!

  11. Sam Klein

    6/17/2012 at 9:32 am

    I’m here in Tzfat now with Livnot. For a post-Birthright program, or for a way to spend a month in Israel wisely, Livnot is definitely the way to go. Amazingly talented and dedicated staff, great people. We just got back from an overnight hike in the desert it was incredible.

  12. Jen

    6/18/2012 at 7:16 am

    As far as extension programs go, Livnot was absolutely amazing. I got to enjoy the benefits of a program without feeling suffocated, and it was more than just sight seeing. My week there was definitely one of the high points for my trip.

  13. Zechariah

    6/20/2012 at 9:36 pm

    I violated the very first suggestion given – picked a provider at random… however absolutely loved it! I went with Mayanot and although I’d previously only lit a Menorah a couple times, did not have a Bar Mitzvah, had never been to temple, and had zero knowledge of Shabbat, it was a great choice.

    Having a Rabbi on the trip was awesome, in fact his wife was there too and they were both 25 years old. Although it is affiliated with Chabad they do not pressure you in any way and the atmosphere is very much, “here’s what Judaism/Israel is all about, question us, discuss, and take away whatever you feel comfortable with.”

    Great list ck. Also, I highly recommend livnot.org . I extended my birthright trip and stayed with Livnot in Safed just shy of two weeks which really allowed me time to reflect and spend time with others who wanted to take it all in and explore Israel/Judaism a little more in depth. The program was ridiculously inexpensive and all the hikes, activities, and especially Shabbat with both the staff and a local host family are 100% worth experiencing!

    • froylein

      6/24/2012 at 12:07 pm

      You become a bar mitzvah once yo turn 13; the ceremony is not like a Christian sacrament, it’s not supposed to turn you into anything, rather mark the occasion. I know party planners won’t like me sharing this bit.

      • ck

        6/25/2012 at 5:54 am

        I instinctively looked for a like button on your comment Froylein ;)

  14. Joshua Lavian

    6/24/2012 at 3:43 am

    I could not agree more with the extend your trip part and about doing a program like Livnot!!!! I felt as though I learned more about myself and Judaism by doing Livnot after Birthright then I had my entire life growing up in the states. It’s an atmosphere of where they encourage questions, candor, and discovery.
    Best of all, what you find through the program is totally up to you, whether you’re looking for a week packed with hiking and cave exploring, or to dive into the spirituality that is Tzfat. and its sooooooooooooooo cheap!

  15. sara

    6/25/2012 at 5:20 am

    Can I post this article on my Facebook page! It’s fantastic and I would love to share this info with our fellow Jews!

    • ck

      6/25/2012 at 5:33 am

      Of course you can Sara! We encourage the sharing of our content! I mean we even have a button on the left side to make it easy and you’ll note that as of this writing, this post has been shared on Facebook 251 times already! :)

      • sara

        6/25/2012 at 7:26 am

        ok, it just didn’t allow me to it says content blocked.

      • ck

        6/25/2012 at 11:01 am

        Just now?? That’s weird. Try again or simply copy and paste the URL into your facebook status… let me know how it goes!

  16. Doro

    6/25/2012 at 5:48 am

    I just want to publicly thank Gidi Mark and everyone behind Birthright Israel. My Birthright trip represented a watershed moment in my life. It’s amazing, now that I think about it, just how much I learned about Israel and how much closer I now feel to the land and the people. I have since been back to Israel twice and Israel has become a very important part of my Jewish identity. Thank you so much, from the bottom of my heart!

  17. FloBro

    6/27/2012 at 1:25 am

    CK,

    Awesome post…but I think you should have recommended the Fish N Chips in the shuk. BTW, the Jlem & TLV Shuks both have websites. You might want to link to them: shuktlv.co.il/ & machne.co.il/e...

  18. KC

    11/4/2012 at 1:20 am

    Re: extending your trip and having a meaningful Shabbat experience – Jerusalem House can do both – and it’s free. jerusalemhouse...

  19. Hillel

    1/10/2013 at 12:28 am

    Hey,

    Can you give me any advice as far as what you think will help people continue post-birthright jewish involvement?

    • ck

      9/12/2013 at 4:58 am

      Thats the million dollar question. Anyone with good financial resources who wishes to know the answer can contact me via the contact form. I have some good ideas…

  20. Lee Kaplan

    2/25/2013 at 8:41 pm

    Gidi Mark is still alowing the Birthright Program to be used to get ISM activsits over to the West Bank where they can harass IDF soldiers. IT’s time to truth start to come out about an administrator more interested in money than helping the people of Israel.

  21. Pingback: Why I’m Not Ready To Drink The Birthright Kool-Aid | Eliza Dropkin

  22. Pingback: Why I’m Not Ready To Drink The Birthright Kool-Aid | Eliza Dropkin

  23. Chris Task

    9/10/2013 at 12:17 pm

    The establishment of the Israeli state, and the alleged Jewish “birthright,” involved the violent displacement of several hundred thousand indigenous Palestinians, and the destruction of hundreds of Palestinian villages. A Palestinian refugee population of nearly 7 million people is to this day excluded from returning to their lands by Israeli state discrimination.

    In contemporary Israel — where approximately one-fifth of the population is Palestinian — the rights of citizenship (ezrahut) and nationality (le’um) are intentionally distinct. Palestinians born within the 1949 armistice line are considered citizens (and not nationals). Meanwhile a Jew born and raised in New York has a “birthright” to the Israeli state in Palestine, is considered a national, and can almost immediately become a citizen upon emigrating.

    • ck

      9/12/2013 at 5:02 am

      Yeah war sucks. Do you know what happened to Jewish areas captured by Arabs and indigenous Palestinians? 100% Judenrein. Women were raped, men had their sex organs cut off and stuffed into their mouths. Thanks for your grossly oversimplistic rant. You don’t know shit.

  24. Jessica

    1/5/2014 at 1:15 am

    Wrote a blog post about my birthright experience (among others about Israel) last year. Check it out!

    apassionandapa...

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