10 Things I Learnt on the Birthright Israel Trip

There might not be many of us but we Jews sure know how to treat our youth. I’m not sure how many other religions come with a free holiday but the Birthright trip was certainly a great perk of being Jewish.

Thanks to Birthright Israel, a non-profit organisation with a focus on education, I was able to spend ten days in Israel for free (except for the numerous shekels I spent on falafel and wine). The trip aims to give young people of Jewish heritage, aged between 18-26, the chance to explore their roots as they’re guided around some of the most important and beautiful parts of Israel. Throughout the trip we got to see important monuments in Jerusalem, sleep in a Bedouin camp in the desert, party in Tel Aviv and go on several hikes (many of which were done on far less sleep than I would have liked – but the views usually made up for it).

Despite growing up in a secular household with very little connection to Judaism, the trip gave me an insight into who we are and what it means to be Jewish. I could go on about how it opened my eyes to this, that and the other but instead I’m going to write about what everyone really wants to know – what is the trip really like. Well here are ten things I learned during my time in Israel, for better or worse.

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Snorkelling in the Red Sea

The Hummus Thing Isn’t A Joke

If you’ve ever seen Don’t Mess With The Zohan or spent any time in a Jewish household you might have noticed a slight proclivity towards hummus. Ok Israelis don’t actually brush their teeth with the stuff but it’s just about as omnipresent as oxygen in the Holy Land. You want a sandwich? Forget butter, it’s going to have hummus in it. Hummus is a way of life over there, to the extent that people will genuinely choose where to eat based on the quality of the establishment’s chickpea based goods.

Israelis Are Chill

For a country that is constantly being represented in the media as an unrelenting war-zone where people get car-bombed and kidnapped on the reg, Israelis are some of the most laid-back people I’ve ever met. This could potentially because they’ve all spent 2-3 years in military service and so are completely unphased by anything now. Whatever the reason, it really puts you at ease whilst there. During my trip there was a terrorist attack in Jerusalem and I spoke to an Israeli couple I met in a bar about it and their reaction was simply, “oh it’s fine, only 4 people died, we’ve had much worse”.

Bonding with the Israeli soldiers

Bonding with the Israeli soldiers

Israel REALLY Wants You To Live There

There is no such thing as a free lunch and Birthright is no exception. In exchange for a free ten-day trip, you are expected to sit through a few lectures on why Israel is so amazing and how fantastic it is living there. This isn’t done in a ram-it-down-your-throat kind of way but they certainly get their point across. Make aliyah. In fact, it’s more like: make aliyah and we will help you. We spent a lot of time being told how we can get internships with tech start-ups in Tel Aviv or summer jobs at hotels on the beaches of Eilat. If you like Israel and want to live there then these session are actually pretty useful, if you’re less keen on migrating then they can become a little repetitive – each to their own on this one.

Friday Nights At The Wall Are Pretty Cool

Spending your Friday night without electricity might seem like fresh hell but if everyone is in the same boat, it suddenly doesn’t seem so bad leaving whatsapp and facebook at home for a bit. We got to spend Shabbos (Friday night celebration) at the Kotel (Western Wall) and it was actually much better than I anticipated. Despite not knowing any of the Hebrew songs that were being sung, I danced in a circle with a bunch of strangers and had a pretty good time. I’m not sure I’d do it every Friday but it was definitely a fun experience.

Day time at the wall - before the festivities

Day time at the wall – before the festivities

Long Coach Journeys Are Great

No-one really warns you quite how jam-packed your days are on this trip. From around 8am until 9 or 10pm you will be doing organised activities, whether it’s a full blown hike or party games in the hotel. This doesn’t account for the time you spend hanging out (drinking) with your new-found friends once the day’s itinerary is done. So, with all this going on, you’re not left with a whole lot of time for sleep and that’s where the coach journeys come in handy. Got 3 hours on the coach? Stick your headphones in and treat yourself to a quality power nap.

Cliques Still Exist

You might think you left cliques behind you when you finished secondary school but think again. Throw a bunch of strangers together and you will see groups form. However, while there were noticeable cliques that emerged from day 1, they lacked the “Mean Girls” style animosity that was perhaps more present back at school. I’m not sure cliques are necessarily a bad thing – you hang out with people who you have things in common with and you’re unlikely to click with all 25 or so people on the trip. Nonetheless, it is interesting to watch them form and solidify.

But we all loved each other

But we all loved each other anyway

Everyone Has An Inner Child

After the singing and dancing on Friday night, Shabbos continues through until sunset on Saturday, meaning you will be spending your Saturday relaxing without the use of electronics or anything that could be considered work. We spent a large chunk of Saturday at the park and after a small talk from our very own rabbi about religious things, we had some free time. To begin with we sat in the grass and chatted or dozed but then we started getting restless and within no time a game of British bulldog had begun. This was followed by the old schoolyard classic 40-40 in. Yes, we ran around in the park like children and yes, we bloody loved it.

The Dead Sea Hurts

The highlight of the trip for me was without a doubt getting to bob around in the Dead Sea like some sort of over-sized cork wearing a bikini. It’s honestly one of the weirdest experiences I’ve ever had but it’s unique and good fun. However, the Dead Sea is not all fun and games. Given that the water has tons and tons of salt in it, staying in for too long will make your skin burn and itch and if you get the water anywhere near your face you will immediately regret it. Oh and also you know how most people pee in the sea? Don’t do that here unless you want your most sacred region to sear with pain. Trust me.

Chilling in the Dead Sea

Chilling in the Dead Sea

You Can Hike On A Hangover

As I mentioned before, once the evening activity is finished your time is your own and you may do as you please. Naturally, being English, most nights saw us engage in our national sport: binge drinking. The rules of the trip state that you can drink but you can’t get drunk. What this meant in practice was drink as much as you like but don’t get into any trouble, don’t get so drunk you can’t make it home and make sure you’re up in the morning. You might not think you can do much on a hangover but you’d be amazed what your body can do when given no other choice. We spent the nights making merry together and still managed to hike (and enjoy) some of Israel’s most incredible peaks, including Masada.

Against all the odds...

Against all the odds…

Israel Is Not What I Expected

Israel is having a hard time in the media at the moment but I’m not going to get into politics, partly because I don’t know nearly enough about the situation and also partly because I’ve already written 1300 words and I need to wrap this up. So, in brief, I expected Israel and its inhabitants to be on edge with a much greater security presence. In all honesty, before going to Israel I was in Canada and then Sri Lanka and as far as safety is concerned, Israel didn’t feel any different. If you’re umming and ahhing over whether or not to go to Israel because you think it might be dangerous, dispel that thought from your mind. You’re probably more likely to get attacked in Paris that Jerusalem at the moment.

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