This article was originally published in the February 2006 issue of Moment.
I’m astounded that 65 percent of American Jews have never visited Israel. Compare that to 22 percent of Jews in the United Kingdom and 30 percent from Mexico and South Africa. Maybe I’m astounded because I never return to what is now my home most of the year without discovering new pleasures and new mysteries. For too many Jews, Israel is a “should go place” but not a “really excites me” destination. Here’s my advice: Tune out Zionist entreaties. Apply the measures to Israel that you use for any travel destination.
Come because Israel is a microcosm of extraordinary people and places with all sorts of opportunities to fit your special fascinations. Are you a birder? Come to one of the world’s great migration flyways with prepared sites and programs. A cyclist? Join the Alyn ride next year— the five-day event across great swathes of the country. This year, 325 bikers raised two million dollars for the Alyn children’s rehabilitation hospital in Jerusalem; almost half the participants came from outside Israel. Is photography your passion? Build an itinerary that includes galleries, meetings with world-renowned photographers, immersion in ethnic exotica, hidden urban corners or 4WD penetration into wilderness. Does music pull you? Plan a visit during one of the many festivals: dance, chamber music, jazz, rock, Hasidic disco—or simply enjoy what goes on all year in clubs, concert halls and ancient amphitheaters. Is hiking your love? Find your challenge level with guides who can lead you to remote waterfalls, sculptural desert wadis, wildflowers in the Galilee, exquisite canyons in the Golan. Maybe set a goal to walk a section of the Israel Trail that extends from Tel Dan in the far north to Eilat An enophile? Golan wines have captured international awards, and now private vineyards flourish in the hills around Jerusalem not far from boutique cheesemakers. Fashions? Jewelry? Discover the Israeli look—dramatic, sometimes funky, always individual. Are you a spa lover? Choose from ultimate pampering on the Carmel to Dead Sea mud baths and alternative treatments of every variety.
And then there is what for me is Israel’s most defining characteristic: its layers of history from the pre-historic, through the Jewish kingdoms, to the rebirth of the modern State. National parks abound at the most developed archaeological sites. Regional museums hold treasures often missed by standard tour itineraries. And if you’re really passionate and not afraid of the sun and dirty fingernails, join a dig as a volunteer—from one day to a month. Or even consider volunteering for the army in the civilian Sar-El program—living on a base and doing work that relieves soldiers for other tasks. Or give a hand to a “mitzvah hero” whose selfless work supports those who require an extra measure of care: with the poor, elderly, handicapped or needy families who have suffered trauma.
Well, you get the picture. Sorry to sound like I’ve been hired by the tourist ministry, but the fact is I am in awe of what this New Jersey-sized place is and has created. Add to this highly trained, and often inspiring, licensed guides, accommodations from five star hotels to a slew of charming B&Bs in country settings and a blossoming of restaurants with creative cuisine.
But be aware—there are risks. You may experience wonder, and you may possibly feel a pride in being Jewish that you never knew you had. And you might notice that the Israel you’re seeing doesn’t match its image in the media. If you’re lucky, you may bump into some of Israel’s amazing youth, not only defending the country, but, perhaps, building new communities in the Negev. Or they may be preparing themselves in special programs during the year before joining the army in order to be outstanding soldiers as well as responsible social activists. But that’s all bonus. Just put together a vacation that fits who you are.
Some of you are thinking, “Is Israel safe enough for me to visit now?” Judge for yourself. Tourism surged this past year, guides are turning away bookings; hotel occupancy is up and student programs are almost at peak levels. Israel takes security very seriously, 24-7. Public places require bag and car trunk searches; schools are gated and guarded; armed police carefully watch our busiest streets in Jerusalem. Tour guides or locals can tell you places that are best to avoid and where you need not worry. Within hours of arrival at your destination in Israel the normality of life here will give you the confidence to live as we do.
Now is the time.
Top photo: The beauty of Israel. Credit Wikimedia Commons.