Jordan Valley

The Jordan River, which flows from the north of Israel south into the Kinneret, has long been a magnet for communities. In recent years, many attractions have opened in the vicinity.

A field in the Jordan Valley (photo credit: Courtesy)
A field in the Jordan Valley
(photo credit: Courtesy)
One of the most beautiful areas in all of Israel is the Jordan Valley. As you drive along the beautiful landscape, the first thing you see is Lake Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee).
The Jordan River, which flows from the north of Israel in a southerly direction into the Kinneret, has long been a magnet for communities, such as Deganya, Ashdot Ya’acov Meuhad and Beit Zera, which are all located between the Kinneret and the Jordan River. In recent years, many attractions have opened in the vicinity.

Nika Bakery

We decided to start our day in the tranquil valley with a stop at Nika Bakery, located at the entrance of Ashdot Ya’acov Meuhad. The bakery was opened by Einav Liberman, who grew up on the Golan Heights and currently lives in Sde Nahum. The 29-year-old Liberman chose to open Nika (which she named after her grandmother) after years of yearning to work in the field she loves: baking.
Nika, which is housed in a kibbutz building, offers delicious pastries, breads, cakes and cookies – all made from scratch each day. There are a few little tables where customers can eat their delicacies both inside and outside the bakery.
Other than enjoying high-quality, freshly baked treats, another reason to stop by and support the bakery is that recently it was decided that Nika can no longer remain in the kibbutz structure, since it does not have a permit. Liberman must now come up with NIS 50,000 to relocate; to that end, she has created a crowdfunding campaign.

Merkavot Hayarden
Our next stop was Merkavot Hayarden (Jordan Carriages) at Kibbutz Deganya Bet, where you can rent electric club cars and take a trip around the area. You might not get a tremendous amount of exercise this way, but you will succeed in covering a lot of territory and discover treasures and historical sites that you might not have reached by foot.
Merkavot Hayarden has been around for almost 20 years. For most of those years, it has been known for its horseback riding trips, but now it has upgraded to club cars, which are great for driving around in the forest. Each group receives an explanation of the region, maps and songbooks to help you get into the spirit of the area. Its club cars are designed with rounded roofs that resemble the horse-drawn carriages from the Wild West.
Tours are guided by Ori, who is a third-generation resident of Deganya. Ori knows lots of interesting stories about every corner of the kibbutz and the surrounding area, and he also has a wide repertoire of songs that go with each location and time period.
The hour-long trip passes along the southern side of the Jordan River, crosses over the bridge to Beit Zera and continues along the Yavniel Stream. At that point, the group stops for a short break where the kids can build miniature rafts from reeds and then float them down the river.
During some of the trips, the cars stop next to the kibbutz’s cornfields, from which you can see Tel Ubeidiya, just between Menahemya and Kibbutz Beit Zera.
There’s no doubt that the highlight of the tour is the visit to the grave of Shimon Hatzadik. There are lots of tombs of the righteous to visit in the region, but this one has a very surprising story. We were shown a special monument that was erected in memory of Ori’s horse, Shimon, who served as Ori’s loyal companion for many years. At the graveside, Ori told a few stories about adventures he had with his trusted partner as they traversed the countryside together.
Merkavot Hayarden also offers romantic bike rides and water walks through the Jordan River.
Details: 052-370-1662.

Jungle Kef

Our next stop was Jungle Kef, where animal lovers of any age will enjoy this unique approach to the world of animals. Located at the entrance to Kibbutz Beit Zera, Jungle Kef opened in 1982 as a fun place for kibbutz members to play with animals. After the kibbutz was privatized, the petting zoo was upgraded into a tourist attraction.
A number of exotic animals call Jungle Kef their home, including monkeys, meerkats, raccoons, porcupines, parrots, turtles, birds and reptiles. Each type of animal is cared for according to its needs. The monkeys, for example, are completely free to jump around from tree to tree within the petting zoo area.
This petting zoo doesn’t have just bunnies; it has lots of large animals that visitors can touch. In addition, guests can take part in arts and crafts workshops, go on a pony ride or join a guided walking tour.
Directions: Drive on Road 90 in the direction of Beit She’an. Located two minutes from Tzemah junction. Open: Monday-Saturday.
Details: 072-257-0384.

Umm Juni
If you’re in the mood for a short hike, I recommend starting at Umm Juni, which is located 500 meters west of Kibbutz Deganya Alef. From there, walk along the length of the water pipe toward the Jordan River. When you reach the bank of the river, enjoy a restful moment in the shade of the eucalyptus trees. From there, continue toward the Alumot Dam and the sewage treatment plant, which was built in an effort to clean up the Jordan River and restore it to its natural state before sewage began being dumped in it.
Next, turn toward the south and walk toward the Yavniel Stream. You’ll reach a lookout point, from which there is a good view of the flowing water. Then, continue along the river to the spot where it joins the Jordan River. Cross over Nahum Bridge and turn south toward Beit Zera and walk on the paved road. After 300 meters, you’ll see a turnoff on your left. Take it and walk toward your starting point: Umm Juni.
The circular trail is 4.5 kilometers long.

Where to eat
We finished our incredible day at a veteran restaurant called Tzel Tamar. Located in Ashdot Ya’acov Meuhad, it is known not just for its tasty cuisine but also for the breathtaking view of the Golan Heights. Sit in the gorgeous garden, which has water flowing through it. You’ll feel like you’re sitting in a natural oasis.
The restaurant offers a variety of dishes prepared with local ingredients, and even has a brick oven in which to bake its own bread.
Translated by Hannah Hochner.