You’ve made it! You are finally here. Some of you have been waiting for this year for as long as you can remember; some of you weren’t sure that you were coming till you got on the plane. No matter! You’ve made the decision to come and, along with your choice of spouse, it’s going to be one of the most important and impactful decisions of your life.
Over 20 years ago, I, too, came to spend the year in Israel. I want to give you some advice on how to spend your year in Israel and to help you get the most out of it. I’m going to skip the obvious stuff like the Dead Sea, Mahaneh Yehuda and sunscreen and get right to the good stuff.
“Get up and walk the land to its length and breadth because to you I give it!” (Gen. 13:17). Thus spoke God to Abraham. In order for him to receive the land that God was giving, he had to get up and walk around it. Only by walking the land does one make it one’s own. We do not get to know the Land of Israel from our dorm rooms nor from the windows of our air-conditioned buses. We need to walk it. Climb its hills and walk through its valleys and streams. Only then can we truly make Eretz Yisrael ours.
Buy a guidebook of Jerusalem. Not of Israel, but of Jerusalem. An actual physical book, not an app. One you can hold in your hand and follow along for a suggested walking tour of the city. Every week or two, try to do one of the tours.
Get lost in Jerusalem. Take your iPhone, put on a good playlist, put your headphones on and start walking. When you get tired, just sit on a public bench and people watch or just stare at the scenery. You are literally looking at the fulfillment of 2,500-year-old prophecies.
Sit in a hummus bar and eat hummus.
Go to random and strange places for Shabbat. Don’t be lazy! Get on a bus and travel a few hours up north or down south and spend a Shabbat at a new community that you’ve never heard of. Call that aunt or cousin that your parents have been nagging you about and make a connection with them.
Be bold and invite yourself for Shabbat to the homes of your teachers, counselors and other random Israelis. Israelis love having guests. Home hospitality is a Mideastern thing here and it is perfectly acceptable to invite yourself over.
Straight talking is also a Mideastern thing, and if the hosts can’t accommodate you that weekend, they will tell you and give a rain check. No harm.
If you don’t have a weekend backpack, buy one. Preferably one of the Israeli brands like Outdoor or Kal Gav (they are the same company). One of those big ones that are at least 60 liters. You want it big enough to hold your clothes for a long weekend and the laundry you schlep along to do at your host’s home.
When you go for Shabbat, bring a nice bottle of wine. Anything under 30 shekels is just plain cheap.
Spend a Shabbat in Safed. Safed is the city of Kabbala. It has this real awesome vibe that is magnified on Shabbat. There are organizations that offer free or very, very cheap accommodations and meals. Take advantage of them.
Spend a Shabbat at a small settlement. Don’t worry, they’re safe. Talk to the settlers and hear their stories.
Talk to as many Palestinians as you can. Try to drink coffee with them. They will charm you and are of course a perfect way to hear their point of view about the conflict here.
Catch a Beitar Jerusalem soccer match. (It’s the polar opposite of sharing a coffee with a Palestinian.) This is a great opportunity to see a side of Israel that you will never find anywhere else. One can really say that a Beitar game is a great anthropological experience. Bring a bag of sunflower seeds to munch on while you’re there.
Ride the train to Nahariya and back.
Download the Google Photos app. It’s a free app that offers an unlimited backup of all the pictures and videos that you take with your smartphone.
Drink shoko b’sakit. Those are the small little bags of chocolate milk you find in grocery stores. I don’t know what it is, but chocolate milk in a plastic bag and Coca- Cola in a glass bottle just taste better.
Read Exodus by Leon Uris while you are here. Everyone is going to recommend it to you, and it will be a real shame if you don’t read it while you are already in the country. If you don’t, you’ll end up reading it later and be overwhelmed by the feeling of regret for not having read it sooner. Cut to the chase and read it now. (The beginning is a bit slow. Skim that if necessary.) Rent bikes from the municipal bike program in Tel Aviv and ride along the promenade.
Ride a bicycle around Lake Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee).
Hike Nahal Snir and the Yehudiya Forest Nature Reserve on the Golan, Mount Shlomo and the Red Canyon in Eilat, and Mount Arbel in the Galilee.
Do a yam l’yam, literally “sea to sea.” This is a hike from the Mediterranean Sea to the Sea of Galilee. It will take you three days and two nights. It’s a glorious way to get to know Eretz Yisrael.
Eat shwarma but generally stick to falafel. Falafel is usually just as filling and half the price. And no, shwarma is not twice as good as falafel.
Read the local English newspaper every day. It will broaden your horizons about what is going on in Israel both internationally and domestically. It will offer a great education in Israeli life and politics and how Judaism fits into it all.
The Western Wall. I know, its one of those obvious things. I get it. But I want to offer something that is not so obvious.
Visit the Western Wall at night. Alone. With no friends waiting for you. No sun in your eyes or sweat on your brow. Just go there anytime after 10 p.m. and just sit there. Talk to God. If you don’t believe in a God, then just sit there and stare at the wall. Try to break through the confines of time and space and try to imagine how you are sitting in the very same spot that David, Solomon, Hezekiah and Judah Maccabee walked.
Think about the millions of Jews who hoped, prayed and fought to be exactly where you are sitting right now. Try to understand that even absent a God, the Temple Mount has been the focus of humanity’s prayers for thousands of years. There is some magnet in our DNA that draws us here.
It is the one place on earth where the fabric between the physical and the spiritual is the thinnest and most bare. It has been the focus of the dreams of your people in every era and geographic location. You are the answer to the prayers of all the Jews that came before you. Relish that fate has brought you here!
And finally, read the Bible. Too few of us have actually read it. Besides the story of the Exodus from Egypt, there is a lot more there that will surprise you. I think you’ll be astounded to discover just how amazing and multifaceted and multilayered and penetratingly true the Bible is. There is a reason so many people think that it is Divine.
Try giving it a read. Start from the Book of Judges and make your way. The best edition I can recommend is the pocket JPS Hebrew-English.
You may ask: “If I am on a gap-year program, when will I have the time to do all of this?” Well, you’d be surprised at how much down time you have, even in the most rigorous programs. But the best times are during vacation times. Instead of flying back to your parents, use the time to explore the country on your own – especially during Hanukka and Passover.
And trust me on the shoko b’sakit!