Former lone soldier hitchhikes across Israel to show Israeli humanity

Daniel Shachory is currently on a quest to hitchhike from Metulla to Eilat, videoing people’s responses to personal questions to showcase the common ground between people in Israel and worldwide.

(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

Daniel Shachory’s hand might be sticking out right now in that distinctly Israeli way, somewhere along a local road.

The 31-year-old California native is currently on a quest to hitchhike from Metulla to Eilat. He carried out a similar trip in Israel three years ago, but this time he’s carrying out a social experiment while he travels: he’s videoing people’s responses to personal questions to showcase the common ground between people in Israel and around the world.

It was 14 years ago when Shachory – whose mother is Israeli – came to Israel for the first time to take part in ulpan, the intensive Hebrew-language study program in Israel. He returned as a participant on Taglit-Birthright and later to enlist as a lone soldier in the IDF.

All of these experiences have heightened Shachory’s love for Israel and his drive to show people around the world that Israelis are people just like anyone else.

Three weeks ago he entered Israel once again, to help staff a Birthright trip before beginning his hitchhiking journey in the country where he first-ever hopped into a stranger’s car.

 IN JERUSALEM: ‘I kind of fell in love with the idea that you can just sit... with a total stranger and have a meaningful conversation.’ (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM) IN JERUSALEM: ‘I kind of fell in love with the idea that you can just sit... with a total stranger and have a meaningful conversation.’ (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

“That’s when I kind of fell in love with the idea that you can just sit in the car with a total stranger and have a meaningful conversation.”

Daniel Shachory

The first time hitchhiking

The first time he put his thumb out into the road was during his time as an ulpan student. He was living on Kibbutz Tzuba, a community nestled in the Judean Mountains, just a 20-minute drive from Jerusalem. The bus from Tzuba to Jerusalem came every three hours, so to travel faster, kibbutzniks like Shachory would sometimes hitchhike to the city.

Those first-time hitchhiking jumps were for practicality. He only gained a passion for hitchhiking once he moved to a farm in Germany after his time serving in the IDF. A farmhand he met there changed his life.

“He had hitchhiked all over Europe and he would tell me all these stories,” Shachory said. “He inspired me.”

Heading out alone on the road is no easy journey, but Shachory had some interpersonal skills under his belt from his time in the IDF. “When you’re with that many people in the army, you’re not going to like all of them but you’re stuck with them 24/7, so [you learn how to] control your emotions and not let them get the best of you.”

WITH THOSE people skills, Shachory set out on his first hitchhiking trip across Europe a few weeks after leaving Germany to see what his fellow farm worker had been hyping.

“That’s when I kind of fell in love with the idea that you can just sit in the car with a total stranger and have a meaningful conversation.”

After that European trip, he spent a bit of time as a door-to-door salesman selling solar panels and smart home and security systems. And then the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

As he relays in a video on his YouTube channel, he thought to himself: “How can I travel and keep experiencing the adventure of living in new places during COVID with all these restrictions?”

He ended up Ubering in a newly bought gray Prius and spent about a year driving people around New Mexico, Arizona, California, and the South of the US.

Along the way, he recorded his riders answering questions like ‘What’s your favorite childhood memory?’ to post to his YouTube channel, “My Thumb Life.” He posted content like a woman recalling how she once used her sister’s toothbrush to clean a toilet in a moment of anger.

Enriching people's understanding of Israel

Apart from videoing these candid responses to showcase online, an integral part of his journey was to enrich people’s understanding of Israel.

Shachory said he successfully changed the preconceived notions that some of his riders held about Israel and Israelis by talking about aspects of daily life in Israel, like Israeli foods or sports people play in the country. He also sought to connect aspects of Israel to his riders’ individual identities.

For instance, when he met gay riders he might tell them about Tel Aviv’s pride parade which boasts one of the largest pride parade attendances in the world. Or if he was talking to a vegan rider, he might discuss Tel Aviv’s high number of vegan restaurants per capita.

“I would say things to them that would make them think outside of the box, and things that they would not normally think about,” he said.

Shachory recognized years earlier in Europe that people’s social media feeds are often inundated with anti-Israel content and that he couldn’t blame them for letting that affect their views on Israel.

Now Shachory’s working to further this narrative during his time in Israel.

TO COUNTER the anti-Israel narrative, Shachory is working to spread an online message of Israelis’ shared humanity with the rest of the world. He videos people holding their children or sharing their local cuisine to help demonstrate how similar Israelis are to people in the rest of the world.

Over time, he’s connected with people over social media who hold anti-Israel views, and he hopes that his content reaches them and presents a chance to reevaluate their views on the country.

“I want to show Israelis in a humanistic positive light so people that are posting antisemitic and anti-Israeli content can see Israelis as human beings and as people, not just as soldiers with guns,” he said.

One way that he’s trying to have people see the humanity in Israelis is by capturing relatable moments through photography and video: people dancing, parents feeding their children, young girls playing backgammon.

He’ll ask men where they were when they found out their wife was pregnant or ask couples how they met and who made the first move – that question “always invokes a happy conversation, an ego boost and again, everyone in the world can relate to that.”

All of the content he’s creating will be posted to his social media accounts at his trip’s end.

Traveling around Israel has not only allowed Shachory to teach other people about Israel but also to better understand the country for himself.

“Every time I hitchhike in Israel, I fall in love with Israel all over again,” he said about his former hitchhiking trip in the country and his current experience. “I’m even smiling now just talking about it.”

Traveling to different parts of the country helps him appreciate how there are “so many different types of people and so many different [kinds of] terrain in one small country,” he said.

HE ALSO continues to admire the brutal honesty of Israelis “for better or worse” and “the lack of organization” in the country, like a bank he recently frequented being open on Wednesdays only from eight to noon or the wild boars that roam around Haifa.

Another part of his recent hitchhiking journeys has been asking people to write anonymous notes while they’re in the car. He’s doing this to show people they aren’t alone in their struggles and to help people find relief by getting their secrets off their chests.

Notes from Israelis have ranged from “I got NIS 50 to buy things for the house and saw a homeless man on the street who told me he was hungry so I bought things for him and told my mother that I lost the money” to “I’ve had panic attacks and never told anyone.”

“If someone reads that someone else has the same problem, insecurity, issue, whatever, they take solace in knowing they aren’t alone,” he said. He said the notes haven’t only helped other people, they’ve helped him too.

“I struggle with my own issues and it’s made me feel less alone,” he said.

For anyone looking to hitchhike, here’s some advice from Shachory.

For any potential male hitchhikers, he’d say to trust your instincts, not to get into every car willing to take you, and to don a local soccer shirt to endear yourself to drivers. For female hitchhikers, either have a man join you or go to Scandinavia.

“I would not recommend that a woman hitchhikes by herself in much of the world because it’s just not safe, unfortunately,” he said. “I’ve never had to worry about being sexually harassed; women have to worry about that.”

Another tip he has for anyone hitchhiking who’s looking to drop their bags off somewhere for a few hours is to leave them at a pharmacy.
“Good people work at pharmacies,” he said. In Israel, he said this tactic of dropping off bags often requires a bit more of a personal explanation, due to the country’s history of terrorist activity and explosive devices hidden in unaccompanied packages and bags. He’ll sometimes pull out his business card or show his YouTube account to employees so he can legitimize his hitchhiking.

He acknowledges that what he’s doing seems a bit crazy, at least from an American perspective. “In America, we are taught by our parents and by our teachers and by society to be scared of strangers, not to talk to strangers. What I’m doing is the exact opposite of what we’re taught.”

Those strangers often become fast friends for Shachory. After an hour in a car with someone, “we go from strangers to friends” and many of the people who’ve picked him up have offered for him to sleep over at his house. “That has happened so many times.”

His next destination is Africa. He’s looking forward to continuing his social experiment there and helping show people the universality of humanity. 