visiting Israel

Written by  Amy Yacullo

My trip to Israel was incredible and a great way to take in all of the amazing sights, sounds, and experiences that Israel has to offer. Organized as a Jewish Heritage tour, most of the sites we visited were framed from a Jewish standpoint; however, they would still be wonderful for a non-Jewish tourist to enjoy.

We started our trip in Jerusalem. Our first stop was on a hillside, looking over the entire city. I’ll never forget my first glimpse of (arguably) the most important city in history--the sight literally took my breath away and gave me a very good frame of reference for the “Ancient Meets Modern” aesthetic that really defines Israel as a country. We spent the day at the Machne Yehuda market (also known as the “Shuk”). The market is filled with every kind of food you can imagine - everything from spices and dried fruits to amazing street food (like shawarma -- the Middle-Eastern version of a gyro). That evening, our group ventured into the Old City of Jerusalem for a powerful experience - Shabbat at the Western Wall on the Temple Mount. Shabbat is the Holy Day for the Jewish faith and lasts from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. The Western Wall is the most significant site for the Jewish people, so this was an incredible, once-in-a-lifetime experience. I cannot recommend visiting the Wall on Shabbat enough - the feeling in the air can’t be described in any way other than ‘electric.’

The next morning, we went to the Knesset, which is the unicameral national legislature of Israel. We visited on Shabbat, so the building itself was closed, but we enjoyed a lovely walk around the grounds of the Supreme Court of Israel, which has several ancient mosaics on display, and the Wohl Rose Park just opposite the Knesset. From there, we traveled to Yad Vashem, the Israeli National Holocaust Museum. Understandably this was the most solemn, but important, stop of our trip. Through the incredible artwork, artifacts, and exhibits in the museum, we gained an even deeper knowledge of the events of the Holocaust and how it changed the world forever. This is a must-do for any tourist to Israel, especially when coupled with a visit Mount Herzl cemetery, the National Cemetery. Israel’s prime ministers, presidents, and other prominent leaders, as well as Israel’s war dead are buried there. It is very different from a traditional American cemetery, not only because it is built into the side of a mountain, but because it is very serene and park-like.

After a day of shopping and clubbing in Jerusalem, we headed south and spent several days in the Negev desert visiting the Dead Sea, Mount Masada, and a Bedouin tribe. The Dead Sea is everything that you’ve ever heard - it’s absolutely incredible and so blue that you can barely tell where the sea meets the sky. It was fun to float around and slather ourselves in its mineral-rich mud. Mount Masada is the site of an ancient fortification that dates back to the first Jewish-Roman War. I highly recommend utilizing the cable cars that take tourists to the top of the mountain-the natural hiking approaches (particularly the Snake Path) are very difficult and extremely tiring.

After hiking Masada, we had the honor of spending the night at a Bedouin camp where we experienced true Bedouin hospitality - we heard traditional music, ate traditional food (Bedouin chai tea is divine), and slept in a traditional tent (with the added bonuses of modern toilets and heaters). That night was the first time I ever truly saw the stars - the camp is in the middle of the desert, so there’s little to no light pollution. There are many Bedouin camps dotting the desert that welcome tourists, so make sure to schedule a stop, even if it’s just for a meal and to take a selfie with a camel!

From the Negev, we traveled north to the Golan Heights, where we learned about the territorial disputes with Syria and actually looked down into the Syrian countryside from the mountain we were on top of. We enjoyed a hike to the beautiful Gilabon waterfall and then went on to a local Kibbutz to learn about life there. This is another important experience I recommend - Kibbutz life is fascinating and many Kibbutzim will welcome tourists and teach them about their way of life. The next morning, we went orange picking (all of the oranges were donated to a food bank) and then onto Tel Aviv.

In Tel Aviv, we visited Rabin Square and learned about the tragedy of Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination there in 1995. After some time for reflection, we moved on to our hotel with its views of the Mediterranean Sea. The next day was all about enjoying shopping in Tel Aviv and Jaffa and the last day of bonding together before it was time to head back to Jerusalem fly home to the states.

My trip to Israel was amazing and life-changing. In addition to all of the adventures I’ve mentioned here, there were visits to ancient caves, hikes in the desert, shopping, a visit to an olive oil factory, and so much more! Ten days was not nearly enough time to see all that Israel has to offer. From beaches to forests, from modern malls to ancient ruins, the country truly has it all.
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