For our latest trip, we took an epic vacation to Eretz Yisroel (Israel). Unlike previous posts where there is one per place, this one has to be split out into many, many posts. In this first article in the series we’ll be discussion an overview only. Later articles (which will hopefully be linked from this one) will get into details on each place we visited on our trip and some we planned to visit, as mapped out by my son’s beautiful picture to your right.
Please also view the Israel Kosher vacation map we made on Google which covers all the places we visited or had planned to visit. With pre-planning, you can make the most of your trip to Israel.
Geography & Language
It doesn’t rain in the summer in Israel. From Pesach to Sukkos, you can leave your car windows open, but expect it to be pretty warm in the summer, and rainy or even snowy in the winter. Israel is at the midst of different weather regions of the world, and on the coast one finds a “Mediterranean” coastal water climate, in the North one finds mountains and lots of water with some of the most amazing hikes in the world, and in the south a desert.
While much of the country speaks English, they do so with varying degrees of knowledge and far from everyone does so. it is helpful to at least some Hebrew so you know when the lifeguard is screaming at you, so you can negotiate in the Machane Yehuda shuk of Jerusalem, or pay for monthly parking.
Customer service is getting better along with the income level. Per capita income, at the time of this writing, is about US$39,000/yr categorizing the country as the 24th richest (per person) in the world, on the level or above much of Europe at this time. In 2000, the rate of the shekel to dollar was almost 5:1. Today, it’s 3.5:1 due to a very strong Israeli economy based on high tech and tourism.
Food seemed to be less expensive in Israel, but hotels and vacation apartment rentals appeared to be on par with American rates. Even Judaica, which used to be much less expensive in Israel, is often not so. Sure, you can find a yarmulke on the street for 10 shekels, but even a good pair of tzitzis in Israel is on par with U.S. prices these days.
Driving In Israel
Americans love our cars and the country is setup for driving. Israel . . . not so much. At the time of this writing, gas costs about $6.50/gallon (of which 2/3 is taxes) while it was $2.15 in New Jersey and car rentals cost close to what they do in the United States. The newer highway 6 which goes North to South is as nice as any three lane highway in the United States, but much of the rest of the country has poorly timed traffic lights.
In Jerusalem in particular, main roads have been replaced with pedestrian walking areas and recently one of the main roads (Yafo) has been almost completely replaced by a light rail. Just crossing from one side to the other can take ten minutes so what used to be a five minute drive to the zoo is now a 10 minute drive without traffic and a 30 minute drive at most times.
The country has few stop signs, instead preferring the much more efficient round abouts or traffic circles. These are great – after your fifth one in five blocks in Ashdod, they can get tiresome but it sure beats completely stops at every block in American traffic.
Car Rental In Israel
From reading reviews, it appears that car rentals go fairly smoothly in Israel and that was our experience too. The major companies are all fine and Budget / Hertz in Israel are actually run by the same company. We did seem numerous negative reviews about Sixt, so you might want to avoid this company. I also avoid Thrifty with a passion after getting royally ripped off in Tampa while they company that owns their website blamed the car rental company of the same name, and vice versa.
We used Noach Car which acts as an agent. In our case, they got us a Hertz rental and helped us choose the exact car we wanted (8 seats, which car rental companies don’t advertise as a choice) while not charging basic insurance for Shabbos. It came out cheaper and when there’s a problem, they’re very responsive.
One thing to be aware of: many credit cards do not offer collision insurance coverage in Israel / have exclusions for Israel. It is very expensive to pay for insurance out of pocket. Chase (and Amazon’s Chase card) do have this coverage but you will need to get a letter from them specifically stating that they cover the CDW insurance.
Cellular Phone Service in Israel
Your best bet seems to be a T-Moble plan. Your American phone will work flawlessly in Israel with calls at 20 cents a minute and data included. Project Fi, Google’s plan which uses the T-Mobile network, also works in Israel at 20 cents a minute and $10/gigabyte. Using this for Waze while driving around Israel for a month shouldn’t even have you hit one gigabye, but service was less reliable. It did not register properly on the network for two days and then every few days, I had to fiddle with the settings, toggling between 3G and 4G, turning it off and on, and then it would work again. Google credited us for the month of service because it’s supposed to work.
We also tried MintSim which is supposed to work internationally – it didn’t. Service with this company is a call center in India reading off a call script so just forget it.
Others have recommended buying a Golan telecom sim card was in Israel for 100 shekels a month and then canceling after a month. That might work. Then there are sim card rentals and cellular phone rentals but these are typically at 4x the price it costs for normal service in Israel. That’s quite a profit margin!
Choosing an Airline to Israel
They’re all just as bad/good. People like to rag on El Al but it was no better or worse, in our experience, than anyone else. The major advantage is they like to feed you and you can go to the ‘kitchen’ and find more food whenever you’d like. All the food on the plane is kosher, though some/many (depending who you ask) will request/eat only food which is double wrapped (or pre-packaged) as there are concerns that they use leniencies one wouldn’t use in their own home such as using ovens for meant and then dairy without waiting 24 hours because, you know, it’s a plane. Further, there’s no guarantees that something non-kosher wasn’t put in the oven by flight staff during a flight. Flights from the U.S. to Israel have meals double sealed with an OU and they were quite good … olives, mozzarella, etc. Flights from Israel are rabbinute but you can request (beforehand) meals with mehadrin hechsurs (and get fed first).
One tip with El Al – don’t bother calling their helpline for help. They can’t help. Post on their Facebook page and you’ll get someone responsible who may be able to help.
Kosher Food in Israel
This one gets a section because I’ve spent much time talking to Rabbeim who do it regular rabbinute and those who don’t. “Rabbinute” is the “stam” or base hecshur run by the Israeli Rabbinate. Haredi Jews won’t touch it . . . but also, in my experience won’t really say that you can’t or it’s not kosher. There are problems with it, including those reported in the Jerusalem Post, for example, about a meat factory packaging traif meat in the same factory and the mashgiach failing to report this for months, and other places where the mashgiach would have to work 100 hour days to inspect everything he was supposed to inspect.
In any case, in Jerusalem it’s not a problem to find better hecshurs – they’re all over. In other places, it can be more spotty. On the flip side, finding Rabbinute is easy seemingly anywhere in the country. A cafe in Tel Aviv University is kosher dairy, as are fish restaurants in Ashdod.
Types of Places to Visit, and a Little Planning
Israel has some of the most amazing hikes in the world – desert hikes, hikes up historical sites (Mesada), water hikes, forest hikes . . . it’s got them all and they’re great fun. Museums in this country are also very nice from the Israel Museum to living in the past museums, to the holocaust museum . . . they tend to be well done and tasteful. Then there, of course, the historical sites. Jerusalem has plenty of these centered around or in the old city, but you can find Jewish history throughout the country from a reconstruction of the mishkan in Shilo to ancient (well, often rebuilt) historical sites in Tzvas and elsewhere.
Many of these places are covered (or will be covered) in the plethora of additional articles on visiting Israel. Enjoy.