This trip takes you to the northern most Mediterranean coast of Israel to the Grottoes (a fancy word for ‘cave’) at Rosh HaNikra (meaning ‘head of the grotto’).
Rosh HaNikra borders Lebanon which is memorialized with part of a tunnel which was supposed to connect a train line from Africa to Asia and Europe. So says the sign, it was destroyed in the ’48 war to avoid aid from foreign troops.
Nehariya is the northern most coastal city and a convenient place to stay in this part of Israel. It’s looks kind of like … a more “pastoral” Tel Aviv without traffic. It’s the furthest one can go while still feeling as if they’re “in the center” of Israel. Perhaps this is why it’s the setting of one of my favorite episodes of Shtisel where the father reunites with the daughter he cast away because she became Lubovitch. His Torah is posul [no longer usable] and has to be buried, but he returns home on a train back to Jerusalem with a baby in his lap – one of his grandsons he hadn’t yet met. It’s a one off and highly underrated episode.
Let’s Talk about Rosh HaNikra
They are beautiful. The parking lot is situated well above the surrounding landscape allowing you to follow the coastline for miles. The rocks are white and the sea is a bright blue. It can better be expressed with photos.
You can walk down a hill to the Grottoes or take the cable car – it’s like a smaller but steeper version of the Masada cable car. Once to the bottom you’re ready to walk through the caves. There’s an easy walking path cut through and cemented for your convenience. The path winds in and out of different caves and rock formations often opening into pools of sea water which have made their way into the caves. It’s about a half hour to one hour event depending on how slowly or quickly you want to walk through or stop to enjoy each scene.
There’s a small kibbutz in the area, otherwise the closest city is Nahariya.
Let’s Talk about Nahariya
Nahariya, mentioned in various places in Tanach and Talmud, is today a city of almost 60,000 people with plans to build much more. It felt like Tel Aviv with Bauhaus apartment buildings except eerily devoid of traffic. There’s some in the main commercial areas though the apartment rental we stayed in was on a very quiet street despite being among high rise buildings stretching for blocks in each direction … except the direction of the beach.
The eruv is visible along the entire stretch of beach, which, as an American, still needs novel to me. Even in what is a mostly secular city in Israel once can find an eruv, kosher l’mehardrin food, and synagogues no more than a short walk away.
The beach itself has a walking path which, in late evening was well traveled by strolling couples and dog walkers. One could easily find a stretch of one’s own place in the water, at least while I was there, in the residential section of town. A separate beach is to be found near the center of town.
A commercial / center region of the city, Sderot HaGa’aton has a walkway between each direction of traffic and an excellent restaurant – Bordo, with a mehadrin hechsur (which one, I do not recall). Get the pitcher (kad) of whatever sort of vegatable drink they have. It was great as well as the food. (Then again, most food in Israel is great and an Israel would probably tell you something like, “yeah, it was good but we have even better.”)
Starting with the point – it’s a fun trip and we highly recommend it. The kosher food is excellent, cooked by the regular chefs and staff of the resort. You’ll find nothing else like it for the kosher traveler in the Caribbean and probably the western hemisphere. The beaches are nice and the canopy beds add an extra nice touch along with delivery of (included) drinks on the beach. The downside is the resort puts out an image of being “exclusive” with “tell only your best friends” and “vip this” and “vip that” but it’s … well, narishkeit that’s only made worse when you need to call twice during your trip to get running water and electricity. More on that below.
First, The Pictures
(click to enlarge and scroll through)
The Food, the food, the food, the food
The food (I mentioned that, right?) is the best part. There’s a staff of four by day and four by night cooking and serving your food with a very friendly Rabbi Levine (who’s been there since before our earlier trip) cooking whatever you’d like. One night we had lamb chops – the best I’ve ever eaten in my life (sorry mom), another night red snapper. It’s served buffet style and brought out as you arrive (texting the Rabbi and/or scheduling your meal time at the previous meal ensures that happens). Thus, there’s no wait and there’s a wide variety of food at every meal.
For breakfast, there’s an omelette station (the cook makes sure you turn on the pan to avoid bishul akum), pancakes, plantains if you request them (don’t miss the sugared ones), bagels, lox, cereal, and local milk. The Rabbi watches a local cow be milked so it’s even cholov yisroel! The fruit and vegetables are also local (and found at most meals) but most of the rest is imported from the United States.
The price is and isn’t cheap – it’s $130/person per day for three meals and half price for kids under 12. That works out to $43.33 a meal for adults and $21.67 a meal for kids. It’s not a lot (and I certainly ate more than that in lamb chops which are about $30/lb for them to import!) but a week of that with family and it adds up.
Going in order from best to worst about the trip, in the #2 place are the beaches. There are “VIP beaches” which you have to pay more to access ($25/person) but it’s worth it. The extra price also gets you transportation around a very big resort. For a little more, you also get your own golf cart which seats … well, four, but if you seat eight on it and drive around (some kids on lap), they just smile and wave. (They won’t give you a bigger golf cart or more than one unless you buy a timeshare or properly – we tried.)
Anyway, this is actually a section about the beaches so let’s talk about that. The “VIP” beaches have canopy beds – one of them with double decker beds like something out of the Lego movie. They are also more private and have less people. It was very easy for us to find entire sections of these beaches with no one but us and a few other scattered not too close, though we went both times in the summer during what seems to be the slow season. When you arrive, a waitress takes your order for drinks. It’s all included – alcoholic and non-alcoholic.
The CRC says clear rum needs no hecshur and it’s locally made … mixed with soda or juice it’s great. Whiskey drinks aren’t so much their thing, in my opinion – better you get that in Virginia. (The juice on the resort isn’t 100% … it’s made from syrups and the Rabbi says those at the bar near the kosher restaurant are kosher except the strawberry which the bartender stopped me from ordering once by mistake – there’s also pina colada (with or without alcohol) and Shirley Temple’s kosher – outside of the bar next to the kosher restaurant, he does not recommend getting as they may be mixing with other things).
The beaches, except for “Serenity beach” have a nice feature of being within a “reverse peninsula” (does that have a name?) with a boey-supported rope going from end to end quite a distance, preventing you from being swept out though this is not, to my understanding, a problem in Caribbean waters. See some beach pictures around the text of this article.
At #3 comes the pools. They’re plentiful. The resort is broken up into quite a few sections (“Presidential”, “Tropical”, “Confresi…”) each with their own large pool and ambiance. One is designed to be more regal and quiet, another for parents and kids (with separate tiered pools), another for partying, etc. Jacuzzi’s are found in a few places as well. Our kids simply liked exploring new pools to swim in and finding new treasures such as a waterfall in the large Presidential pool, a water slide in another, and a large not-to-deep pool in another.
In addition, if you rent a villa, you get your own pool. That’ll be discussed below.
If you stay four nights or more, they throw in tickets to “Ocean World” – a cute water park within walking distance of the resort. It’s about a 15 minute walk and you can actually see it from the resort beaches but there’s also a bus that leaves twice in the morning and returns every half hour in the afternoon.
This is classified as a, “honey, none of the kids wants to go…” with my response being, “trust me, they’ll like it” (Geronimo Stilton reference, anyone?). They liked it.
There’s “controlled snorkeling” where you wear a snorkel mask and swim down and back a watery path filled with tropical fish, a sea lion show, a feed-the-birds with birds all over you, a small beach and pool, and water slides (which are $10 extra per person but they didn’t charge us). The kids had a great time with one even requesting to return the next day to do it all again. We spent about three hours there.
There are other “excursions” available as well, but with a four day trip with kids (three of them full days, one half day, and one get-to-the-plane day) we didn’t find the need for them. When we went without kids, we did (see earlier article).
The Villa (Rent-a-House)
Last time we rented in the “Presidential” section which is quiet and next to the kosher restaurant and shul. Read our prior article for that. This time, since we took the whole family, we rented a “villa” – you know, a house with a fancy name.
Let’s just say the villa didn’t look like the ones they show you in the pictures, but it was still nice. It wasn’t one of those “fancy wrap around verandas with a large pool taking center stage” that they like to advertise, but it did have a very adequate personal pool which was fairly surrounded for tznious purposes and five bedrooms, each with it’s own bathroom. Only the bedrooms had air conditioning while the central room (with a sixth bathroom) had fans.
The house itself was fairly nice … but clearly wasn’t so new anymore. The air conditioning in one of the bedrooms didn’t work and we ran out of water within about an hour of arrival. Turns out each house has a cistern that they have to fill and it’s not that large. With leaky toilets and large family … we figured out how to say “fill the cistern” in Spanish (it’s “ciscerna”) only a few days later. The electricity also went out with kids in the pool … but it adds to the charm of reminding you it’s not a 5 star Manhattan hotel no matter how many times they throw the initials “VIP” at you. Plus, the house rental is $300/night for five bedrooms with your own 80 degree+ pool and security guards everywhere. Again, expensive and not expensive – depending on location you’re comparing to.
Other Activities at the Resort
Let your pre-driving age teenager drive the golf cart. He’ll be happy. Oh, and you’re supposed to be 18 and have a driver’s license but none of the guards really cared about that our 8 people in a 4 person cart … except for when someone was standing.
Seriously now … other activities really aren’t much for the frum traveler. Go for the food and swimming! You can go on excursions for mucho dinero, You can gamble in a tiny “casino” (I allocated $20 for my entertainment here, but one of my teenagers didn’t look 18 so we didn’t go), there’s a pool table somewhere … there’s a gym … there’s a spa (book massages a day before) … there’s daily Spanish lessons … and there’s “night life”.
I apologize (not really) for not having the desire to go to the “night club” to see what was going on there. The “VIP party” on Sunday nights was loud American music (like “New York, New York … whereas I hear Caribbean salsa music near my home in New Jersey … go figure) with mucho kol isha problems and scantily clad singers that … ugh, just don’t wear a tight sequin something, something and be obese. Ahhh. I digress – basically, it’s not kosher. (I took one look and left, I promise.) We could hear it all from our villa anyway and could see all the fireworks as if they were right next to us.
Night swimming in your own pool is fun though. Right – so basically, go here to swim (ocean or pool) and chill with your family. Oh, and eat. Eat a lot – you’re paying a flat price. Oh, and drink a lot. Not only because it’s all inclusive but because you’re sweating a lot in the heat. They stock your fridge with beer, soda, and water and refill you with water bottles daily. It’s nice.
Poverty and Money Issues
Here’s the sort of trade-off in going to a place like this – on the one hand, if it were in the United States, well, it wouldn’t be. It’d be too expensive to be profitable. The closest thing I can compare it to would be something like the Sagamore on Lake George. That’s $700/night a person before (non-kosher) food and you get a lake in upstate New York. It’s nice and you’ll have electricity and running water without having to ask for it, but you’re … on a lake in upstate New York paying more than double.
The employees at this resort make about $8/day and they’re probably doing well. The staff was always courteous and friendly. I mean, always. I can’t think of a single case where they weren’t. However, when they’re “too nice” – watch out. Some are looking for “tipo” (use Google translate if you must) and others are trying to get you into the biggest, nicest building in the center of everything adjacent to the nicest “VIP” pool with colored lighting and people on stilts to attract your attention. One employee said they get $20 if they get you in there to watch a timeshare-selling video. (Watch out for the guys with straw hats – that’s their whole job! They come to your house and offer a “tour” of the place, etc. etc.)
From the time you get off the plane the “volunteer” takes your luggage to the car and money changers are negotiating prices with you when you don’t even want to change money (it’s not needed at the resort – everything is in dollars anyway).
While you’re eating your $30/lb lamb chops flown in from Miami, there’s a staff of eight making $8/day to smile and serve you. Those are the ones who know some English. (The “VIP” concierge knows English the best, followed by the rest of the lobby staff.) The ones who don’t are security guards who either a) raise and lower a gate all day or b) sit in a little square booth all day with their only entertainment being Mario Kart – I don’t mean Nintendo, I mean a teenager on a golf cart doing laps around the villas.
Meanwhile, should you want to buy anything – it’s friggin’ expensive. They charge $20 for a small tube of suntan location. $175 to see the doctor ($375 with medicine which our local doctor promptly threw away after some bad side effects which didn’t surprise him). (Beaches are all, by law, public in the Dominican Republic – you can get suntan lotion cheaper from the vendors with little huts on the beach. Jewelry too.)
At the same time, probably to avoid corruption, they are extremely, how shall we say, “exacting” when it comes to your money. The golf cart requires a $50 deposit. Fine. You can also only get it during certain hours. I went to return it – my name was literally the first on on the list of expected returns that day. I saw it right there with confirmation that I paid the deposit. I didn’t have the receipt … no refund. “Sir, if you don’t return your key they’ll charge you $200.” “Why would I return the key when you’re not giving me my deposit back? It’s a nice souvenir.” (I returned the key.)
We found out after our return from the travel agent that locals buy the wrist bands that you need to wear the entire time you’re there. They’re sweaty and annoying and my five year old probably left her’s in the ocean – that’s a separate one for “VIP” access and kosher food … they charged $200 a piece! They didn’t explain this to us the time and let’s just say I didn’t sign the credit card receipt and I’m still disputing the charge. 🙂
In short – it’s a third world country and as much as they want to make you think you’re in some sort of fancy special place, it’s a resort in a third world country. They keep their employees on an even shorter leash than their guests, but it comes out with … dang, this is annoying.
Having said all of the above, if you want a five star Caribbean resort go to Punta Cana. If you can put up with”we want to be a five star Caribbean resort” with amazing, amazing kosher food cooked by amazing chefs fresh each day and (in our experience) nearly private beaches, go to Peurto Plata.
Did you ever wonder what’s at the very eastern tip of Long Island? What happens when you travel out the end of Queens, then Nassau County, past the cemeteries, and just keep on going? No? Well I did – on an island seemingly disjoined from the rest of the country, past the cities, past the Hamptons even – there’s … the end of the highway as the roads get smaller and smaller followed a lot of farms, vineyards, and some really nice beaches and very chilled people. Modern technology makes the visit a breeze – not sure I would have attempted it before AirBNB, Waze, and even Google Maps reviews of locations.
At the end of Long Island, the island forks into two – in the north fork is Orient Point and Greenpoint which have the Long Island Sound to the north with Connecticut on the other. In the south fork you’ll find Montauk. The drive between the two is 1.5 hours! There’s a car ferry which will take you over to Shelter Island between the two – we didn’t do this because we took the ferry the “other way” – between Orient Point and New London, Connecticut. This ride is about an hour twenty minutes, leaves punctually on time, and takes your car with you. Once on board, they sell food with quite a bit of the packaged goods and drinks being kosher. Bring a board game or activities for your kids because looking out the boat wasn’t quite enough for the entire ride.
Beautiful Beaches; No Crowds
We went in June – the weather was perfect and everything was empty. You won’t kosher food in the area (nearest kosher restaurant seems to be in Great Neck on the other side of Long Island – 1 hr 45 min drive if you’re lucky), but you won’t really find much in the way of food or supermarkets at all. There’s a 7-11 in Greenpoint which is the “city” in the area, the “city’ portion filling up about a block and a half with a marina where you can rent boats. Greenpoint has it’s share of beaches such as the 62 step beach which, after descending probably that amount of steps (didn’t count it) you’re on a pebble beach interspersed with large rocks – this is on the north side. Beaches on the south side, such as Klipp Marine park (put Manhasset ave in your GPS and drive to the end), are a 5 to 10 minute drive at most because the north fork is so narrow. A friendly local selling firewood told us the south side is always a bit warmer.
Then, traveling east from Greenpoint towards Orient Point, the land narrows to be not much more than the one lane road with a lake on one side and Truman Beach on the other – yet another nice beach. Interesting point of fact: if you use Optimum Online there are WiFi hotspots at every one of these places so far – seems to be the only internet in town so free WiFi was everywhere. This is almost purely a pebble beach with pebbles of all sorts of colors … and variations of smooth and rounded shapes.
Orient Beach State Park
Finally, go all the way to the eastern tip and you’ll reach Orient Beach State Park. Travel down a few miles of a single lane road with water on both sides of you, traveling generally southwest, and you reach one of the more interesting beaches I’ve encountered. There’s a beautiful beach with some sand and some pebbles with nearby picnic tables for at least a few hundred people. We did actually see a few people coming and going, but very few during our June visit. Weather was beautiful and the wind kept our kite in the air the entire time we were there. A portable propane grill was my weapon of choice for cooking and the seagulls enjoyed our food too. On the beach are playgrounds for the kids, swinging chairs, and if you’re so inclined, areas to fish. One note about this beach: no swimming is allowed anywhere!
The parking lot and beach / picture area right there are not nearly the end of the park. From there, you can walk down miles of narrow beach, the beach stretching on both sides of a very narrow peninsula which is kept in place by the plant life – cactus and others that survive salt-water sprays. On one side are ocean-like conditions, and the other a lagoon-like condition with very still water. Being with kids, I wasn’t able to take the trail through the miles of empty beach too far, but my kids did make the observation that walking in the lagoon area wasn’t technologically swimming – this is also the area where the rent kayaks in the higher seasons.
That basically covers it for the north fork – it’s pastoral and a whole lot of beaches. We did about four in one day and you can’t go wrong with kids at a beach. The best kids activities are the free ones.
Drive your car on the ferry to New London, CT and suddenly you’re in “civilization” again. It’s a really city and from there you can make your way to Waterbury or New Haven with sizable Jewish communities. Also about a 12 minute drive away is Mystic, CT with Mystic Aquarium and Seaport. I haven’t been to the former but the latter is fun for a trip with any kid, say, about 12 or under. It’s an old seaport where boats were actually constructed under about the Great Depression. They had the wise idea to turn it into a museum and tourist destination. You sort of have to “find your adventure” here because a) it’s very big (they keep adding to it), and there’s a lot of interesting things to see but b) there’s a lot of things that won’t interest many people. Some is “hands on”, some is silly, some is lectures, some is looking at buildings but with some “breaking in” you can figure it out. E.g. the rope making demonstration where you turn the rope and see how it’s made was fun and educational … the singing while they put a stuffed cow on a boat and dropped it in the water … eh.
Then there are places like an old house where you see someone cooking in pots directly over a fire “before” stoves (not quite true though perhaps they weren’t popular in New England in the time period they’re trying to represent). Basically, it depends on the guide you find in the particular area. A lot tend to have narrow knowledge or aren’t so forthright with information so you have to ask questions and get them talking. That’s how I got the clock maker talking about his extreme socialist views … okay kids, time to go to the next building …
One interesting thing of note is they have the actual boat, the Gerda III which was used to ferry Jews from Denmark to Sweden, saving about 300 from the Nazis before a larger convey of boats was eventually used to saved almost all the Jews of Denmark. I heard the story before but it was quite a surprise to stumble upon the boat itself!
Claire’s Corner Cornucopia in New Haven, CT
If you’re making the rounds from New York City through Long Island and back through Connecticut (or the other way around…), be sure to stop at Claire’s Corner Cornucopia in New Haven. It’s not far off the highways – we always stop here when traveling to the northeast. It’s a dairy restaurant that caters to a the local college crowd and others – it also happens to be kosher. They have all sorts of baked goods, pastas, eggs, and things that I’ve never really heard of that probably every vegan out there knows. Also, plenty of gluten free. It’s one of those health conscious places I suppose – I’m an omnivore and appreciate it just the same because it’s very good quality food.
In short, with the exception of Mystic Seaport, it’s a great car trip that you can do from the New York or Boston area for a few days that won’t set you back very much while your kids will have a great time. You can stay in Connecticut to be near minyanim and go over to Orient Point for a day trip or rent a house in the Orient Point / Greenpoint area. Enjoy. Feel free to ask questions in the comments.
At Yad V’Shem, Israel’s primary holocaust museum in Jerusalem, I picked up a copy of “The Jews are Coming Back“, a book about the return of Jews to their countries of origin after World War II. How do you answer a person that says, “Jews should have gone back where they came from!” As an American, it’s actually hard to answer. After World War II, Jews generally found a safe place in the United States with quotas lifted (or rather, unused spots from prior years filled when the state department changed their policy). Without knowing one way or the other, it would seem that Jews could just return to their places of origin in Poland, Ukraine, Russia, and elsewhere . . . turns out this answer greatly varied by country.
The book is organized by country, from most friendly to Jews to least friendly after the war. The holocaust didn’t just “end” in Europe. The flip of the switch that happened in the United States where refugees (and especially Jews) where suddenly welcomed never happened in Europe, save for perhaps France and Belgium to an extent. Unsurprisingly, France also has the largest Jewish population in Europe today though the Jews are largely leaving for Israel these days due to virulent anti-semitism in France. However, even there, shortly after holocaust, groups organized to prevent Jews from reclaiming the property they had stolen from their former neighbors.
Country by Country – Jews Returning in Europe after WWII
Memorial candles with the names of human extermination camps
While Jews in France and sometimes Belgium were sometimes able to get their property back through court proceedings, in the rest of Europe the situation was nearly hopeless. Jews were told they needed to lay low so as not to cause anti-semitism in country after country, and after all, the refrain went, everyone suffered in the war! France, at least, learned of the concentration camps and mass killings as did the United Kingdom, Belgium, and somewhat the Netherlands and the more the country people knew, the more sympathetic, at least, the government was, though the people tended to feel in country after country, “we all suffered! … and this property is mine now, so who are you to come back and ‘reclaim’ it on the basis that you suffered too/more?”
Exhibit in Yad V’Shem
Should your country be communist after World War II then the refrain was that there should be no separate nations. We were “all the same” and just because a returning Jew had his property and rights removed from him and had nothing but barely the rags on his back, that was just the way it was. The Jewish Agency might try and send you aid, but the communist government almost always rejected same unless it went to everyone equally … which usually meant it went to aid those in power and that was that. An exception was found here and there: in Tarnipol, Poland a mayor allowed for a statue commemorating the holocaust, but he found himself overruled and without further promotions in the party for life.
Should you try and return to the Ukraine, you might find pockets of help from the government – but the local officials would first strip the women bare, delouse, search, and humiliate before you boarded the train. In the countryside the government actually provided a safe house for returning Jews and jobs but the locals, the former neighbors, would protest and sometimes violently. Jews were unable to actually work and the situation was dismal. In other places older Jews who survived the concentration camps would return to roam without proper shelter or help from the anti-semetic locals. While Zionists organizations came to pay for transit for younger and able bodied youth to be found to move to Israel and start a new life, neither the elderly were left in squalor, penniless, unable to work, having everything stripped from them.
Perhaps you would try to go to a different country where things were more favorable to you … many traveled to the Netherlands where things were better for Jews, but only Jews who were citizens before the war (and could prove it). Travel there, or to many other European countries, and you were treated as an “enemy combatant” no different than an ordinary German. You might find yourself in jail if you were unlucky, or “free” but without rights to do much of anything.
Return? Hardly … and Conclusion
Exhibit in Yad V’Shem, Israel’s Holocaust Museum
There was no light at the end of the tunnel for many. Surviving the holocaust didn’t mean being able to rebuild you life. The stories we here and the movies we see are almost always about the 1/6 who survived. They were the exception to the rule. We want to hear the stories of the exception who made it, and by in large that’s where we find stories of heroism and those who rose above the horror, but even being the 1/6 to survive did not mean recovery. My wife’s great-grandmother survived Bergen-Belsen to die of a tuberculosis epidemic after “liberation”. In researching my own family records at Yad Vashem, I found a cousin of my great-grandmother who made it to Jerusalem to testify about my great-grandmothers family – they were almost all killed in Belzec. My great-grandmother, Sheindel (Jenny) Silberman, the oldest of a dozen plus children had left for New York earlier, at the age of 12, to avoid being raped by the Kozacs … they saved her life and mine in a twisted way. One sister made it to Brazil, another to Toronto after hiding in convent. Other cousins made it to Israel. There’s a reason they didn’t find their homes in Europe – Hashem [G_d’s] plan, it seems, was not for Jews to remain in any large numbers in eastern Europe any longer.
My first time back to Yad Vashem was last summer on the insistence of my teenage son. I had my fill of Holocaust museums earlier in my life, but the museum is well made and well thought out. It chronicles the history of the Holocaust as you move back and forth from room to room, crossing through a long narrow corridor designed after corridors such as that which my great-great grandparents went through stripped bare on the way to the gas chamber in Belzec where they were told to breathe deeply. At the end, in Yad Vashem at least … when you finally make it, after what took us hours of passing through “highlights” and stories of 12 years of hell in Europe, one reaches an actual light at the end of the tunnel. It’s a balcony overlooking the hills of Jerusalem. In the distance is a physically rebuilt Jerusalem, bigger than it every was. Now we wait for the ongoing spiritual rebuilding to be completed.
(Written and published on Tish B’Av while fasting though I visited Yad V’Shem on Shiva Esser B’Tammuz last year – I couldn’t seem to complete the article until today.)
This was easily one of my favorite days on my last trip to Israel. We were based out of Jerusalem and it was a very hot week so were looking for something to do for a day trip but keep cool. After quite a lot of Googling and speaking to friends who made aliyah I found Nahal HaKibbutzim in Beit Shean, a two hour drive from Yerushalayim. It’s “off the beaten path” even for Israelis but it’s closer by about an hour’s drive to the center/south of the country than many other water hikes which tend to be more north in the Galil or in the Golan. Afterwards, the quickest way back to Jerusalem is route 60 through Judea and Samaria which is a fun trip with Super Mario Brothers style mountains in the background.
Think of a water park with a lazy river … then think of a real one. It’s a real river with slow moving water, the depth varying from about two feet to about six feet. At times, I or the older kids were carrying the younger, but the best part are the tubes. Click for a video of the tubes – here’s the slow tube and here’s the fast tube. These are “real” water slides – concrete tubes under roadways the cross the path of the river. There are two of them, spaced apart and many people (let’s be honest, mostly the kids) climb up out of the water and go through the tubes again and again.
It was about 100 degrees outside the day we went (Celsius is inferior – we live in air which Fahrenheit does far better than Celsius which is designed around water temperature), but the water was great and we were very comfortable. The same goes for a swim in the Kinneret on a 104 degree day.
There is ostensibly “mixed” swimming but it’s a big river and easy to keep “separate” and because it’s a traditional area of the country, not all, but I’d say almost all of the women and girls were tznious (modestly dressed according to Jewish law).
One thing to mention – there are no signs. Use your GPS and find the sand parking lot. There’s also no mention of which side is the beginning and which is the end. We actually did the hike through the water “backwards” (upstream) which was fine … except the person we were meeting was doing it downstream. The start and finish are fairly close to each other.
This hike was awesome!
A stretch of the Nachal Kibbutzim Hike with tall brush on either side
The wider/deeper section of the water
Going into one of the “water slides”
The wider/deeper section of the water
Wading Through the Plants
Mountain On the Drive Back to Jerusalem on Highway 60 (a bit enhanced since it was taken through a windshield)
Fog over Lake at Rocking Horse (lake for boats in summer only)
One of the perks of being frum is that your kids are on a different schedule than the rest of the country. That means they typically have off from school the third week in January and you can go on vacation in the “down season” for everyone else. Some places take advantage of this. Through a little googling, this year we found Rocking Horse Ranch. Apologies for not finding the time to put up more articles about Israel from last summer, but at least you get this one.
Back in the day, as kids we went to places like the Nevele, Raleigh, and Concord hotels. These were places with onsite entertainment and activities for the entire family. They had ski slopes, ice skating, video arcades, and some of them were even kosher all year. They’ve largely gone out of business, but it turns out the Rocking Horse Ranch, outside of Poughkeepsie, NY is still in business. It’s not quite what these other hotels once were – it’s quite a bit smaller, but it still has activity and the feel of these places. The Nevele went out of business years ago through terrible mismanagement (fun fact: it was part of my password on the Prodigy service, before the internet was the Internet), the Raleigh is now a kosher hotel without many of the amenities it used to have, and condos are about to sit on what was the Concord.
The ski slipe
The Rocking Horse Ranch was never a kosher hotel, though it was founded and run by Naftali Turk from the Lower East Side, known by a shortening of his Hebrew name, “Toolie.” According to the onsite literature, it was his love of horses that drove him there with the hotel springing up around it. It’s still run by the family, a friend of mine having been a counselor to them at the local JCC.
Dinner at Rocking Horse
Once a year, on Yeshiva Week Break, the kitchen is kashered, the windows to the pool are covered, and activities for the day start after Shachris and end 45 minutes before it’s time to daven Minchah.
Play structure at Rocking Horse
The parents and kids loved it … but one of the teenagers … not so much. It’s great for smaller kids and parents, but not really geared towards singles or, well, teenagers. There’s a “teenager hangout” room which is basically a ping pong table and pool table (that you have to pay extra for), but for everyone else, it was great. There’s barely an age limit on the ski slope – or … ski … hill-thing. It’s pretty shvach, but it’s a great place for kids to learn to ski. There are dedicated instructors there all day and you can leave your kids to go and learn down to about the age of 3. Using the same conveyor belt as the skiers, you can take a tube up and go snow tubing day or night. Again, kids of almost any age can do this and it was quite the favorite.
The other winter activity that Rocking Horse Ranch excels at is horseback riding with three levels of difficulty for the more experienced. It’s the typical “follow the leader” style horse back riding that I’ve encountered all over, but on the higher levels there’s more control over your horse with trotting and cantering. You can do this once a day with your stay.
The pool has separate hours and there’s a decent three (?) story water slide. The “deep” end of the pool is taken up by a short obstacle course and the middle of the pool has some other chatchkas so don’t expect to get any real swimming in. It’s basically shallow end only, but again, great for smaller kids.
Beyond that, there are various other activities – ice skating is … well, it’s ice skates but it’s on plastic
Night Snow Tubing at Rocking Horse
mats. Eh. There’s pony rides for little kids at certain hours. There’s a tiny game room with overly expensive games (one of my few real gripes about the place – when you’re paying this much do they really have to charge a dollar for a video game that lasts 30 seconds?), but the fake bowling is free. The kids loved the arts and crafts nightly, but for another gripe, the kids entertainment started at 9pm. This is past the bed time of the kids who it’s geared for and was pretty cheesy. One night they had David Darwin – that was a good show. Hire this guy … he’s great.
Horses at Rocking Horse
There’s a few other small things … but certainly not the highlights. You can tell they put a lot into the horse back riding and ski program, but things like the archery and BB guns were sort of lacking. As such, my wife and I concur that if we did it again we’d probably only stay two nights and three days. That’s enough to get everything in before it gets repetitious.
As for the food, it’s possible it will change from year to year but it’s brought in by caterers associated with the Young Israel in Queens who sponsor the program. The food was certainly satisfactory … not bad, but not the best. Breakfast and lunch are dairy and dinner is meat with a fish and vegetarian option. There’s no shortage of food though … pastas, pancakes, waffles, fruit, salads, ice cream, streak (at a different meal of course), etc. It got repetitive, but still quite a varied selection.
David Darwin @ Rocking Horse
Overall, it’s an event I would recommend doing once with your family while your kids are no more than about 11 or 12 years old. Stay two nights and have a great time.
Deviating from my usual posting style, this post is mostly about the pictures – of various places within and around the Old City (Ir atika) of Jerusalem. Until about the mid 1800s this was Jerusalem with very little permanent settlement outside the walls. Today, the new city eclipses the old in size many, many times over but for the center of spiritual Jerusalem you have to head to the Old City.
First, here’s a night panorama of the Western Wall / Kotel plaza. The kotel is directly in front – this was a ‘regular’ weekday night. There’s no special holiday or event but one can still find thousands of people coming and going, mostly to pray at the Kotel. View the panaroma in it’s full 360 degree glory here: https://goo.gl/photos/vZVmp57mLU89PCsm6
Here’s today’s Mamilla mall, just outside the Old City (Jaffa Gate / Shar Yafo). In the 1800s it became a place for tradespeople and then declined after 1948, being on the border with Jordan and Jordanian snipers. Today, it’s very high priced real estate and has been taken over by western clothing brands and the like and placed mostly under a road and next to a parking lot.
Here’s a typical Old City street at night. People tend to be out and about at all hours, though the side streets (which don’t connect gates of the Old City to central locations, etc.) are usually fairly quiet and empty. This street passes between Shar Yafo (Jaffa Gate) and the Jewish quarter so it tends to be filled with people.
Not far from the Old City is an entirely different area – the Ben Yehuda Triangle where mostly tourists fill the restaurants, shops, and bars especially on Thursday and Saturday nights (but not on Shabbos when everything is closed for the holiday). Here, there’s some live entertainment from a local. Here’s the link to the big picture: https://photos.app.goo.gl/tNg4coVIyT1jdnj33
Back in the Old City, here’s the inside of Bircas HaTorah, a yeshiva where they’re quite serious about attendance. An electronic key card check-in and checkout system is next to the door and every seat is full. They bought the adjacent building and are looking to expand.
Beneath the building adjacent to Bircas HaTorah a hidden room has been discovered during the excavation. It’s not too clear (at the time of this writing) what was here, but it might have been a bakery with ovens. The Old City is built on top of … older old cities. The further you dig, the more back in history you go. It’s hard not to find history wherever you dig in Yerushalayim.
Here’s the southwest corner of the temple mount platform, looking out. The temple mount platform, the large structure built in a mountain by shaving off the top and placing rows of arches over each other in the size of about 28 football fields still stands today. The Western Wall is on the right, though the place where Jews gather to pray today is further down the wall closer to the Kedosh HaKedoshim (holy of holies) where Abraham almost took a knife to Yitzchok [Isaac] and the offerings were brought among other things. The stones are said to have been knocked down by the Romans on what was a street full of commerce right here. One would buy their sheep, goat, or the like here before ascending to the temple mount.
Again looking from the southwest corner outwards one can see the ancient “upper city” where the rich people lived. There used to be a valley in between with large bridges to get from one place to the other, but over the past 2000 years it’s more or less been filled in though the upper city is still high enough above that there’s quite a lot of stairs.
Here’s the Western Wall from underneath in the “tunnels”. Actually, we’re still above ground by quite a lot, it’s just that the marmalks (Muslim conquerors) raised the level of the city about 1000 years ago to the height of the platform but had the foresight to leave a nice space between the wall and the buildings so tours could pass through nicely. You have to plan ahead for these things… That stone – it’s huuugggeee. See it huuuggeee here: https://photos.app.goo.gl/cf3RujNX27aH7OG53 – The tour guide had one of my daughters walk to one end and the other to the other end. Then they screamed to each other from each end. How did this stone and many like it get quarried and brought here with technology from 2500 or so years ago? No one knows.
Inside Shar Yafo (Jaffa Gate) a woman plays the harm in a white robe. Why? I don’t know. She wasn’t even collecting money. Maybe she’s paid by the city.
Back to the Kotel tunnels – those are paper yarmulkes that fell to the bottom. Tourists sometimes wear these out of respect but nevertheless … amateurs.
Here’s the mixed quarter of the Old City. Before 1948 it was mixed with Jews and Muslims. In about the 1930s with Muslim riots, the British segregated the Jews to the Jewish quarter kicking many Jews out of their homes, some of whom had family there for centuries. After the 1967 war when the State of Israel took control, some land was returned to the Jewish owners outright (e.g. what is now Yeshivas Cohanim), some was purchased (with the sellers often taken by armored bus for their safety and resettled in Paterson, NJ where they can live comfortably on millions of dollars just received), and some has been taken back through legal battles. The home at the end of the street with the big Israeli flag and menorah was owned by former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Apparently it’s about as inhabited by him as it was when he was alive – the main residents are mostly soldiers guarding the place.
Still in the mixed quarter, here’s a little hole in the wall perfume shop. Note that the writing is in English and Arabic … no Hebrew here. There are actually many places where Arabs do use Hebrew … I saw much of it on the route from Jerusalem to Hebron, but alas, after two Arab uprisings very few Jews shop among the non-Israeli Arabs anymore. Arabs in Jerusalem can get full citizenship in Israel should they choose it, but most don’t while instead shooting themselves in the foot through uprisings and terror rather than noting reality – we all have to live together.
The light in the tunnel is Shar Yafo (Jaffa Gate) with the Old City wall lit up for the once a year Jerusalem Light Festival. With really, really bright projectors an entire show is put on and one can walk around and through much of the Old City for various light-based entertainment from seesaws to video projection to artwork.
Here’s the men’s section of the Kotel . . . the outdoors part. The women’s section is on the right. Occasionally, you even spot Arab women in hijabs who come here to look around or maybe pray. Should a Jew go up top where the Jordanians were given de facto control, they actually have paid hecklers to scream at Jews and a security force is needed. After my last trip to Israel, I stopped believing in giving Arabs any more control of Israel. They have autonomous rule of their own cities with large signs saying Israelis can’t even enter. That’s the real apartheid in Israel, but meanwhile, there are Arabs everywhere in the country and some major Israeli universities are actually a majority Arab. Meanwhile, when given control, the terrorists and authoritarians take over – criticize the Palestinian Authority and you’ll find yourself arrested and probably tortured in a totalitarian government which will probably never hold another election. … and I haven’t even mentioned Hamas, where they put their money into terror tunnels and missiles launched indiscriminately on cities while their population has 60%+ unemployment and 2-4 hours of electricity a day. If I was an Arab, I’m pretty sure I’d rather be ruled by Jews.
This is the tunnel under Robinson’s arch (one of the former bridges to the upper city from the Temple Mount). Today, it’s part of the men’s section. Again, just an average night and filled with people praying and learning Torah.
This is part of a series of articles on kosher travel in Israel. For the map with all places discussed and links to other pages in the series go to the main page at Israel Kosher Vacations for Tourists.
In no particular order . . .
The Great Synagogue of Jerusalem, Rehavia
Located at 55 King George St, this modern synagogue was built in 1982 at a cost of $18 million (in 1982 dollars) and holds 1400 people. What’s amazing about this synagogue is the choir. We’re talking about a huge synagogue built with professional acoustic design and a live choir of about 12-20 singers. I can best describe it as a cross between 18th century baroque, 19th century Poland, and 20th century Carlbach … it was like going to a classical music concert complete with a conductor and “instruments” (only voice) with impeccable sound quality since there’s no reproduction of the sound. You’re hearing the actual voices in a “concert hall” which is built for sound quality.
The difference between this and say, a classical music concert is you’re not a spectator at this concert – well, assuming you know the davening [prayers], probably as a Torah observant Jew. Here, even the conductor takes part as he too is answering “amen” because he’s actually praying while conducting.
It’s not something I think I’d do every week (I usually prefer little to no singing synagogues that move along), but wow is it amazing when it’s done right. I imagine it as the closest thing to praying with Leviim singing in the Bais Hamikdash (Temple; though they had instruments too). On Shabbos morning, the synagogue starts at 8:30am but you’ll be there while a while (probably about 3.5 hours) if you stay for everything so it might be advisable to daven someone else early and then come over here for the second half of davening – e.g. f you can, go there when they sing Hallel (Rosh Chodesh, Chol HaMoed, etc…) and get the full experience. … and don’t worry what you look like. There are people with kippa strugas, black hats, streimels, probably some tourists … you have everyone attending here.
The Hurva, Old City
Those who are used to walking through the Old City of Jerusalem, until recently, were used to passing through a square with a small platform where musicians gather, people make calls from the bank of payphones, and an arch stands in what everyone knows is a synagogue which was destroyed by the Jordanians in the 1948 war. Well, a blank wall now greets you were the payphones were and the platform is still there, but the arch that you see is now part of the rebuilt Hurva synagogue. Once the headquarters for Ashkenazi Jewish practice in Jerusalem in the 1700s, it’s been built and destroyed (usually by the Ottomans or other Muslims) and rebuilt more times than it seems history has kept track of. There are historical mentions of the synagogue in 2nd, 13th, and 14th centuries and is also known as the Ramban Synagogue as the Ramban is one of the builders at one time.
Today, it’s fully rebuilt as exact as possible based on the pre-1948 plans. The only difference I could find were the wooden blocks surrounding the air conditioning units. You can find minyanim here every day and two Shabbos morning in a ‘yeshivish’ style, the later at 8:15am. Minyan proceeds quickly and without talking or a break for a Rabbinical speech, but be advised that modern acoustics are not something you’ll find in the multi-story many shul built of stone. There’s quite the echo making for a very different experience from the modern Great Synagogue described above.
Seeing this synagogue rebuilt is a very positive change for those of us who walked through this courtyard numerous times on our way to the Kotel only to see an arch where a shul should have been. Now, there’s a shul there and it’s emblematic of much of Israel which is constantly growing, being rebuilt. It’s not the country it was when I lived there in 2002. As I write this article in 2017, only 15 years later, the roads have been straightened, incomes have gone up 50%, ruins are often active places of worship.
Belz Great Synagogue
Unintentionally, the article covers a Mizrachi, Yeshivish, and Chassidic great synagogue. Belz, as one would probably guess, is the chassidish synagogue of the Belz Chassidim from Belz, Poland/Ukraine. The flat fur hats that they wear are quite stylish, but when you see this synagogue … wow. It’s the largest synagogue in Israel and can seat over 10,000. You enter on a floor that looks like a never ending lobby of a hotel complete with granite, marble, and stone work. Go up a floor to the synagogue, or if you’re going to the woman’s section, you can go up to one of three floors, and you’re greeting by an Aron HaKodesh (where the Torah’s are stored) which is, I’m told, a full size replica of the Heichel – the front of the Temple. It’s huge, as is this room.
It’s worth a stop to see how the Jews have finally returned to Jerusalem in huge numbers. Belz had two main synagogues back in Poland which were destroyed by the Nazis. It amazing to think that in 1945, between death and rebirth, chassidim like Belz had no great synagogues and were largely wiped out but you come to Jerusalem today and see that the synagogues have been more than rebuilt where they’re supposed to be and now accommodate crowds praying to G_d within which haven’t been seen in Israel since before the last Temple was destroyed.
Bonus: The Little Synagogue On Agripas St
Bais Tzvi is it’s name – at approximately 26 Agripas St (see picture on map) this humble synagogue sits at the end of the drive-able part of Agrippas St which extends from the shuk, and what begins the pedestrian mall from here through the King George triangle. It’s not huge like the rest discussed in this article, but it has it’s charm. Hidden behind a plain looking doorway between restaurants and clothing stores, this small synagogue has regular Ashkenazi minyanim three times a day with well posted times inside. It’s small enough and the Rav is friendly enough that he’ll notice you when you walk in and help you feel comfortable (he only speaks Hebrew though). The Gabbi is an American Jew from Baltimore who moved to the area, and many who stay in the hotels in the area frequent this synagogue.
On Shabbos morning, they start at 7:45am and finish by about 9:15am but the reason this gets mentioned in the kiddush. You’ll find an “authentic” Jerusalem kiddush here. It’s not over the top, it’s not huge, it’s just some yerushalmi kugel, cholent, and a small amount of baked goods. It’s just not something reproducible outside of Israel. Then, you can head off to experience the bigger Great Synagogue of Jerusalem discussed above.
This is part of a series of articles on kosher travel in Israel. For the map with all places discussed and links to other pages in the series go to the main page at Israel Kosher Vacations for Tourists.
Geography of the Dead Sea Region
The Dead Sea Region is low and hot. Excepting for the middle of winter, plan to head out early. It easily reaches temperatures of 100 Fahrenheit / 40 Celsius in much of the year. It’s a desert with not too much habitation – it’s South of the “green line” in “Israel proper” and solely a Jewish area, but the quickest route to get there from many places is by driving west from Jerusalem through the Judean Hills. It’s well worth the trip, but highly recommended to plan your activities in advance (and go with a full tank of gas if you drive) because stops are some distance away from each other.
Panorama of the top of Masada
Sunrise at Masada
This is the place where the Jews who chose to fight to Romans rather than compromise held up in Herod’s fortress almost 2,000 years ago. Large cisterns were dug to hold water and donkeys traversed the “snake path” (so named by Josephus, and as named today) to bring water and supplies to the top. Numerous ruins have been uncovered including many buildings and some dyed tiles with the dye faded, but clearly visible. It is a common place for bar mitzvahs in what was, or well, is again a synagogue.
There are two paths up Masada – make sure you know which one you’re going up. There is a different road to each, and the roads do not connect. Google Maps / Waze will take you to the “snake path” which is about a 1,300 foot / 400 meter climb. It winds back and forth alternating between hilly traverses, stairs, and inclines. Near the top, railings are more common but it’s a long way down. We did this hike starting out at about 5 am, not because we wanted to see the sunrise particularly, but because it was July and by about 8 am it’s simply too hot and they close the path entirely and the gondola opens. If you’re like us and climb this path in July, no need to speak Hebrew. It was all American (and a few British) at this hour because Israelis do this in the winter months. The river of sweat on my back might have had something to do with it, and once again my now 8 year old daughter had no trouble beating me to the top (see Tannersville trip where the same thing happened at Hunter Mountain).
The cable car at Masada
The other hiking path, if you can call it that, is a the Roman ramp. The Romans couldn’t take the fortress by way of the snake path, and if you climb it you’ll see why. Instead, the built a road and a ramp up the other side. It’s a rather large engineering project which now serves Jewish tourists well. Thanks, I guess, Romans. It reminds me of the passage in the Gemora Succos about the end of days when the nations of the world will be asked to defend their ill treatment of the Jews and they’ll say, “we built great roads for the Jews which they used” and the response will be, “no, you built them for yourself.”
The third way up, opening at 8am, is the gondola. Seeing the top of Masada just isn’t nearly as rewarding unless you do the 1,300 foot climb … it’s something everyone should experience once in their life. Then you arrive at the same gate that the inhabitants arrived at 2,000 years ago . . . and you find the water faucets waiting for you at the top.
Dead Sea Swimming
The Dead Sea is another thing everyone should experience once in their life. It has among the highest salinity of any body of water in the world (it’s beat by a recently appearing lake in Ethiopia, but that lake is near boiling hot with deadly amounts of sulfur and will kill you). In your typical unsalted or even ocean water, you sink to the bottom and have to treat water to keep afloat. In the Dead Sea, it’s the opposite – you kind of bob there with the water level just beneath your shoulders and have to struggle if you want to touch the bottom. It’s loads of fun.
Kalia Beach – Dead Sea
As of the time of this writing, it’s difficult to find a beach at the Dead Sea. Many of the public beaches are closed due to sink holes which is apparently a thing in this area. The one separate beach that is open is Ein Bokek at a hotel. It’s south of Masada, so the “wrong direction” if you’re planning to travel back North to where most of Israel’s population centers are located. We found out the hard way that Mineral Beach was closed due to sink holes but some of us really, really wanted to go in the Dead Sea and the rest of us were glad we dragged them along. We ended up at Kalia Beach which is at the intersection of routes 1 and 90 at the northern end of the Dead Sea.
A few notes about Kalia beach – first, at the intersection is a gas station. Fill up here if you need it because you won’t find another gas station along route 90 for a long, long time. We drove back on fumes, stopping at every place and being told, “no gas station here… go maybe [5/10/15/20/other random number] kilometers up the road” to not find a gas station there either making me wonder if Israelis can estimate distance. Second, Kalia beach is a bit less than an hour out of Yerushayim so if you just want to go to the Dead Sea to swim, it’s a pretty easy trip. Third, it’s a mixed beach. That being said, most but not all women were fairly covered up to protect their skin from the sun. In fact, while we didn’t go to mixed beaches on the Mediterranean, women in Israel seem to tend to be more tznious than women in the United States. Kalia beach was actually filled with Chinese tourists, many of which covered themselves head to toe and one with a face mask as well <shrug>. Fourth, Kalia beach is expensive – we heard after the trick is to say you want to go to their store and by some mineral oil and rocks that people apparently rub on their skin for some reason (we got a demo, and I can’t say I understand why you want to rub scratchy rocks on yourself). Then, you go to the beach after and the cost of the silly products is less than the cost of the beach.
Other Dead Sea Attractions
An ancient cistern at Masada
There’s the Ahava factory … not much to see. Just an assembly line and gift shop. There’s Qumran where the Dead Sea scrolls were found. There’s no gas station there (as me how I know), but there is a pretty big gift shop because, you know, the Essenes put the scrolls where they’d be safe for 2,000 years so the Pharisees could profit later. My group didn’t seem to want to see past the gift shop, but I’m sure there’s other things there today, too.
There’s Ein Gedi which is one of a few Jewish settlements in the area. By day, the residents aren’t really to be found presumably all in their houses while it’s hot. There is a fresh water spring here and apparently some great hikes. If you’ve been, please elaborate more in the comments for the benefit of others.
In Conclusion . . .
This region of Israel is not to be missed. There is unique Jewish history here to be experienced! Even if you’re not Jewish, the hike up Masada and Dead Sea are well worth the trip. Some final pictures are below.
Looking out at the Judean Hills from Masada
Hiking up the Snake Path at Masada – the starting point is all the way down there . . .
Looking down from the Snake Path to the desert floor (where the hike starts) and Dead Sea
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.