Highlights of Israel you don’t want to miss and final days of Taglit-Birthright

by Dan Fey on March 22, 2012

Jerusalem Old City

Ruins of the ancient city of Jerusalem, Jewish Quarter

The final days of Birthright, I visited the Har Herzl Cemetery, the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum, the old city of Jerusalem, the holy Western Wall, ate delicious treats at the Jerusalem marketplace, and said goodbye to my new friends. Overall, the Birthright experience was a ten day roller coaster ride featuring cities, nature reserves, deserts, cultural, religious, and historic learning, emotions, amazing sights, amazing sounds, and amazing people. Below are the last few days of my birthright experience along with a short recap of the highlights of Israel and awards. If you haven’t already, take a look at the First Days and From City to Desert.


After traveling through the desert, it was back to city life. Our next stop was the ancient and holy city of Jerusalem. As we entered the city, Hillary spoke about how most of the buildings are built with the same pale limestone. When the sun is rising and setting, the twilight hits the stone in at a certain angle, turning the city to gold. I felt chills going into the city. There is so much history in Jerusalem and it’s such an important holy center for many religions. Journeying to Jerusalem is very important for many people and I was there.

After dropping our luggage at the hotel, we visited Ma’aleh, an orthodox Jewish film school. We saw two short films, one was the first film to address homosexuality in Israeli religious society and the other was about a woman in a common Israeli orthodox Jewish high school who develops feelings for a boy, but can’t touch him due to her religion. The films were very interesting and gave us another perspective on the Israeli Jewish culture. Afterward, we ate dinner at our hotel and had a discussion about the Holocaust to prepare for our next day at Har Herzl and Yad Vashem. It was a heavy subject and some tensions and emotions developed in the group.

The next day, our first stop was Har Herzl, national cemetery of Israeli soldiers and resting place many important Israeli officials including Yitzak Rabin. The weather was very cold, about 45 Fahrenheit with heavy rain. As we walked around the gravesite huddled under few umbrellas, trying to stay dry and warm without success. We took cover and Hillary told us stories of Rabin and Golda Maier. She also told us Memorial Day is very emotional for Israelis, and every year a ceremony is held here that transitions the country into the joyful Independence Day.

Har Hertzl

Fighting to stay warm and dry at Har Hertzl Israeli National Cemetery and Memorial

Though the weather was much less than ideal, I found it almost appropriate. As I was thinking about those that died fighting for Israel, the rain symbolized mourning. It created an atmosphere that will help me remember the site.

Our next stop was Yad Vashem Holocaust museum. As we entered the museum, the walls were tall and angled in on each other to symbolize the walls closing in. The ground and walls were made of smooth concrete. This created an atmosphere of coldness and discomfort. The museum has one main corridor and you can easily see the end, but the corridor is roped off, preventing you from going straight through. You must see the whole story in the rooms on both sides of the corridor to get to the end. It’s setup like a timeline, telling the story first of the Jewish people. As the Holocaust develops the museum is angled down and underground and then back up as the tides of the Nazi regime change.

Each room described in great detail the way the Holocaust developed along with individual names, faces, and diary entries describing the conditions and how they felt at the time. It was heart wrenching, disgusting, and mind-boggling how this could have happened. What really hit me was that one bullet per Jew was not efficient enough for killing. This was the industry of death and the Nazis spent so much time, effort, and creativity to find the best, most efficient way to kill people. How much could have been accomplished with this effort elsewhere? What could have the 12 million people killed contributed to society?

At the end of the museum, we watched a video of an amazing story about a guy who survived two concentration camps, meeting his wife in one of them. The wife underwent a sterilization experimental procedure that was purposely botched by the forgiving doctor. After the war, the two found each other and had kids. It was an amazing story that ended the museum experience on a positive note. I left feeling good that, though so many terrible things happened in the Holocaust, Jews did survive and will continue to survive as a people and a culture.

We went out in the beautiful downtown Jerusalem with many jewelry and specialty shops before heading back to the hotel for a late dinner followed by drinks.

The next morning, I woke up and looked outside. The ground and tops of the building were all white! It was snowing in Jerusalem, something that only happens once every four or five years. The flakes were big, heavy, and wet. We ate breakfast and headed to the ruins in the Jewish quarter of old city of Jerusalem. We walked into the ruins and Hillary told us 2000 years of Jerusalem in 10 minutes or less (it was around 6 minutes).

Jerusalem blizzard

Rare Jerusalem blizzard, a once in four or five year occurance

After spending a few minutes in the museum, the snow turned into a beautiful, blue sky day. We could see everything very clearly now and the ruins were beautiful. I was taken back by the size of the stones. No mortar was needed because the stones are so big and heavy that their weight holds it together. Much of the wall was still intact after thousands of years.

After the ruins, we visited the Western Wall, one of the holiest places for Jewish people. At the wall, it is customary to write down a wish on piece of paper, place it into the cracks on the wall, and say a prayer. I put a blank piece of paper to leave my wishes and future open to new possibilities.

The Kotel Western Wall

The Kotel Western Wall, one of the most significant sites for Jewish people

Next we traveled to the Jerusalem market to walk around, taste the local treats, and bring something back for Oneg Shabbat (potluck after Shabbat dinner). The snow turned to rain, but much of the market was inside so we didn’t get too wet. The market was beautiful with many amazing produce stands, spice stands, meat stands, and delicious bakery stands with amazing pastries, baklava, and pitas. I walked around with Kevin and tasted as many treats as I could.

Machane Yehuda Marketplace

One of many beautiful stands at the Machane Yehuda Marketplace in Jerusalem

We returned to the hotel with our pastries and sat as a group with the rabbis Menachem and Adi. We discussed three scenarios involving morality. For each scenario, one person took the pro-action side and one person took the con-action side and had 2 minutes to present their case. Three judges decided who’s argument was stronger. Then, the rabbi described what was moral based on Jewish law. It was a fun and interesting exercise that helped me understand Jewish morals a little more.

We then ate a Shabbat dinner before heading to our conference room for Oneg Shabbat and one last party. There were so many sweet treats that everyone brought, too much for us to eat. I did the best I could and ate so much food I just about got sick. My favorite was the chocolate rugelach – I couldn’t stop eating them.

Oneg Shabbat Potluck

Admiring the delicious treats before digging into the Oneg Shabbat Potluck

After filling on amazing treats, we brought down whatever wine and beer we had left to finish off. We stayed up all night until 3am having fun and reflecting on the trip. It was a great way to end a full day in the cold and snow.

The last day was Shabbat and a lazy day. I spent some time on my computer catching up on my journal, checking and responding to email, and adding my pictures onto my laptop. We eventually made our way down to the lobby of the hotel for another activity that the Rabbis setup. We then hung out for another couple hours before the ending Shabbat service. We had our last dinner and reflected on our experience.

After dinner, we loaded our packs onto the bus and hit the road for Tel-Aviv airport. On the ride, we had fun singing songs. It was strange to think that this was the last time we would all be trekking on the bus together. We spent ten days, day and night driving from place to place on the bus – it was really the one constant.

Birthright Bus

Last ride on the Birthright bus, concluding our wonderful adventure

We arrived at the airport, unloaded our luggage and moved as a group to the check-in. Those of us that were staying in Israel said some rushed goodbyes and the others headed off. That was it, our action-packed Birthright experience was suddenly over.

Birthright was an experience full of everything. Full of people and socializing, full of learning, full of sight-seeing, full of action, and full of fun and excitement. It really was a strange way to live for ten days. Our bodies and minds were not really prepared for it. I am amazed at how much we actually saw and did – it seemed like so much longer.

Birthright greatly exceeded my expectations. I thought I would see some sights with a group and independently browse around looking at things. I also thought I would be pushed by the program to be religious or move to Israel or get married. I have traveled a fair amount and been on a bunch of tours. Birthright was by far the most organized and best travel tour experience I’ve ever had.

Birthright Tour Guides

Amazing Birthright tour guides: Adinah, Tomer, Hillary, Fedya

I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to attend and I find it hard to believe that the program exists. I highly recommend Birthright to everyone who is eligible (see How to get a Free trip to Israel).

Birthright Recap

*Highlights of Israel you don’t want to miss are starred and bolded

Day 0 – Departure

Met at the Philadelphia airport and flew 11 hours to Israel

Day 1 – Arrival

Met our amazing guide, Hillary and our awesome guard, Fedya
Drove to Tiberias and ate our first Israeli meal together as a group

Day 2 – The North

Nature Reserve and learned that 500 million birds migrate through Israel
*Toured through the holy city of Tzfat
*Ate my first Israeli falafel and hummus
Shabbat service and dinner

Day 3 – The North

Tour of Tiberias and the Sea of Galilee
Conclusion of Shabbat – Havdallah
*Mixed Jerusalem Grill (chicken hearts, livers, and spleens) dinner on the Tiberias Promenade

Day 4 – The North and Central Coast

*Nahal Banias Nature Reserve and the Hermon River
Gadot lookout
Golan Heights Winery tour and tasting
*Night out in Tel Aviv – Florentine District

Day 5 – Tel Aviv and the Negev Desert

*Met our 7 Israeli peers
*Jaffa – ancient port city in Tel Aviv (one of the oldest port cities in the world)
*Rabin Square and memorial – the assassination site of Israeli Prime Minister and Nobel Peace Prize winner Yitzhak Rabin
*Carmel Bazaar Market and shakshuka lunch
Independence Hall and the declaration of the modern state of Israel
*Save a Child’s Heart – helping children receiving heart treatments smile

Day 6 – the Negev Desert

*Masada sunrise and story – Roman ramp up and snake path down
Ein Bokek – taking a dip in the stream and waterfall
*Dead Sea, floating the saltiest body of water in the world
Bedouin village and bonfire

Day 7 – The Negev and Jerusalem

Camel trekking in the Negev desert
Mitzpe Ramon
Sde Boker grave of Ben Gurion

Day 8 – Jerusalem

Har Hertzl National Memorial in the freezing rain
*Emotional Journey through Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial and Museum
Ben Yehuda shopping street
Political seminar

Day 9 – Jerusalem

*Jerusalem Ancient City ruins Jewish Quarter walking tour in the snow
The Kotel Western Wall
Saying goodbye to our Israeli peers 🙁
*Machane Yehuda Jerusalem bazaar marketplace
Shabbat service and dinner
*Oneg Shabbat potluck with delicious treats and drinks afterward

Day 10 – Jerusalem

Group activity and wrap up
Havdallah – Conclusion of Shabbat and last dinner together
Saying goodbye at Ben Gurion Airport


Top experience: Sunrise and story on Masada
Most beautiful: Banias Waterfall (next to sunrise on Masada)
Most fun: Two hour night out in Tel Aviv
Most interesting experience: Floating on the Dead Sea
Most powerful/emotional: Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial and Museum
Most awe inspiring: Jerusalem Old City Jewish Quarter ruins
Most delicious: tie between Jerusalem mixed grill and rugelach chocolate crescents

Now that you have a taste of Birthright from reading First Days, From City to Desert, and this post, will you sign up for birthright? Which experience seems most interesting to you? Leave a comment here.

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Aisha October 14, 2014 at 10:12 pm

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