This past winter break, I joined 50 other University of Illinois students in Israel for Birthright. Our trip was organized by Shorashim and Illini Hillel. I had been to Israel before, but this time was extra special. I made so many amazing friends and lasting memories. There were however, just a few things I wish someone had told me before my trip.
Here are 10 pro-tips to help you have an excellent 10 days on Birthright Israel!
1. Bring a day bag. You will need it so often, it will become your best friend. Stuff a coat in there, and a hat and sunglasses too – be ready for any weather. Also throw in some food like granola bars or yummy Israeli chocolates. Hikes and long bus rides make you hungry, and food is not always available! Be sure your bag is large enough to hold a change of clothes, some toiletries, and a towel. Twice during my trip, we spent a night without our suitcases, and lived out of our day bags.
2. Sleep at least 5-6 hours every night. Most days you will need to wake up by 7am, or earlier, and programming usually runs late into the night. Drinking Arak (Israeli liquor) until 3am is a horrible idea; you are no super-Jew. You only have 10 days in Israel – be sure that you are awake enough to enjoy them all. Trust me on this one.
3. Be as social as possible. What makes an amazing Israel experience is not just the sites you see, but the people you see them with. Even if you are not the most outgoing person, take this opportunity to totally open yourself up to new people. Challenge yourself to learn the names of every person on your trip by day 3. Try to have a good conversation with everyone on your trip by the end of day 10. You will get on and off the bus a lot, so sit with someone new each chance you get. If there are Israelis on your trip, you should especially get to know them!
4. Eat well! If this is your first time in Israel, you will quickly discover that Israeli food amazing. Try some weird foods! Get that dish you can’t pronounce. What is shakshooka? Find out, its delicious! Israeli candy and snack foods are awesome: Bamba, Bissli, Crembo, “poprocks” chocolate… yes, please! Enjoy it all, you will burn off those calories with all of that hiking!
5. Please hydrate. Carry a water bottle everywhere you go. The climate is much drier than you are probably used to. Also, you will move around all day, sweating even when you do not notice. Every Birthright trip has a medic, so if you feel dehydrated, be sure to let her or him know. Personally, I find that drinking a lot of water in the morning helps me feel better throughout the day.
6. Sunscreen, sunscreen, sunscreen. Lather up, or you will burn. Bring a nice-size tube with you and make applying it part of your daily routine while in Israel. You will still get that nice Middle-Eastern tan.
7. Bring lots of Israeli power plug adapters. They break, get lost, and everyone will ask to borrow yours. I recommend having at least three or four. You should know that the really inexpensive ones that go for under $10 work just fine. Skip the expensive plugs, which can cost upwards of $30.
8. You will not be able to leave the group to do other things, like visit friends or family, or venture off on your own. When you are given free time, it will only be for an hour or two, and there will be a set area you must stay within. If you want to do other things in Israel that your group is not doing, you can extend your stay in Israel (for free).
9. Get to know your madrichim (staff/guides), bus driver, security guard(s), and medic. They are honestly the coolest people, and usually have great stories to share. Your group leaders are also young, and can really become your friends.
10. Treasure. Every. Moment. Sorry to sound cliché, but this is so true. Every minute you are in Israel is a gift, so set out to make every moment count. Go make a lot of memories and a lot of friends. Take so many pictures and post them everywhere. Really take in the country, the people, the land, the spirit, the food, the music, the culture, and the history. Israel is yours. Birthright was one of the greatest experiences of my life, make it one of the greatest for you too!