Everyone knows that there is nothing like the first-time experience of visiting Israel. Even accompanying first-time visitors to Israel and seeing their faces as they enter the city of Jerusalem, pray at the Kotel, climb Masada, swim in the Dead Sea, go to Yad Vashem or witness their first encounter with an Israeli breakfast is an experience!
There isn’t anyone who is prepared for the power Israel has as it brings to life the stories of the Bible and presents the spiritual, historical, cultural and physical beauty of the land and its people, the Jews and others who also call it home. Israel is the place that you want to return to almost as soon as you leave. Fortunately, after visitors get their first or even second taste of the ancient land and its people, they only have begun to scratch the surface of experiences that Israel has to offer.
Here are a few of the “seldom seen” possibilities for those returning:
Makhtesh Ramon in Mitzpe Ramon
The Ramon Crater, or Makhtesh Ramon, is a true natural wonder and is one of the top 10 things to see in Israel. Located in the south in Israel’s Negev desert, the crater is far enough off the beaten path that tourists don’t often have the time to go there on a first or second visit. It is the world’s largest erosion crater. Most craters are formed as a result of a meteor or a volcanic eruption, but Makhtesh Ramon was created by erosion 220 million years ago. It is shaped like an elongated heart and forms Israel’s largest national park, the Ramon Nature Reserve. It contains geological formations unparalleled in the world. In addition to the sheer beauty and majesty of the crater, there are many unique things to do in the crater and the surrounding area:
• Take a jeep tour to enjoy the beautiful scenery;
• Rappel down the cliffs;
• Stargaze at night;
• Hike on the Har Ardon Trail and the Negev Highlands Trail; or
• Visit Faran, a mini-cosmetics factory that creates a range of 100 percent natural cosmetics inspired by nature and the surrounding desert.
In addition, The Spice Route Quarter is an old industrial area in the town of Mitzpe Ramon that has cute boutique stores, guest houses, bakeries and restaurants. One can also:
• Take a hot air balloon ride;
• Enjoy a short excursion to Avdat, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and visit the site of a ruined Nabataean city. Avdat was the most important city on the incense route after Petra between the first century BCE and the seventh century CE. The Nabataeans also built Petra.
In addition, there is a fabulous hotel located on a cliff at the edge of the Ramon Crater. The Beresheet Hotel and Resort is a five-star hotel and spa in a dramatic setting unique in the world. The hotel offers spa services and excellent cuisine.
Volunteering in Israel is an excellent way of integrating and immersing yourself into the community and culture. When one volunteers for the benefit of others, one attains the satisfaction of self-fulfillment and the knowledge that he or she has made a positive change. You can choose from a variety of options based on your skills and interests. It is a great opportunity to discover up close the amazing cultural and natural diversity that makes Israel the special country that it is. It also gives you an opportunity to work closely with and get to know Israelis.
Here are only a few of the opportunities available. If you have a specific interest in an area such as children at risk, the elderly, youth and sports or anything else that helps other and builds communities, there are a multitude of experiences awaiting you on your next trip.
• Fruit Picking at Leket Israel
Leket Israel is the country’s largest food bank and leading food rescue and delivery network. Leket Israel volunteers enter fields and orchards at the end of the season’s harvest to glean fruits and vegetables that will then be distributed all over the country to those in need.
• Packing with Pantry Packers
This is an exciting hands-on opportunity to pack commodity food staples for Israel’s poorest families. Located in Jerusalem, the facility gives volunteers the opportunity to make their contribution to society in a meaningful way.
• Be a Forester for a Day
The Jewish National Fund’s Forester-for-a-Day program is a new ecological initiative that offers volunteers a unique opportunity to assist JNF in helping to maintain forests, prevent forest fires and guarantee a greener tomorrow.
• WWOOF with the Locals
Participants in WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) Israel can enroll in a variety of hands-on experiences that are located variously at a kibbutz, a moshav, a farm or a private home. These experiences include cheese- and wine-making, animal husbandry, green building, and organic gardening to name a few.
The Agam Art Museum
Yaacov Agam is one of the most renowned Israeli artists of all time. His paintings, exhibited all over the world, both defy and define kinetic art with his signature approach using bold colors and shapes. Agam was born in Rishon Lezion in what was then Mandate Palestine and though he moved to Zurich and then Paris, a large collection of his art found a permanent home in the place of his birth outside of Tel Aviv. This is the only museum in the world that is dedicated to art in motion.
The recently-opened museum is one-of-a-kind in the way the visitor views the paintings. In most museums, one stands in front of a painting and then moves on. In the Agam Museum, you must view the work from at least several different angles and even then, you will not see everything that the artist fashioned to speak to you. With all his work, Agam shows us that the most constant thing in life is change.
Though Agam’s art is very modern, it expresses an ancient concept of the Jewish people. According to Agam, the whole concept of Judaism is the flow of time and the unexpected. His philosophy is that time, by definition, cannot be repeated and its events are unexpected. He uses this Jewish notion of the unanticipated in his art. His museum is dedicated to the notion of seeing the world in a different way, as Judaism—with its linear and progressive view of time, from creation through development to redemption—broke with previous beliefs in a cyclical, repetitive view of man in time.
The building’s structure is as interesting as its contents and reflects Agam’s artistic concept. This is not a museum that one should walk through without explanation. Be sure to arrange a guided tour ahead of time in order to truly appreciate Agam’s genius. We guarantee that an excursion to Israel’s newest museum will be well worth the time spent.
This charming town is rarely visited on even second or third trips to Israel. But it’s a gem you don’t want to miss!
Zichron is located 22 miles south of Haifa at the southern edge of the Carmel mountain range, overlooking the Mediterranean Sea near the coastal highway. Many people are attracted to the picturesque setting and historic city center whose restored buildings on its main street house restaurants, coffeehouses and boutiques selling locally made crafts, jewelry and antiques.
Zichron Ya’akov was founded in 1882 by 100 Jewish pioneers from Romania. They purchased land but the difficulty of working the rocky soil and an outbreak of malaria led many of the settlers to leave before the year was up.
In 1883, Baron Edmund James de Rothschild became the patron of the settlement and drew up plans for its residential layout and agricultural economy. Zichron was one of the first Jewish agricultural colonies to come under the wing of the baron. He brought in planners who designed and allotted housing plots along the main road for the use of settlement farmers. Each lot included a house facing the street, a long interior courtyard and a building for agricultural implements. The French-inspired architecture included tiled roofs and painted wooden windows frames. These houses can still be seen today. Each farmer was given a salary and placed under the direction of the baron’s clerk. The Ohel Ya’akov Synagogue was commissioned by Baron de Rothschild and a beautiful edifice with an ark made of white marble was built. The synagogue opened in 1886 and has conducted daily prayer services continuously ever since.
After a number of economic failures, Baron de Rothschild helped to establish the first winery in Israel, Carmel Winery, in 1885. This was somewhat successful until 1892 when the grapevines were attacked by a parasite. After a brief setback, the winery grew American seedlings that were resistant to the parasite and subsequently flourished. Today, the winery is the longest-operating institution in Israel’s booming wine-making industry.
Be sure to stop or stay at The Elma Arts Complex Luxury Hotel. It is a magnificent architectural complex with outstanding views of the Mediterranean Sea. The hotel has the philosophy that “When you stay with art, the art stays with you long after you leave.” The Elma highlights not only a magnificent array of visual arts but also classical concerts, operas and modern musical performances. These make it a special destination for both locals and tourists.
Don’t miss the Aaronsohn House-Nili Museum. During World War I, Zichron became famous for the establishment of the Nili spy ring. Sarah Aaronsohn, with her brothers Aaron and Alex and their friend, Avshalom Feinberg, volunteered to spy on Ottoman positions and report them to British agents offshore. In 1917, the Ottomans caught one of Sarah’s carrier pigeons and cracked the code. Sarah and several others were arrested. After four days of torture, Sarah was able to go home to get some clothes and while there, she shot herself in the throat so that she wouldn’t be able to give away secret information.
A unique cemetery also awaits you in Zichron. There are colorful and whimsical but moving tributes marking the graves of children and young people.
If you really want to understand Israel and Israelis, sit with them across the table, break bread and listen to the stories they tell. Not only will visitors hear about their personal history and cultural traditions, but they also will get an in-depth perspective on the beginnings of the still-young state and the role markets played in people’s lives.
The effect can be seen – and tasted – today in Israel’s heterogenous cuisine, the flavorful result of its diverse populations.
Hummus, falafel, shakshouka and couscous are only a few of the ethnic foods available in Israel. The unbelievable tastes and aromas are all part of the richness and liveliness that makes Israel special. Tel Aviv is today’s world leader in culinary experiences, a magnet for foodie travelers. Places all over the country strengthen the attraction.
• Shuk and Cook
Begin the day with a guided tour of Jerusalem’s colorful food and vegetable market, Mahane Yehuda. The tour will be followed by a hands-on cooking workshop with a local chef using fresh products purchased at the market.
• Meet with a Druze Family
The Druze are a minority group living in Israel’s Carmel and Golan Heights region. Enter a Druze family home and learn about the Druze society and its customs. End the visit with a home-cooked, all-you-can-eat meal.
• Eat with the Locals
This is a wonderful opportunity to get to know Israelis. Meet and eat with locals inside their homes and absorb the real flavors and aromas of Israel. There are a wide variety of options in terms of areas of the country and hosts and hosting styles.
• Israeli Kitchen Cooking Workshop
Enjoy an interactive cooking workshop with a well-known chef. Learn to make the most popular Israeli dishes such as hummus, grilled eggplant and spicy Moroccan grilled fish.
• Circassian Hospitality
In a beautiful village in the north of Israel, Kfar Kama, one can learn about and experience Circassian culture and hospitality including traditional dishes, music and folk dancing. During your visit, a local guide will share the traditional stories and heritage of this Muslim minority group that fled Russian conquests in the North Caucasus in the 19th century.
• Bedouin Feast in the Desert
Experience a traditional Bedouin feast and take part in fun-filled activities such as pita bread making or camel riding in beautiful desert surroundings.
We will tell you what we tell all of our travelers to Israel: Welcome Home and we will be waiting for you when you return. L’hitr’aot!
Jan Goldstein and Iris Ricks of Amiel Tours, Israel prepared this article especially for inFOCUS. Contact them at www.israeljourneys.com.