JAMMing in Israel

I’m going way back on this one, to my first overseas excursion. Winter break 2006 to be exact, when I went on a JAM trip to Israel. It was me, a rabbi, his wife, two assistants, and twenty or so college kids. This was a guided tour and we did a lot, and it was ten years ago, so I don’t remember it well, but I remember some things and I have pictures so I’ll try to piece it together as best I can.

Before we begin, I should probably explain what JAM is. In the US, there are lots of send-college-aged-Jewish-kids-to-Israel trips, all of which are designed to strengthen the Jewish community in America. The most popular is Birthright, a free 10 day non-religious trip, the only requirements are that you are Jewish, under 25, and you’ve never been to Israel before. I had applied for Birthright several times but despite meeting all the requirements I kept getting rejected. It was annoying and I was getting fed up, so when I heard about JAM, I immediately applied.

JAM has similar goals to Birthright but goes about them in different ways. First off, you can go on a JAM trip even if you’ve been to Israel before. Because of this, many people go on Birthright first, then go back to Israel with JAM. The average JAMMer is older than Birthright (20-27 vs. 18-21) and JAM groups are given more freedom (we were allowed, even encouraged, to meet locals, discover new areas, and explore on our own. We were even allowed to leave the group, something you absolutely cannot do on Birthright). But the biggest difference between JAM and Birthright is that JAM has a religious aspect: the first four hours of each weekday (8am-noon) were spent in classes taught by Rabbis, and we also celebrated Shabbat with local religious families. The final differences between the two trips are that JAM is longer than Birthright (three weeks vs ten days) and it also isn’t free (it his heavily discounted though, I got roundtrip airfare from Los Angeles to Jerusalem, plus three weeks of room, board, and activities, all for $1000).

Hopefully that helps explains JAM and the trip I’m about to describe. So without further ado, my JAM trip in Israel:

DAY 1 – Even though our group was almost entirely from Southern California (mostly San Diego, as that was where our rabbi was from), I did not fly with the rest of the group. Being from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, I had to return to school earlier than everyone else, so JAM bought me separate tickets to accommodate. This was really nice, Birthright wouldn’t take me at all but JAM did everything they could to make my trip happen.

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The airport outside Jerusalem. Welcome to Israel!

I took a taxi to meet up with my group. After I arrived (I was the last one), we took this picture:

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My group of JAMMers. The Rabbi is crouching in the center holding his daughter, and his wife is standing the furthest camera-left. I’m center-left in the back, the one with my head cocked and fro-y hair.

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Our group stayed inside Jerusalem’s Old City. This was the view from outside our place.

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To get to Jerusalem’s nightlife district, we walked by the Tower of David, also known as the Jerusalem Citadel. Fortresses/towers have stood at this location for more than 2000 years, but they’ve been repeatedly destroyed. This current tower has stood for about 700 years, since the Crusaders tore down the last one.

DAY 2 – Today we went to Mini Israel, a theme park type attraction that features miniature versions of almost everything in Israel. It was a touristy place, something I would never do on my own, but it was a group activity, so I made the best of it.

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Bagel place near our dorms in Jerusalem. We had bagels for lunch almost every day, they were really good but we did get sick of them by the end of our trip.

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Shawarma from a restauranrt near the bagel shop. We had shawarma for almost every meal that wasn’t a bagel, and it was so good! I love Middle Eastern food and the only time I had a problem with it was when my stomach went out (more on that later).

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Palestine territory, as viewed from our bus. Despite being literally across the street from Israeli territory, westerners aren’t allowed in. And there aren’t even signs or borders or anything, you just have to know where Palestine territory is and stay out.

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The Russian Orthodox Church of Maria Magdalene, as seen from our tour bus. There was so much religion in this city, it was amazing. 

Exhibits from Mini Israel. It was actually a pretty impressive place.

After Mini Israel, we had dinner at a mall, then did some karaoke!

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I remember being really struck by this menorah: you never had menorahs in malls in the US, only Christmas trees. That was my thought back then and I don’t know if that was true then but it definitely isn’t now (not in LA at least).

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Karaoke time! I’m singing Best Of My Love from the Boogie Nights soundtrack, one of my favorite songs at the time. I wanted to sing Sisqo’s The Thong Song but they didn’t have it.

DAY 3 – Today we took a trip north, to some war sites and ancient Israeli ruins. Then we went to Safed, an artist city that is also one of the four holy cities of Judaism.

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Israeli soldiers visiting Jerusalem. Israel requires military service from all of its citizens, part of which involves trips to Jerusalem, so they can see what they are fighting for.

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A tank that fought in Israel’s wars for statehood. We got to climb on top of it but not inside unfortunately.

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Ancient ruins. I don’t remember where or from when.

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How they used to make cooking oil back in the day. 

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Walking the streets in Safed.

Candles from Safed’s most famous candle shop. These were and still are the most intricate candles I’ve ever seen.

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A Mikveh outside Safed. A Mikveh is a communal bath that Orthodox Jews immerse themselves in to wash their sins away. Mikvehs are so important to Judaism that they are required to be constructed before Synagogues, and communities must even sell their Torahs if money for a Mikveh is needed. I went in this Mikveh for fun and did a full immersion, it was the only time I’ve ever been naked in public.

DAY 4 – Today was Friday, which meant at sundown it was the Sabbath. And in Israel, Jerusalem especially, they take the Sabbath seriously. According to Jewish law, you are not allowed to work on the Sabbath, work doesn’t just mean employment, work includes any unnecessary physical activity, including operating machinery (cars included), flipping light switches, pushing buttons, etc. All you’re supposed to do on the Sabbath is go to temple, spend time with family, eat, drink, and relax.

However, Israel is also a modern country in a modern world, and so here’s how they accommodate the Sabbath:

  • Thirty minutes before sundown, sirens blared throughout the Jerusalem. These sirens basically said: “finish what you’re doing and get where you’re going because the sun will be down soon, which means wherever you are, you’ll be stuck there.”
  • Almost every business in Jerusalem shut down at sundown, including taxis. However, some Arab taxi drivers did continue working, but they raised their rates significantly during this time.
  • In modern buildings, elevators are programmed to stop and open on every floor (since you aren’t allowed to push buttons, there is no way to call an elevator or choose a floor once you’re inside one).
  • When metal detectors were placed outside Jerusalem’s Western Wall, Jews stopped visiting on the Sabbath because they thought that walking through metal detectors constituted work. Leading rabbis discussed the matter and concluded that for purposes of the Sabbath walking through metal detectors is not work.
  • Israel’s military (Israel Defense Force, or IDF) is permitted to work on the Sabbath. Judaism permits, even requires, certain laws be broken in the name of survival, and honoring the Sabbath is one of them. Also, Israel’s military service requirement does not apply to ultra-orthodox Jews.

Each Sabbath, our JAM group was split into groups of two or three, then matched with local Orthodox families, where we had dinner and spent the night. The next morning we visited another Orthodox family, where we had brunch. This was one of my favorite parts of this trip, mainly because the food was amazing (the wives spend all week preparing the meal, and everything was homemade) and it was also interesting seeing such a unique culture up close and in action.

DAY 5 – I don’t have any pictures from today. I didn’t have any pictures from yesterday either. No working on the Sabbath means no picture taking, I guess…

DAY 6 – Today we visited even more ancient lands. Something important in Jewish history happened here, and I think it was bible related, but I can’t remember. Not much remains at these locations, which makes them hard to place.

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Our bus for the day. Some days, depending on where we were going, we rode in bullet-proof buses. This was one of those days; we even had an Uzi-wielding Israeli guard with us (did you know the Uzi was invented by the IDF?).

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Ancient Jewish lands. Significant or not, they are beautiful.

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In the evening we visited a local vineyard. It was a nice place, but Israeli wine is not the best.

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When midnight hit, today became Christmas Eve! To celebrate, we went out and partied! My favorite story from this night (we partied almost every night but this story is from tonight): while dancing at a club a group of Israeli soldiers came in; they placed their rifles on a table, then left them unattended as they joined us and others on the dance floor. Then, after twenty or so minutes of dancing, the soldiers re-collected their weapons and left. It was amazing.

DAY 7 – Today we to Hebron, the site of many historical Jewish battles history and also home to the Cave of the Patriarchs.

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Hebron was more rundown than other places we visited, but the kids didn’t seem to mind.

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Military outpost in town

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Taking pictures with Israeli soldiers. Lots of people who come to Israel do this.

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Cave of the Patriarchs, also known as the Sanctuary of Abraham or the Ibrahimi Mosque. Almost all of Judaism’s greatest matriarchs and patriarchs are buried under this 1400 year old fortress (a castle stood here previously, but it was destroyed in 614 CE), making this a major religious landmark for both Islam and Judaism.

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Inside the “Cave”, where, like all Orthodox temples, Jewish women pray behind walls. Orthodox Jews claim they do this not out of sexism; they do it so the men won’t be distracted by their beautiful women. 

DAY 8 – Today was Christmas and we spent almost the entire day trying to get into an important Christian city (I don’t remember which one). All I remember was that traffic was insane, I don’t think I’ve ever been in as much traffic as on this day (and I’m from Los Angeles!).

Afterward (unfortunately, I don’t have any pictures of the traffic or the city), we went back to Jerusalem, where we had a feast at one of the top floors of the King Solomon Hotel.

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This is one of the most famous hotels in Jerusalem, primarily because of its spectacular views.

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See what I mean?

DAY 9 – Today we went to Tel Aviv, Israel’s most modern, metropolitan city. We only spent a day here, and spent a good portion of it at a museum, so we didn’t see much. But here are pictures of some of the things we did see:

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Tel Aviv by day. It rained today, which allowed for some great pictures.

Beit Hatfutsot, a museum for the Jewish people, tells the Jewish story from its origin to the present. Honestly, I don’t remember much about this place, it wasn’t very exciting, not even close.

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Tel Aviv by night

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It rained in Tel Aviv but it snowed in Jerusalem. It was pretty magical. Also, there are ghosts?

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The Dome of the Rock covered in snow. The Dome of the Rock, considered Jerusalem’s most recognizable landmark, was built in 691 and is one of the world’s oldest works of Islamic architecture. According to Judaism, the dome is located at the spiritual junction between Heaven and Earth, and according to Islam, the dome is located where Muhammad ascended into Heaven. The dome is also located where, according to the bible, Abraham almost sacrificed of his son (Jews, Christians, and Muslims all agree on this last one).

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The Western Wall, the other most recognizable landmark in Jerusalem. This wall, the only surviving portion of the Second Jewish Temple (which itself was built after the destruction of the First Jewish Temple, located in the same spot), was built around 500 BCE and destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE, as punishment for a Jewish uprising they put down. According to Jewish prophecy, one day a third temple will stand on these grounds. 

The Western Wall as well as the Dome of the Rock, Dome of the Chain, and the Al-Aqsa Mosque behind it, are four of the holiest Jewish/Islamic places in the world. The fact that they are right next to/on top each other is one aspect that had led to so much conflict between these religions.

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This is the walkway from our dorms to the Western Wall. According to my timestamp, this picture was taken at 4:09AM. It is one of my favorite pictures from this trip.

DAY 10 – Today we went to Yad Vashem, Israel’s holocaust museum. We were told that the museum would be really difficult and that we should prepare for it. I think I over-prepared, because I handled it relatively easily; the museum definitely wasn’t as intense as Auschwitz six years later.

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It’s morning and there’s still snow on the ground. So pretty!

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Hey look! A picture from one of our morning classes. The classes actually weren’t that bad; we spent most of the time talking morality and ethics, subjects I find interesting. Even so, the classes didn’t do much for me, and I mostly just viewed them as the price I paid to go on this trip.

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Sign outside the entrance to Yad Vashem. I do not know what this sign says.

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A memorial to the 1.5 million Jewish children who died in the Holocaust. There were a lot of memorials like this outside the museum. I didn’t take any pictures inside, where there were Holocaust relics and photographs in addition to memorials.

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View of Jerusalem from Yad Vashem.

DAY 11 – Today was one of my favorite days on our trip. We didn’t have classes today, instead we got up extra early and went to Masada, part of Masada National Park, where we watched the sunrise.

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Masada is a military fortress built by the Jews around 120 BCE. In 40 BCE the fortress was captured by the Romans, who fortified it for use as a refuse should Jerusalem’s Jews revolt. In 66 CE the Jews did revolt, and they recaptured the fortress as well. However, by 70 CE the revolt was put down (for which the Romans destroyed the Second Jewish Temple as punishment), with the remaining Jewish holdouts fleeing to Masada, their last stronghold. The Romans then laid siege to Masada, and when they finally breached the walls three years later they found that almost everyone inside (960 people) had committed suicide. Today Masada is seen by many as a symbol of Jewish courage and heroism, but also by others as a symbol for radicalism and fanaticism.

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This is why you go to Masada super-early. Also, that’s the Dead Sea in the distance. This is the closest we got to it on this trip; our tour guides didn’t want to take us in the cold winter weather. We (or at least I) thought that was really lame.

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The cliffs of Masada, the main reason this was such an effective fortress.

After sunrise, we hiked down the Masada cliffs (we drove up and entered through the back), then went to nearby Ein Gedi Nature Reserve and National Park, where we spent the rest of the day.

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Entrance to the nature reserve, which is inside this canyon.

Animals in the canyon. And where there’s animals there’s water…

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The Ein Gedi Nature Reserve. These aren’t the most spectacular waterfalls, but when you consider that we’re in the middle of the desert, and that this oasis was mentioned in the bible several times, this becomes a pretty grand place. 

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While at Ein Gedi, I passed out against a rock. It wasn’t the pre-sunrise wake-up, I had a nasal infection that zapped a lot of my energy at this point on my trip.

DAY 12 – Shabbat again. No pictures again. This Shabbat my fellow JAMMer and I went to temple with the male half of the Jewish family we were staying with, just to see what it was like. Then we had another amazing Shabbat dinner.

DAY 13 – Shabbat brunch again. Another delicious meal. And today, I have my favorite story from this trip:

After brunch, I went for a walk with the family and fellow JAMMer I was staying with, and we eventually found ourselves near one of those streets you don’t cross because it’s Arab territory on the other side. I commented about how lame it was to travel half way around the world and not be able to cross the street; it looked the same over there as here and why shouldn’t we be able to see the other side? To this my host family replied that if I was really interested in seeing Arab territory, this was the place to do it, since the Arabs were friendlier here than they were in the rest of the city. So I went. My fellow JAMMer went with me.

We crossed the street and no one cared, no one probably even noticed. So we continued on, into Arab land. We and made it about 100 yards when an Arab soldier saw us from his post. He intercepted us, asking us in broken English what we were doing. He was carrying a very big gun.

I responded causally: “Oh you know, we’re just visiting. We wanted to see what was on this side of the street.” I specifically said “street” because I wanted to emphasize that all we had done was cross the street.

The Arab soldier looked straight into my eyes and replied: “There’s nothing to see here.”

“Okay!” I replied. I got the message, and my fellow JAMMer did too; we turned around and walked straight out of Arab land. I assume the guard watched us go, but I didn’t look back to find out. All I could imagine was him aiming his rifle and shooting us.

When we made it back to the Israeli side of the street, our host family asked how far we got. We told them a couple hundred feet, and they laughed. That\\e whole experience was something you could never do on a Birthright trip.

Later in the day I did something else you could never do on a Birthright trip, although this one wasn’t nearly as dangerous or scary. I had family living in Jerusalem and so, with my JAM group’s permission, I left the group and boarded a bus to their neighborhood. I got off 45 minutes later to find I had no idea where I was (the bus driver informed me when we reached my stop), but my family’s apartment was only a block away, and that’s where I went.

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My Israel family’s neighborhood, a 45 minute bus ride from the old city in Jerusalem. I have no idea where I am.

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My Israeli family. Never met them before, haven’t seen them since, not even sure if they are family or just family friends. But we had a really nice visit.

In an amazing coincidence, despite being a 45 minute bus ride from the old city, I was only a short walk from the location of tonight’s JAM activity. So after my visit, I simply walked to my JAM group and spent the evening with them.

DAY 14 – Today we went to another ancient place where Romans killed Jews. I don’t remember the name of it but I do remember its story. Basically, the Jews, tired of Roman soldiers driving them out of their homes, built new homes with entrances so small you had to shimmy through them to get in. The idea was that if the entrances were small enough, Roman soldiers wouldn’t be able to enter because their armor and weapons were too bulky. And it worked, the Roman soldiers couldn’t enter. Too bad they didn’t need to, they simply started fires outside and smoked the Jews out.

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When I said shimmy I meant shimmy; these entrances were really small! 

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That’s me, entering one of the rooms. The rooms were actually decently large, even if the entrances were small.

Today was also New Years Eve, which meant come nighttime we hit up the Jerusalem nightlife again and partied!

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Breakdancing in the streets.

I don’t have many pictures from tonight because they all look like this (alcohol and photography don’t go well together, at least not for me).

DAY 15 – Today was the other most fun day of our trip, because today we rode camels. Riding camels is so much fun, especially when they lift you up and drop you down. Camels have really intense natural-hydraulics, which enables them to raise and lower you without warning and really fast. It’s exciting and hilarious, but also scary!

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Camels, kings of the desert (maybe, I just made that up).

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Look at that face! These guys were awesome.

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We’re on the camels! Riding them was very fun.

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The desert near where we rode the camels. Deserts can be really beautiful, especially with all the colors they have.

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Our flower-power tour bus, our Uzi-wielding guard on the phone behind it.

For our evening activity, we explored under the Western Wall. There was a whole labyrinth of civilization under the second Jewish Temple, and much of it remains in very good condition.

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Under the Western Wall. There was lots more to explore, but it mostly looked like this.

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Orthodox wedding near the Wall.

DAY 16 – Today we went on an archaeological dig. Israeli archaeology is amazing because there is so much old stuff. We were literally sifting through thousand-year-old fragments, looking for something intact enough to be worth preserving. I thought anything thousands of years old would be worth preserving, and while that might be true in places where there aren’t a lot of old artifacts (like the US, where I’m from), it’s not true in Israel, where there are tons.

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Sifting through sand and rocks. See anything worth keeping?

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Our guard (a different one this time) outside the dig site. This guard carried a normal rifle, not an Uzi like the last one.

Today was actually my last day in Israel. JAM trips are supposed to be 18 days, but I had to leave early to make it back to school on time. So for our evening activities, we all got together and everyone said bye.

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This is me at my goodbye celebration. Remember how I mentioned my stomach went out? Well here it is. The water in Israel wasn’t safe for westerners to drink (it was safe for middle easterners because they were used to it) and because of this I drank bottled water every day, except for one day when I lapsed and had a glass of tap water lemonade… Montezuma’s revenge, you are not fun.

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Despite being sick, I still made it to the Western Wall one last time before I left. These pictures really don’t do it justice; they might capture the beauty but they don’t capture the feel of the place. Religious or not, this is a really special location.

DAY 17 – I flew home. I missed my connection, so Continental gave me per diem and put me up for the night. First meal I had after arriving back in the states? Pork chops!

DAY 18 – I flew the rest of the way home.

That marks the end of my trip. All in all, I had a great time. The only disappointing aspect was how much I missed. First off, there are the Islamic landmarks that are off limits to Westerners, like Al-Aqsa Mosque, Dome of the Chain, and Dome of the Rock. Secondly, since I went to Israel with a Jewish group, we didn’t do anything Jesus related. Church of the Nativity (a church commemorating the location of Jesus’s birth), Church of the Holy Sepulchre (the church where Jesus was crucified), the Garden Tomb (where Jesus was buried and resurrected), Mount of Olives (where Jesus ascended to heaven), despite not being Christian, I would loved to visit these places.

We also didn’t visit Haifa (WTF?!? Maybe they went here the day after I left?), Caesarea Maritima, Petra (it’s in nearby Jordan, but still), and tons more nature destinations and archaeological sites, some that are as much as 4000 years old. Finally, I still maintain that not going to the Dead Sea because it was winter was lame.

Even so, as I said, I had a great trip. There is so much in Israel, there’s no way I could have done everything in such a short amount of time. We saw history, nature, animals, we partied, experienced culture, and best of all was the Shabbat dinners, that was one of the best cultural (and culinary!) experiences I had while traveling.

I’m glad I went on the JAM trip, and I would do it again *if* I somehow went back in time to when I was an inexperienced traveler. But this is not my favorite way to travel. When you travel with tour groups, you don’t learn how to travel, you don’t remember things as well, you are are at the mercy of their itinerary, and you have less adventures. And when you travel with religious groups, you miss a whole bunch of stuff that isn’t part of their religion. Not to mention all the time we spent in the classroom and not traveling. Because of this, when I heard that JAM also offers trips to London and New York, I wasn’t interested. I’d rather have my own experience, do things my own way. I mean, can you imagine visiting New York and not roaming through Manhattan? Visiting London but not stopping by Westminster Abbey? That’s kind of what I did in Israel, not going to Haifa, the Dead Sea, any of the landmarks related to Jesus. I’m glad I went on this trip, but based on where I am now, I wouldn’t do it again.


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