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Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The perfect pilot trip to Israel: 10 things you MUST include

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Planning aliyah?  Mazel tov!  Or rather, b’shaah tovah, another common expression when something great (like a baby’s birth) is about to happen, but hasn’t yet.

A year ago, we had only the faintest idea of where we wanted to end up.  Today, we’re living here.  And we’re apparently experts on Life in Israel.  Having spoken to lots and lots of olim, I now have a way better idea of how to plan a pilot trip and what to expect while you’re over here.

Please note:  Nefesh b’Nefesh has a great site, where they have comprehensive information about where to go and what to do on a pilot trip, and what serious things you should consider.  These things are important, and they are written by professionals who work in that business full-time.  I am not a professional.  I can only write from my own perspective.

I’m going to leave it up to you to put together your list of Places to Include on the pilot trip.  It’s important, but that’s not what I’m talking about here.  I’m talking about steps that will help you FEEL the country and get to know what it’s like to live here on a daily basis.  If we were coming today, these ten things would be among my top priorities.

1) Supermarket visit – ideally more than one. ** WE DID THIS

We actually spent a lot of time in supermarkets on our pilot trip.  I was fascinated with seeing what brands there were, and all the different types of meat and dairy products.  Another store that’s fun to visit is a drugstore.  On our pilot trip, I came down with a sudden cold and had to pop into the closest SuperPharm to pick up some meds so we could continue with our tour’s frantic pace.  I wouldn’t recommend catching a cold and needing to talk to the Israeli pharmacist about whether you have a fever or other symptoms, but supermarkets are a great way to put yourself in Israeli shoes for a few minutes and “test drive” the experience.

2) Ulpan “interview.” ** WE DIDN’T DO THIS

Though we met with two mayors on our NbN Go North pilot trip, we didn’t meet a single ulpan teacher or principal.  Too bad.  I think it would be nice to get a sense of what level of ulpan would be most appropriate before you arrive.  My ulpan teacher told me many American olim, in particular, arrive with a great over-confidence in their Hebrew level.  You may speak a bit, but do you have the structure and tenses required to actually use the language on a day-to-day basis?  Nouns and vocabulary are not enough… neither is a day-school background, necessarily, if it focused mainly on siddur or even Tanach.

3) Meet children of olim. ** WE DID THIS (a little)

image If you’re coming with kids, like we did, it would be good to meet with grown children of olim, or teenagers who are able to speak about the experience of their first year or two in Israel.  You can’t make the transition process easier, but you can find out what the biggest issues are – whether they are language, or school, or social – and try to smooth these out a bit, or at least understand what your kids will be going through.  Of course (and this is the only time I will mention it here), you could also look into buying my book, Ezra’s Aliyah, which deals with a couple of these issues. 

4) Falafel and shawarma. ** I DIDN’T DO THIS (I think my husband did, but I was too chicken)

If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.  Believe me, I hated falafel before we came here.  I’d eat it under protest, but not with much enjoyment.  My first time eating it here (not on our pilot trip, sadly, but about 2 months after we arrived!) came with great hesitation… but I need not have worried.  There is literally an ocean between falafel here and falafel in chu”l (chutz la’aretz, outside of Israel).  Try it, you may love it.

5) Travel around Israel by bus & train.  ** WE DID THIS

Nothing made me feel more authentic than buying train tickets at the machine (available in English, unlike when you buy from the lady behind the counter!) and getting around the country on our own.  Dealing with Israeli bus drivers was another matter, but it was a delight to discover that not only do they make change, but they actually try to be helpful – even if I didn’t always understand their help.  Plus, you are guaranteed to rub shoulders – literally! – with real Israelis.

6) Chats with real olim.  ** WE DID THIS

This is already part of the Nefesh b’Nefesh pilot trip agenda.  But they are likely to bring in olim who are happy with where they are living, with advice to help you settle there.  It would be better to meet with people who have lived in several areas to see where they eventually ended up – and why.

7) Shabbat – preferably more than one.  ** WE DID THIS – BUT only one

There is nothing like Shabbos in Israel.  Yeah, I still call it Shabbos inside my head, but an Israeli Shabbat is nothing like any Shabbos I’ve experienced anywhere else.  Try to find a neighbourhood that closes on Shabbat so you’ll get a true sense of the unique “ruach” (spirit) of the day.  With a 10-day itinerary, we only had one Shabbat, but happily, we have had many more since then.

8) Sleep in a real Israeli apartment.  ** WE DID THIS – BUT only once

A pilot trip is a little like a vacation.  You stay in hotels, which for us is a real luxury.  Not at all like real life.  The more actual Israeli apartments you get to see, the better, but for best results, sleep in one.  While the two hotels we chose had nice, big beds, the house we stayed at had the regular-size ones you may end up in when you move here.  Plus, you will not feel Israeli or even be able to think concretely about living here until your bare feet hit the cool stone floor in the middle of the night on your way to the (weird, Israeli) bathroom.  Even more authentic would be if you were stuffed into a tiny bedroom, preferably with mattresses on the floor and children dreaming happily in every corner of the apartment.

9) Bank machines.  ** WE DID THIS – BUT…

Ha ha ha ha ha.  We visited many bank machines (aka ATMs, to all you readers in the U.S.) while we were here on our pilot trip.  They all worked beautifully with our Canadian bank cards – not a single blip or problem.  But then… SIX MONTHS later, when we arrived on aliyah – neither of our cards worked.  In any machines, anywhere.  I recommend bringing a card that says VISA on it somewhere, because that’s the only one that has worked for us long-term.  Use your pilot trip to start noticing which banks have good machines, hassle-free service and convenient locations.

10) Jerusalem.  ** WE DID THIS

Would you come to Israel without a visit to its spiritual and political centre?  We were extremely lucky to be based at its heart for the first week of our 10-day pilot trip.  You may not be considering living in Yerushalayim, but it’s close enough to all of the communities of the Merkaz (centre of the country) to make them an easy day trip away.  From Yerushalayim, we were able to explore Maalei Adumim, Rechovot, Beit Shemesh and Raanana.  It’s a great thing when coming back to Yerushalayim at night begins to feel like coming home.  Again, this may not be your eventual destination, but it is the centre of everything Israel is about.

In case you’re wondering where we actually got to on our pilot trip, here’s the complete list… 10 days, 13 cities!  Note:  these were not written as blog posts, but rather, as letters to our kids back home in Canada:

Even though our pilot trip felt disorganized, and we really didn’t come away with a strong sense of specifically where we wanted to live, we did a lot of what I’d consider the important intangible “hard-to-put-your-finger-on-it” things… and they really helped us picture ourselves living here on a day-to-day basis.

What are your pilot trip priorities???  Let me know in the Comments section below.

More information from around the web…

[photo credit:  Yehudit Garinkol via PikiWiki Israel]

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