Travel to Israel With Kids
Have you always wanted to travel to Israel, but you've been afraid to go because you have young children? Never fear; it can be done! My husband is a Conservative rabbi, and also has close family in Israel. As a result, our family has made the long journey to Israel several times with children in tow. There are lots of activities in Israel that are kid-friendly, and even the lengthy flight doesn't have to be a deal-breaker.
The Flight to Israel
I won't sugarcoat it; it's a long flight. From the New York area it takes over ten hours on the way there, and nearly twelve on the way home. The good news is that your flight is likely to feature personal interactive TV screens on which your kids can watch movies or TV shows, play computer games, or listen to music. Pack lots of snacks, Dramamine for nausea, and a book for your child. Dramamine can also make your kids sleepy, so if your flight is at night, it may help them drift of to dreamland. Benadryl, though an old standby for making kids sleepy, sometimes does the opposite, and the last thing you need on a ten-hour flight is a hyper kid running up and down the aisle! If your child is prone to nausea, pack several gallon-size ziploc bags, too. They make more secure barf bags than the paper bags the airline provides.
Best Activities for Kids in Israel
There are tons of great activities for kids in Israel, but here is a short list of the some of the best:
- Dig for a Day at Bet Guvrin (archaeology and adventure made accessible to everyone!)
- the Dead Sea (Who doesn't like to float? Just make sure your kids know to keep their mouths shut and not to splash. And don't forget the mud — the opportunity for parent-sanctioned mudbaths is surely unique.)
- Hezekaiah's water tunnels in the City of David archaeological site in Jerusalem (Touring this site involves steep stairs and walking through up to 2 feet of water in an unlit tunnel. Kids age five and up will be fine, as long as they are willing to obey safety instructions. I decided against walking through the water tunnel, but my kids had an absolute blast with my husband.)
- the Western Wall tunnel tour (This historical tunnel tour is completely dry and fun for all ages. It's even handicap-accessible, with chair lifts available at several staircases. Book ahead; times for this popular tour fill up six months in advance!)
- The Marzipan Museum & John Deere Land (These two are off the beaten path in a small village in the Galilee called Kfar Tavor, but if you are visiting Tiberias you should try to include a side trip here. The Marzipan Museum offers hands-on marzipan workshops — think edible play-dough — and John Deere Land is a preschool boy's dream with huge tractors to climb on, ride-on model tractors of all sizes, a tractor simulator ride, giant slide, and even a combine harvester movie with seats that move.)
If you're looking for a couple of quiet hours reminiscent of home, the Jerusalem Zoo is a nice refuge. In addition to the standard zoo animals, there is a children's zoo, sculpture garden, and a visitor's center in the shape of Noah's Ark.
It's always nice to give back if you can, and it's common for people traveling to Israel to spend part of their vacation volunteering. You can do this as a family, too!
Have you ever sent money to the Jewish National Fund (Keren Kayemet) to plant a tree in Israel? Well, you and your family can plant one with your own hands, as well! There are several sites in Israel that currently welcome individuals, families, and tour groups to plant trees in exchange for a small donation. Contact Keren Kayemet for details.
Another great way to spend an hour or two is to volunteer with Project Leket. You can spend some time gleaning fields to rescue produce for the needy. Our kids enjoyed playing farmer for a few hours, and our tour group of 14 people managed to pick 800 kilos of onions in about an hour and a half. That's more than 1700 pounds! Sure, it was hot, but how many people can say that they were able to help feed over 200 families on their vacation? For details about volunteer opportunities during your trip, contact Leket Israel.
Activities Your Kids Might Not Love
There are some "obligatory" activities in Israel that your kids may not get as much out of. You shouldn't let it stop you from doing these activities for yourselves, but consider bringing something to amuse the kids or having one adult in your party do something else with the kids for a while.
- Masada (You should definitely visit Masada if you go the Dead Sea, but don't expect your kids to get much out of it, unless they're real history buffs. The ruins and restorations are only mildly interesting, and there is little shade on top of Masada.)
- Yad Vashem (While teenagers should certainly accompany you on your visit to Yad Vashem, there may be too much information and emotional content for younger children. Use your discretion.)
- Shopping (Everyone knows vacations are all about the shopping, right? There are certainly great opportunities for shopping in Israel, but keep a close eye on your kids in the shops, or you might find yourself purchasing several hundred shekels worth of glass pomegranates or ceramic hand-washers your active child just knocked off a shelf.)
Packing for a Family Trip to Israel
This list is certainly not exhaustive, but here are some items you shouldn't forget to pack.
In your carry-on:
- snacks and gum for the flights
- large ziploc bags (for vomit or wet clothing)
- a lovey for your child to help him sleep on the plane (even my 9-year-old daughter slept better with her blankie!)
In your suitcase:
- swimwear and accessories, including rash guards for everyone (the sun in Israel is brutal), water shoes, and goggles if your kids need them
- wide-brimmed hats and sunglasses (a must for everyone in the family — baseball caps just won't cut it)
- appropriate clothing for visiting religious sites
- specialty toiletries if necessary (Pharmacies in Israel have whatever you need, but it's likely to cost more and can be challenging to find if you don't read Hebrew. You'll be happier if you just pack your own sunblock, diaper rash cream, or conditioner.)
How Your Kids Should Behave in Israel
Don't be afraid that your kids will act out and embarrass you; because the birth rate is quite high among religious families, Israel is a country full of small children, and they are accepted comfortably at most places. The larger hotels understand that kids get antsy, and so some run babysitting programs; others will look the other way if your children play ball in a disused section of the lobby.
One thing you may not be prepared for, though, is that children are expected to hold to the same standards of dress as adults at religious sites. If you are spending any significant time in Jerusalem, pack a few skirts that cover your daughter's knees and shirts that cover her shoulders and elbows. Put boys in long pants if you'll be in the Old City. For Shabbat, boys tend to dress the same as men: white short-sleeved dress shirts and black pants. Girls wear pretty dresses with a cardigan to keep covered or a long-sleeved white undershirt you can get in clothing shops there. Don't worry about fancy footwear, though; most people in Jerusalem wear sneakers or comfortable, supportive sandals because of all the hills.
Street crime is rare in Israel, so you should feel safe walking with your children at night or allowing teenagers some free time on their own. However, you should hold your young kids by the hand when crossing streets in cities; drivers are absolutely ruthless in their quest to win the award for most aggressive. Cars regularly cut each other off with mere centimeters to spare, and traffic lights are as likely to cause cars to speed up as to stop.
Make it Easier by Taking a Tour
If you are traveling in a large group (even an extended family group) of a dozen people or more, consider using a tour company to provide a specialized itinerary. On our recent trip to Israel, we were a group of fifteen, and the tour company we used provided us with a lovely air-conditioned mini bus and a fantastic, knowledgeable, native English-speaking tour guide. Of course this service does not come cheap, but we got to do things we never would have thought of or had access to on our own, like building mud bricks in Mitzpe Ramon, having Krav Maga lessons, or getting a tour of the fire station in Tiberias (complete with a trip up in the ladder truck!). It can definitely be worth it to work with professionals who can make your travel easier and more convenient — an important thing when you're traveling with kids!