I’ll apologize in advance since this post is probably not applicable to most of my readers. However, I figured this platform was best for discussing my experience as a vegan on my Birthright trip to Israel. Overall, I’m glad I participated in this experience, but it was a rough ten days for a number of reasons.
Firstly, some basics if you have no idea what I’m talking about. Birthright is a program funded mainly through private donations and some Israeli government money that takes Jews aged 18-26 to Israel for ten days, if they have never visited before or after the age of 12. Obviously there are some expenses the participant must cover, but these are very small considering airfare, ground transportation, and accommodation are covered. There is one Birthright program but many groups that take people on this program. I went with a URJ Kesher Group (Union for Reform Judaism).
Before departure, I filled out paperwork stating very exactly what I could not eat as vegan expecting that simply stating that I was vegan would be confusing. I was told that this information would be sent to all the appropriate places to make sure my food needs would be taken care of. I even confirmed this over the phone during one of my interviews.
However, two days out from departure I was talking to my American staff leader for the first time to clarify what I couldn’t eat and not do because of my vegan values, and he told me he had received no information on my dietary restrictions. I told him what I had written down assuming/hoping/expecting him to transfer this information to the appropriate people since it had obviously failed the original time. Note to you: assume your American staff actually has no power over anything.
I show up at LAX and, for some reason I can’t remember, it came to my attention that the program probably hadn’t reserved me meals I could eat on the 13.5 hour flight. I immediately went up to both American staff members to figure out what was going on, but they did nothing besides make excuses. I was told El Al doesn’t have vegan meals, and it was too late to order a special meal. Well, yes, El Al does have vegan meals [link]. If they had sent me my flight information or even told me I had to reserve this meal myself I would have gladly done it before hand. However, I was told this would all be done for me.
Other people in my group with special meals received theirs with no personal interventions. One girl in my group was nice enough to give me her vegetarian meal that she ordered even though she wasn’t vegetarian, but that was only one meal near the end of the flight. The rest of the flight I ate trail mix, the horrible little airplane salad, and water.
In Israel, there are vegan options at every meal, but these options are always salad, hummus, and olives. If I had been able to eat out more often I could have gotten better food, but the group picks where you eat, and they like hotel buffets. On days out, it’s always easy to find a falafel stand or an Aroma, which clearly marks their vegan items and has an English menu. I even managed to find vegan sorbet at a mall! If you’re unsure where to go or what to eat, just ask someone. Don’t feel bad about passing on challah or anything else.
Apparently the highlight of this trip for a lot of participants (I don’t know why) is riding camels at the Bedouin tents. I avoid circuses and other industries where animals are used for profit because they are usually rampant with animal abuse on top of already being inappropriate environments for the animal (seriously look at all the continual animal abuse fines for Barnum and Bailey Circus). The two other vegans in my group decided to ride the camels, but by that night, confided that they were feeling guilty about it.
Just by looking at the camels, I could tell a few of them and one in particular weren’t in the best shape. People in my group asked why I wasn’t riding and seemed generally supportive of my feelings. Later that night we walked into the desert farther away from the camp but still no more than a 15 minute walk away. In the dark of night, my group quite literally walked into a camel carcass. I wouldn’t bet money on this merely being a coincidence.
We also had an optional excursion on a free Shabbat to walk around a kibbutz. The kibbutz we toured actually turned out to be in the dairy industry. So we saw the mother cows caged and wallowing in their own feces and the veal calves chained up a few feet away. People will make nasty, uncouth jokes as they try to rationalize that what they’re seeing is what they’ll be eating later. The kibbutz also had a greenhouse and other interesting features so it wasn’t a complete bust for me just not the best choice.
There are cats everywhere in Israel. Seriously, everywhere. Cats are the Israeli squirrels. You will be tempted by the cute especially because they look slightly different than cats here. However, everyone will treat you like you’re crazy if you feed or play with them. Also be careful because they are feral cats without vaccinations. As my group medic was playing with another cat, he told me if I got scratched the program wasn’t responsible. I always washed my hands after handling the cats just in case.
· I brought Clif bars with me and it ended up being the smartest thing I could have done vegan or not. The days are packed with physical activities and travel and you are (possibly purposely) not given enough time for a solid night of sleep. Add this in with only eating salad most of the time and you can see why I was exhausted. These made great snacks while we were out and about and for my flight out of Israel.
· In Israel, people don’t discuss food as vegetarian, paleo, vegan, etc. but rather in kosher terms. Ask if food is parve. Parve food doesn’t have meat or dairy ingredients although it may contain eggs. Understanding what is vegan anyways, it was easy to avoid eggs. People speak English to varying degrees so you can ask. However, if I wasn’t sure about an item from past experience I avoided it.
· If you stay in Israel after, make sure to go to a market before sundown on Friday. Everything will close for Shabbat, and I wanted to be sure I had vegan food. Also happycow where you will be visiting.
· Non-Vegan tip: Everyone (man/woman, Israeli/Palestinian, Adult/teenager, Muslim/Jewish/Christian) will want to talk to you or rather talk at you when they learn you’re foreign and especially if they think you’re American. Just listen. Don’t try to have a conversation. I don’t think they actually want an equal conversation. They just want you to hear what they have to say.
I hope that was somewhat helpful to any vegans considering going on birthright! I just wanted to voice my experience because it was more difficult than others I had read about. I will also have another post on food from my travels through Israel and Europe coming up soon!