High above Kiryat Shemona, the Bekaa Valley to our left and the Golan Heights straight ahead, my wife and kids jumped from a cliff and sailed hundreds of feet on a zipline.
Waiting to leap were two young Orthodox men. The first pushed off, his payot flapping in the wind as he held on to his harness with one hand and his kippah with the other. After thinking for a moment, his friend stuffed his kippah in his pocket and jumped, both hands firmly on his harness.
Ziplining with the Orthodox. Digging for Maccabean relics with archaeologists. Off-roading on the Golan. We planned our family trip to Israel on the theory that our kids would learn more if they were happy and engaged than if they were bored and bedraggled.
Our strategy paid off. If you ask Jacob, 10, about the Lebanese border, he'll tell you about ziplining and tobogganing -- and about the Hezbollah flags he saw nearby. If you ask Mollie, 12, about the 1948 War of Independence, she'll tell you about her visit to the bullet factory hidden under a kibbutz laundry room.
Grown-ups have asked Mollie and Jacob about our trip and often get right to the point -- "Was Israel scary?" The fact that our kids can answer that Israel is a place of fun, not fear, while demonstrating an understanding of some of Israel's security dilemmas, gives us great satisfaction.
Our kids declared during our trip that while tiny Israel may look like "nothing" on a world map, "there's a whole lot of something inside."
It's important to take your kids to Israel. If the best route to American Jewish kids' hearts and minds is the fun route, then here are some adventures slightly off the beaten path you can pursue with your family:
- Manara Cliffs -- Ziplining, tobogganing and a cable car ride to the top of the cliffs combined to make Manara a memorable stop. Situated at the northernmost tip of Israel, the view encompasses Lebanon, Israel's Hula Valley, Mt. Hermon (the site of Israel's only operational ski lifts) and the Golan Heights.
From the top, it is only a few minutes' drive to Kibbutz Misgav Am, a heroic outpost nose to nose with Southern Lebanon. Inspecting the border fence at Misgav Am, while watching the yellow Hezbollah flags flap a few hundred yards away, impressed upon our kids the fragility of the Jewish state.
- Off-Roading on the Golan -- The Golan remains relatively rugged and undeveloped, and utility vehicle rides are a great way to take in highlights both natural (wild baby corn and gazelles) and political (land mine warning signs and battlefields).
You can stop for a hike and splash in a natural spring waterfall. Visiting the top of nearby Mt. Bental allows the kids to roam through Israel Defense Forces (IDF) bunkers from the Yom Kippur War, and the grown-ups can see the plains of Syria below and hear the occasional sound of Syrian training fire in the distance.
- Lunch in a Druze Village -- We wanted to emphasize the multiethnic nature of Israeli society to help our kids counter misinformation about Zionism that they may hear later in life. The Druze, who send their boys to the IDF and their girls to local schools while retaining their religion and culture, welcome visitors.
We had lunch with Rehav, a 21-year-old Druze woman who is studying English at Haifa University. She would have seemed as at home in Westwood as in the Western Galilee
She told Mollie and Jacob about her family and religion. Our kids were intrigued by Rehav's belief in the transmigration of souls, and they loved the homemade pita.
- Rosh Hanikra -- The Lebanese border offers extraordinary coastal beauty at Rosh Hanikra, site of unique aquatic caverns. Accessible by cable car from the cliffs above, visitors climb through grottoes as waves crash through.
A film explains the natural history of the site, as well as its strategic value -- the British built a tunnel there and linked mandate territory to Turkey via a rail link through Lebanon. The film is shown in the tunnel itself.
The fortified border crossing with Lebanon at the top of the cliffs again teaches the kids that in Israel natural wonders sit side by side with potential threats.
- Tornado Boats at Nahariya -- The northern coastal town of Nahariya offers excursions on Tornado boats. With their twin 90-horsepower engines, the boats race at 30-45 knots through the chop of the Mediterranean. You speed past ruins at Achziv and ask Israeli naval vessels for permission to approach the northern nautical border. You can be assured you won't encounter the Lebanese navy.
- Gan Hashlosha -- Just south of the Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee), sandwiched between Jenin and Jordan, lie the natural springs of Gan Hashlosha. A series of cascading, freshwater minilakes awaits.
Kids can dunk themselves under waterfalls and try the waterslides for a shekel a ride. The park finds local Jews and Arabs picnicking side-by-side.
Our kids swam alongside Arab women covered from head to toe, and marveled at the kebabs fired up on the Arabs' gas grills. (In the interest of full disclosure, Jacob insisted on eating at the kosher McDonald's in nearby Beit Shean.)
- Ayalon Institute -- Near the modern technical marvels of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot lies the more primitive marvel of the Ayalon Institute. Beginning in 1945, Haganah leaders recognized the need for homegrown ammunition, and the kibbutzniks at Ayalon led double lives to support the cause.
At ground level, they operated a successful laundry; 20 feet below their ironing boards, they operated a secret bullet factory. Kids and grown-ups feel the excitement as they descend the hidden staircase to the assembly line, reliving the tension and claustrophobia the kibbutzniks endured for several years.
- Beit Guvrin -- Admit it. You get just as bored as your kids examining ancient pottery in museums. Beit Guvrin is the cure for pottery fatigue -- an active archaeological dig that solicits shoveling by tourists to clear out newly discovered underground caves.
Visitors pick away at the soft earth, place clumps of dirt in buckets and use their own fingers to discover relics from the Maccabean era. Our kids found pottery fragments, animal bones and seashells used as jewelry.
Further sifting of the dirt leads to additional finds, and visitors are encouraged to take nine pieces of surplus 2,200-year-old pottery shards home to make a chanukiah. This year, Mollie and Jacob will retell the story of the Maccabees with Maccabean property -- an actual and incredible link to our past.
- Masada and the Dead Sea -- Masada and the Dead Sea are the definition of the beaten path, but pick the right beaten path -- the snake path. Spend the night at nearby Kibbutz En Gedi, rise before 4 a.m. (our kids didn't like that part) and climb Masada via the snake path to watch the sun rise over Jordan.
Then head to one of the local Dead Sea spas. Floating in warm saltwater, mud and hot sulfur baths combined with the Masada workout and the early start will lead to a serious nap on the drive back to Jerusalem.
Jack Weiss is a Los Angeles city councilman representing the Fifth District.
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