- On the rooftop in Jerusalem! Photo by Gaya S. Turtle courtesy of Vibe Israel
Last week, I had the opportunity to travel around Israel as one of four participants for the 2015 Vibe Israel Women Entrepreneurs Tour! Vibe Israel is a non-governmental organization that hosts themed cultural tours for online opinion leaders to connect with Israel’s creative energy and share it with their followers. (Here is a snapshot of our itinerary from the week.)
One of our tour leaders described Israel as “small and complex” and upon doing some initial research, I found out that was definitely true.
The limited information I had about Israel was related to the political and religious conflict in the region, so I had no clue about the positive cultural aspects of the country, not to mention how regular Israelis live their everyday lives. For that reason, it was hard to know what to expect when I stepped off the plane in Tel Aviv.
What I learned was that Israel is a country in Western Asia with a population of about 8 million. It’s the world’s ONLY Jewish-majority state with about 75% of Israelis identifying as Jewish.
Despite the ongoing Israeli–Palestinian conflict, it has the highest standard of living in the Middle East and one of the highest life expectancies in the world. The area is considered to be Holy Land, being significant for many religions including Judaism, Christianity, Islam and the Bahá’í Faith.
That said, as a non-religious tourist who has little interest in political issues, if you were to ask me about my impression of Israel from those perspectives, what I would say is that overall, “it’s complicated.”
What *was* interesting for me to learn about on the tour was the unique culture in Israel and what women entrepreneurs are doing there to create happiness, success and freedom in their lives and the lives of their families.
And as usual, the best way to know about a place is to go there, talk to the locals and see for yourself.
So without further ado, here are some of the things I saw, did and experienced on my week-long trip to Israel – part 1!
1. Take a Day Trip Through Old Jerusalem
After an introductory presentation about Israel, we headed to Old Jerusalem – an official World Heritage site – and walked through the ancient streets, visited the various religious sites and explored the huge marketplaces.
If you’re ever in Old Jerusalem, these bagels are an absolute must! They are a traditional street food in the city. Bigger than your head, you eat it dipped in a traditional spice called za’atar that’s given to you in a little paper packet along with your bagel. No cream cheese here!
During the drive to Jerusalem, I had the chance to meet Daphni Leef, founder of the Israeli version of “Occupy Wall Street.” Daphni is a passionate activist who was arrested during the housing protests in Tel Aviv. We had some engaging conversations about what’s happening to the youth and other disenfranchised groups in Israel. Given the affordable housing challenges we face in the United States plus the uptick in police brutality in my own country, we found there were quite a few similarities.
2. Tour the Rooftops of Jerusalem
After visiting the old city, we took to the city’s rooftops for a tour with Naomi Fortis (pictured in center), CEO of the Jerusalem Season of Culture. As a former nonprofit manager, I loved hearing about Naomi’s journey building two nonprofits and her philosophy about leadership for social change. Her approach to management was a “flat” style of hierarchy within her organization, allowing all of her staff to lead and accomplish important projects to advance the arts in Jerusalem. For Naomi, failure is a challenge to embrace – not to run away from. It’s important to find something to love in your work no matter how hard it is. I could feel her passion during our conversation and I had no doubt her views are what makes her work so successful!
3. Discover Exciting Women-Led Start-Ups
I found out that Israel has been dubbed “Startup Nation” for good reason. The country itself is considered to be a startup, having been created from the ground up less than 100 years ago. Many tech innovations have been launched and grown here, including Wix, the popular free website builder. We explored the global co-working space at WeWork Dubnov (also founded by an Israeli) to check out several women-led startups:
- Brayola, a personalized online bra store – founded by Orit Hashay-Terner
- GetYou, a gamified social app that connects like-minded people based on interests and personalities – founded by Orit Mossinson
- ROCO_RUNS, a social media platform, community and movement empowering women around the world to run – founded by Ronit Cohen and Reut Reuveni Pizen
Orit Hashay-Terner raised $1.7M in investor funding to launch Brayola. She started with $350,000 of her own money and after doing $1M in sales, she began participating in pitch competitions, all while she was pregnant with her son!
It was great meeting Ronit Cohen and Reut Reuveni Pizen, Co-Founders of Roco Runs to hear about how they are turning a popular Instagram page into a viable business model. They plan to start Roco Runs groups all over the world. They had some cute swag, too!
4. Walk Through Bnei Brak, an Ultra-Orthodox Jewish Community
There is public prayer 3 times a day, men wear black suits and big hats and women must always be covered in modest dress. Men and women are typically segregated in public. They don’t watch TV or use the Internet unless it is for work. The way their community operates is fascinating. I’ve never seen anything like it!
In Bnei Brak, married women must keep their hair covered. Some women wear scarves but many are starting to wear high-quality wigs over their real hair instead. We visited a training center called Galit Italia that teaches women how to make and style high-end wigs, plus earn money by selling them. The wigs can cost upwards of $3,000!
Our tour guide in Bnei Brak was Tovi Spiegel Hirschler, a Jewish Orthodox journalist who “crossed over” and became one of the first ultra-orthodox female broadcasters on the popular secular radio station 102FM. In this photo, beautiful Tovi is wearing a wig over her real hair as her choice to adhere to the religious law.
5. Eat a Traditional Shabbat Meal
For dinner in Bnei Brak, we met Nili Davidovich, Founder & CEO, Daat Solutions, which offers web devleopment services and focusing on hiring Haredi Jewish women who have degrees in Computer Science and yearn to balance their professional high-tech skills with their religious and family lives. It was so inspiring to hear about Nili’s mission to provide her fellow Jewish sisters with opportunities to fulfill their potential, yet still accommodating their lifestyle.
We ate a traditional Shabbat meal with authentic Jewish dishes including:
- Hummus and pita bread
- Cold aspic made with chicken broth
- Gefilte fish – cold fish loaf
- Beef stew with beans and potatoes
- Liver mousse
- Potato kugel
- Pickled beets with horseradish
- Apple tart with nuts for dessert
Well, it was an interesting meal. I took a bite of most dishes but didn’t like any of them! So I can’t say I would eat this kind of food again. Ever.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of my week-long tour of Israel!