Category Archives: Family

Agamon Hula Lake

I just guided a group in the north of Israel and can report that Agamon Lake received rave reviews. Matt, steering the 7-cycle that we rented, said “This is the greatest day in my life”. Aunt Ruth who had just come from the birding festival in Eilat helped us identify the many birds that we saw. Some of the younger at heart rode bicycles, the older people drove in an electric golf cart (all available for rental at the site).

Matt steering the 7-cycle, photo Steven Browns

Agamon Lake is in the Hula Valley (עמק החולה‎, Emek HaHula) an agricultural area in northern Israel in the Syrian-African Rift Valley with abundant fresh water. The Hula is bordered on the east by the Golan Heights and to the west by the Naftali mountains rising 400 to 900 meters above sea level. Basalt hills about 200 meters above sea level formed during late Pleistocene volcanic activity along the southern side of the valley impede the Jordan River flowing into the Sea of Galilee, referred to as the basalt “plug” formed the historic Hula Lake about 20,000 years ago and the surrounding wetlands. It is an important route for birds migrating between Africa, Europe, and Asia.

The Hula Lake existed until the 1950s, a shallow, pear-shaped basin 5.3 kilometers long and 4.4 kilometers wide, extending over 12-14 km². It probably contained the richest diversity of aquatic life in the Middle East (south of Lake Amiq, Turkey which was drained at about the same time as the Hula). Based on research 260 species of insects, 95 crustaceans, 30 snails and clams, 21 fishes, 7 amphibians and reptiles, 131 birds and 3 mammals were noted.

Between 1951 and 1958 draining operations were carried out by the Jewish National Fund (JNF). The declared objectives of the Hula draining project were two-fold: the addition of arable land and the eradication of malaria; additional perceived benefits were more water (by reducing evaporation losses) and peat as fertilizer. Hula Lake was drained by deepening and widening of the Jordan River downstream and digging two peripheral canals diverting the Jordan at the north of the valley (to bypass the plug).

In response to environmental concerns a small (3.50 km²) area of recreated papyrus swampland in the southwest of the valley was set aside and in 1963 became Israel’s first nature reserve.

Unfortunately, what originally seemed like a good idea over time created severe agricultural and ecological problems due to peat sediment degradation: uncontrollable underground fires, formation of dangerous caverns within the peat, proliferation of field mice, release of nitrates and sulfates into the Kinneret, 119 animal species were lost to the region, 37 totally lost from Israel, many freshwater plant species became extinct. So from 1980 to 1994 under the auspices of the JNF a program for the Hula’s rehabilitation was inaugurated.

In 1994 a small area in the southern part of the Hula Valley, in the area that once served as the transition between the original Lake Hula and the surrounding swamps was reflooded to create Agamon HaHula (אגמון החולה‎, literally: “Little Hula Lake”).  It has an irregular shape, covering an area of 1 km², several smaller islands were created in the middle of the lake to provide protected nesting sites for birds. At least 120 species of birds have been recorded in or around the lake including large flocks of migratory pelicans, storks, cormorants, cranes, and other birds en route between Europe and Africa that spend days to weeks in the vicinity of Agamon HaHula. Also, new nesting colonies of various species such as herons and plovers have been established. As well, water buffalo and donkeys have been introduced and a small furry rodent called a nutria (also called a coypu), which was brought to Israel from South America for its fur, has made its home here.

You can check out the Agamon website at

7-cycle, photo Steven Browns

Mount Sodom

Mount Sodom

South of Masada along highway 90 there is a hike up Mount Sodom, a hill that is made up almost entirely of halite or rock salt. It is 226 meters above the Dead Sea with some great views (and photography opportunities) but still 170 meters below sea level. Don’t miss the rock formation that has separated from the cliff face due to weathering. It is known as Lot’s wife, a reference to the Biblical story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and how Lot’s wife looked back as they left and was turned into a pillar of salt. Interestingly there are other rock outcrops that are called Lot’s wife in other parts of the world, check Wikipedia for some fascinating accounts like a basalt pillar, a deserted, volcanic island in the Philipines Sea, at the southernmost tip of the Izu archipelago in Japan.

Lot's wife as a pillar of salt, © 2009 Shmuel Browns

Dead Sea pools

Ein Gedi

Ein Gedi-waterfalls and pools

Ein Gedi (literally Spring of the Goats, refers to Nubian Ibex that come to the spring to drink) is an oasis in the Judean desert along the western shore of the Dead Sea. Here are two hikes (each about 5 km) in the Ein Gedi reserve that are perfect for families, Nahal David and Nahal Arugot.
On entering the reserve follow the marked the path and after about 15 minutes of easy walking we’ll reach the first waterfall, Mapal Shulamit that cascades 30 meters down the rock to a pool below. After a refreshing dip we’ll continue to a fork in the trail, we’ll take the steeper one on the right (the other path would take us back to the entrance) to the Shulamit spring and from there above the wadi to the Dudim cave. Retracing our steps we’ll continue to the Ein Gedi spring and beside it the flour mill. From there we can walk to the ruins of the Chalcolithic temple (3500 BCE), one of the oldest remains of human settlement in the Judean desert. We’ll descend through a cranny along a dry canyon to discover a 50 meter high waterfall and a great view of Nahal David and the Dead Sea beyond.

Ein Gedi-Nahal DavidAccording to the Roman historian Pliny the Elder the area of Ein Gedi was settled during the Second Temple period by a Jewish ascetic sect called the Essenes. The archaeological evidence uncovered by Hirschfeld suggests that they lived   near the spring where he found more than 20 tiny stone cells and two pools, one for irrigation and one a miqve or ritual bath. Pottery shards date it to the first century BCE.

The second hike starts from Tel Goren along the Nahal Arugot river bed past acacia trees and salvadora to a large pool used for irrigation of crops like balsam; the pool was filled by a channel that brought runoff from the wadi. Continuing we will pass reeds, maidenhead ferns, willow and poplar; we may see a rare orchid called Ben Horesh. A little farther the wadi narrows to a steep walled canyon at whose end is a waterfall and pool.
Excavations at Tel Goren by Mazar of the Hebrew University in  the 1960s show that the site was settled in the Israelite period and functioned as a royal estate for growing dates of the now extinct Judean palm Phoenix dactylifera, considered uniquely medicinal. Balsam was grown for the production of perfume (in Hebrew, afarsimon).
The Romans were interested in the production of balsam perfume; Mark Anthony confiscated the groves from Herod and gave them to Cleopatra. After their deaths, Herod was able to lease them back. During the Great Revolt, the Jews uprooted the groves so they would not fall into the hands of the Romans.
Excavations have revealed a small Jewish village and a synagogue from the 4th century with a beautiful mosaic floor. Written in Hebrew and Aramaic,  inscriptions list the signs of the zodaic and months of the year (later displayed graphically in mosaic floors in synagogues in Bet Alpha and Tiberius) and the expression “Peace unto Israel” (also found in the ancient synagogue in Jericho) and a dire warning at the end: “whoever reveals the secret of the town to the Gentiles – He whose eyes range through the whole earth and who sees hiddens things, He will set his face on that man and on his seed and will uproot him from under the heavens.” The secret seems to be the production of perfume from balsam.

En Feshka pondThe other natural source of fresh water in the Judean desert is Ein Feshka 30 km to the north of Ein Gedi. The lowest nature reserve in the world consists of 3 parts of which one is closed to visitors except research scientists who are studying the desert. The public part includes a small archaeological site from the Second Temple period and pools of fresh water, picnic tables and facilities for the enjoyment of visitors. The closed reserve is 1500 dunams (370 acres) that can only be visited with an authorized guide like me. It’s incredible to find a large freshwater pond with fish, shaded by trees in the middle of the desert next to the Dead Sea.

Bar/Bat mitzva in Israel

We celebrated our daughter Tiferet becoming a bat mitzva with family and friends in the archaeological park along the southern wall of the Temple Mount early in the morning – that was back in August 1996 and I still remember how hot it was by mid morning and how our younger son Amitai who was 6 years old at the time foraged for figs that grew on the trees nearby.

Today the popular place is on the Herodian street that runs along the Western Wall, among the massive stones that were pushed from the wall by the Romans almost 2000 years ago, a silent reminder to the destruction of the Second Temple and the downfall of Jerusalem.

We celebrated our son Uriel becoming a bar mitzva by organizing a trip to Peru with close friends, hiking for 4 days along the Cuzco trail to the sacred Inca site of Machu Pichu. We carried a Sefer Torah with us which we read on Monday and Thursday on the trail, on Rosh Hodesh (the new month) at Machu Pichu and on Shabbat back in Cuzco.

Some families decide to celebrate with family and friends in Israel and have climbed the Snake Path to the top of Masada at sunrise, as a sort of physical rite of passage and celebrated a bat mitzva in the ancient synagogue or one of the rooms in the casement wall used by the Zealots. You might like to celebrate a bar or bat mitzva within the ruins of one of the ancient synagogues, for example at Baram or Korazim in the Galilee or at Herodium.

Besides it being meaningful to experience Israel as part of becoming a bar or bat mitzva, friends and family can explore and enjoy the sites and nature of Israel and feel the connection between the Torah reading and the land. As Reb Shlomo Carlebach used to say, “The Torah is a commentary on the world and the world is a commentary on the Torah“.

Not every guide is able to make all the arrangements necessary for a bar or bat mitzva celebration in Israel – provide a Sefer Torah, take professional photographs, arrange the prayer service, do the guiding that makes Israel part of the experience. I handle the logistics and you get to experience a memorable time. I would be happy to help you arrange your bar or bat mitzva in Israel, just contact me.

Here are some of the photos that I took at Rachel’s bat mitzva in the summer.


Someone to Tour With – Kids Tour with a Golden Retriever

This is a tour of Jerusalem sites based on David Grossman’s prize-winning novel Someone to Run With/משהוא לרוץ איתו (written in Hebrew but translated into English, available at Amazon and made into a movie). The story is about two young people: Assaf, who gets a summer job with the Jerusalem municipality and is given the task of returning a lost and found dog to it’s master and Tamar, a talented musician who goes looking to rescue her brother who has gotten into trouble at the edge where youth, music and drugs overlap. As the dog, a golden retriever named Dinka, runs through Jerusalem with Assaf in tow, we too become entangled in the story.

Familiar Jerusalem landmarks pass by: the midrahov/Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall, music store, Yoel Salomon neighborhood, Jaffa Street, Mahane Yehuda market, the Central bus station, Independence Park, the historic Palace Hotel.

The Palace was built in 1929 by the Waqf, Supreme Muslim Council headed by the mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini. In its day it was a beautiful building with stone carvings and arches, a combination of Moorish, Roman and Arab architecture. The Reichman Brothers and the Hilton chain renovated the hotel to the tune of $100 million, to become a Waldorf-Astoria, only the 6th in the world.

Another scene takes place outside the facade of Talitha Kumi (from Mark 5:41), all that is left of the girl’s orphanage and school and the Mashbir (the large department store) that stood on King George Street where Tamar sings HaTikva, the Israeli national anthem to her brother’s electric guitar accompaniment. To me it is reminiscent of Jimi Hendrix playing the Star Spangled Banner at Woodstock (unfortunately, the clip on YouTube has been removed).

I have a golden retriever, whose name is Sumsum (which is Hebrew for sesame, the seeds that they make tehina from and also a kind of finish on Jerusalem stone which is her color) who is an offspring of one of the dogs who starred in the movie.


Join me and Sumsum as we explore Jerusalem following in the footsteps of Assaf and Dinka, experience the Mahane Yehuda market, head down to Ben Yehuda Street to listen to the buskers, have pizza, walk through Independence Park, check out the Palace Hotel, have hummus and felafel at a local restaurant. Having read the book or seen the movie before taking this tour adds to the experience.

Israel with kids

Israel is a great place to visit with kids. The country is small but varied. One day you can be bumping along in a jeep on the Golan Heights with a view into Syria and hear the stories of Israel’s capture of the area during the Six Day War in 1967. The next day you can be riding on a camel across the sands in the Negev, sleeping in a Beduin tent or under the stars. On the Mediterranean coast, in Akko there is a Crusader fortress that was buried in sand by Al Jazar in order to build his citadel that we can explore. At Masada there is a Herodian fortress in the desert later used by Zealots in the Great Revolt against the Romans. There is an opportunity to climb through caves more than two thousand years old, an experience out of “Raiders of the Lost Ark”. In Jerusalem you can walk around the Old City on the ramparts from the time of Suleiman the Magnificent, walk on paving stones that go back to Roman times and even the Second Temple period or walk underground along the length of the Western Wall.

Check out this article by Nancy Better in the May 17th edition of the New York Times, Taking the Kids – In Israel, With a Whiff of Adventure.

All the sites mentioned in the NY Times article can be incorporated into your personalized tour. There are less expensive accommodations for those on a tighter budget.