If years ago travel itineraries consisted of the most popular monuments, museums and religious sites, today it’s not at all uncommon for them to list food-related attractions and even stops to sample specific dishes.

With the rising popularity of Israeli food around the world, it only seemed natural that there be a Birthright Israel trip that showcases the flavors and scents that inspire some of today’s most popular chefs, such as Yotam Ottolenghi, Michael Solomonov and Einat Admony.

Strawberries growing at The Salad Trail, an organic farm in southern Israel (Photo by Aaron Wallach)

A group of 22- to 26-year-olds from the greater Washington area just returned from spending ten days on a DC community trip, Flavors of Israel. In addition to the traditional Birthright Israel musts—Masada and the Dead Sea, the Western Wall and more—participants toured an olive press and a beer brewery, enjoyed Druze lunch and hospitality in northern Israel and wandered old, open-air markets as well as a new, enclosed one. Toward the end of their trip, they visited an organic farm in the south, where they saw how vegetables are grown, participated in a Master Chef-style cooking competition and then sat down to share the fruits of their labor.

Both Casey Babbitt and Aaron Mattis had been to Israel once before, but hadn’t explored its culinary side. Mattis recalled that topics relating to food, a common interest among all the participants, served as an easy way to break the ice right off the bat and drive conversation throughout the trip. Babbitt also found the sense of community around food to be very powerful on the trip and shared, “Food, cooking and eating together are all really grounding, especially when you’re traveling.”

A memorable vegan lunch in southern Israel (Photo by Casey Babbitt)

Aaron Wallach, the co-founder and chief product officer of Javazen, chose to staff and participate in the trip because it really spoke to him and his profession. As someone who constantly thinks about food and how to integrate it with people’s lifestyles, he found the angle of food to be “a great and approachable way to look at Judaism and find a connection to the Land of Israel.”

He, along with Babbitt and Mattis, raved about a tiny restaurant in “the middle of nowhere” where they enjoyed an incredible vegan meal. For Babbitt, the experience—with participants passing their sandwiches around and sharing—was uniquely Israeli. “I’m introverted; I tend to cook alone,” she shared. On the trip, “I remembered how wonderful it can be to share the whole experience of food with other people.”

Likewise, Mattis said that he hadn’t had a social Shabbat experience since he was a child with his family and was looking forward to getting together with new friends from his trip on a Friday night over wine and a simple meal.

“That personal connection to Judaism and Israel is exactly what we hope our participants come back with,” says Kira Borman, The Jewish Federation’s Melvin Cohen Young Leadership Associate and NEXT DC Coordinator. “Birthright Israel participants from our DC community return ready and inspired to build on the relationships they’ve developed with one another and with Israel, and we’re here to help them expand on that with a vibrant and welcoming community for them to settle into.”

Top photo: Judges taste the participants’ creations at the Master Chef competition at Shvil HaSalat (The Salad Trail), an organic farm in southern Israel (Photo by Aaron Wallach)