10 Customs You Should Know Before Studying Abroad or Traveling in Israel

Israel Culture
by Tomi Clark Sep 26, 2015

1. Footing the Bill

The word invite takes on a whole new meaning in Israel. To invite someone means you are volunteering to pay for them. When you say “I am inviting” to an Israeli, they hear “I am paying.” Even if you are prepared to treat your friends often, be careful that you don’t use this phrase too much.

The exchange of money and gifts in Israel is governed by a very delicate protocol. Paying for someone else is a matter of pride, so if you know that your friends cannot afford to treat you in return, limit the number of times you treat them. However, it is acceptable for a friend with a lower income to invite in return as a token. For example, if you are financially successful and you take a student friend out to dinner, he may return the favor by taking you to coffee.

2. Being Invited

Almost nothing is expected of guests, especially so if you are a tourist. When invited to someone’s home they will serve coffee, tea, and snacks with the utmost hospitality. If you offer to help make the coffee or clean up afterwards, you will be waved away without a response to dignify the offer.

Israeli hosts are very attentive and will pick up on every action as if it were a silent request. If you yawn you may be offered a quiet room to take a nap. If you’ve come in from a hot day you may be offered a shower. You are not required to accept but either way, saying toda raba (תודה רבה), or thank you very much, will go a long way toward making your hosts feel appreciated.

3. Water Conservation

The first thing you will notice about bathrooms in Israel is that toilets have two handles: a small one for a small flush and a large one for a large flush. You can decide for yourself which one to use.

Israelis conserve water whenever possible. If you leave the faucet on while washing dishes or brushing your teeth, you may notice disapproving glances. Likewise if you take excessively long showers.

4. Security

Security procedures are much more strenuous in Israel than in other countries. When you enter bus stations, train stations, malls, or other crowded places, your bag will be searched and you may sometimes be asked to empty your pockets. This is simply a matter of course for Israelis- when they encounter a gate with a security guard, they surrender their bag or purse. It’s also a good idea to keep identification with you at all times, even if it’s only your driver’s license.

5. Military Presence

Military service is mandatory for most Israelis beginning when they graduate from high school. Although there are exceptions, young adulthood and military service generally go hand in hand, which means that nearly all 18-21 year olds are carrying guns.

Soldiers with guns are a common sight, especially in the train stations on weekends. Soldiers often carry their guns even when they’re not on duty, but they don’t always wear uniforms, so don’t be alarmed if you see someone on the beach with shorts, sandals, and a submachine gun.

6. Shabbat and Jewish Holidays

As Saturday is the Jewish day of rest, most business shut down on this day. Trains and buses do not run and most stores will be closed, with some exceptions. Buses still run in Haifa due to an edict by the first mayor of the city.

Tel Aviv is a big city with lots of secular residents, so some services will be available here. The monit sherut (service taxis) run, many business will be open, and a greater number of people will be out and about on the streets.

Outside Tel Aviv you will have difficulty getting around or buying anything on Saturday. In Jerusalem, which is home to a much greater number of religious people, this custom is strictly observed. The same goes for Jewish holidays, except for Yom Kippur, when every single business in Israel shuts down.

7. Entering Religious Neighborhoods

Tel Aviv is described by its residents as a modern, western city. You can dress and act there as you would in San Francisco or New York.

But when visiting religious communities, or Jerusalem as a whole, you will need to dress and act conservatively. Women should cover their arms and legs and wear some sort of hair covering, like a scarf. Shorts are not acceptable on women or men.

Public displays of affection are not permissible and women and men should not walk together unless necessary. In these communities, you will be immediately recognized as an outsider no matter what you do, but observing as many of their customs as you can will gain you a better understanding of their lives.

If you’re a photographer, please note that taking pictures of people in these areas requires the utmost consideration.

8. Sex and Gender Relations

The party scene in Israel further exemplifies how different Tel Aviv and Jerusalem are. Tel Aviv is full of clubs and house parties that go on until morning are common. Gender relations are much more relaxed than in Jerusalem, partly because of the mandatory and mixed-gender military service (except for religious groups, which are usually exempt from military service).

Women serve in all the same units and positions as men and are therefore not generally seen as the weaker sex. Because of this relaxed attitude, Israelis are very open about sexuality.

9. Talking to Strangers

Israelis love to talk to strangers, be they foreign or domestic. When strangers talk to you, they may be asking you directions, where you got your shoes, or if you like the weather.

If you don’t speak Hebrew, you can simply say so in English. Nearly all Israelis speak at least some English and most members of the younger generations are fluent.

When you respond to their inquisitions with “Sorry, I don’t speak Hebrew,” they will respond almost invariably with an immediate translation to English. Because English is such a highly prized language, most people will be thrilled to practice their English with you.

10. Getting Directions

Because Israelis love to talk to strangers, they will be only too happy to answer questions you may have, such as how to get somewhere. However, sometimes their desire to talk to you (and practice their English) exceeds their knowledge about the subject in question.

Often their level of uncertainty about how to get somewhere gets lost in translation. In Hebrew, they might have been able to say “I’m not sure but I think it’s to the left” whereas in English they might only be able to say “to the left.” For this reason it’s always a good idea to take a sampling of directions from 3 or 4 people to be sure the information is correct.

Feature photo by Andris Bjornson 

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