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December Riding in Israel
With Rachel Kontorovich

Riding in Israel in Winter means riding amidst ancient traditions of a land held Holy by Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike.


Jews in snow-dusted hills of Jerusalem and Tzvat, Muslims across the country and their cousin Bedouin in the heat of desert dunes, and Christians in Bethlehem and Nazareth live side-by-side.


People of these different faiths celebrate the annual cycles of their holidays in this land that is once origin to these religions and a modern-day melting pot of their populations. Between these three central communities in Israel, centuries-old traditions are observed nearly year-round.


As an American who moved to Israel four years ago I still wonder at the ineffable beauty of December, when, almost without fail every year, Christmas and Chanukah nearly coincide.


*Photo of Rachel partaking in “Winter riding” in the Judean desert

On horseback, Christian sites such as the Jesus Trail, the River Jordan, and the Sea of Galilee can be experienced in a way that is completely unique.


Although this time of year brings the occasional rainfall, the weather is still generally good and very pleasant for trail riding.


To really experience Israel, it’s best to get out of the car, out of the hotel, and into the land itself. Horseback riding into these holy places allows an incredible, off-the-beaten-path experience that is at once exhilarating and spiritual.


Celebrations are held in Christian communities around the country, with special ceremonies in Bethlehem, Nazareth, and the Christian Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City.


Services are held and Christians from far and wide make the pilgrimage to participate. From Orthodox to Evangelical, nearly every stripe of Christian community holds services, and there is a place for everyone.


*Photo of visiting with local Bedouin while on a ride

During Chanukah, Jews light candles of the Menorah, or Chanukiah as we call it here, either in a glass box outside of their houses, or inside the windows of their homes that face the street, for the world to see.


In any and every part of the country religious and non-religious Jews alike practice this tradition, and the country is literally set ablaze with the glow of candles.


In every Jewish home dreidels are spun, latkes (potato pancakes) are fried and served with applesauce and sour cream, and sufganiyot (Jewish doughnuts) dusted with sugar are delightfully eaten.


At the Western Wall, the outermost wall of the ancient Holy Jewish Temple where Jews pray, special Menorah lighting ceremonies are held, with the State’s top officials attending.


*Photo of Rachel riding through the beautiful scenery of Israel

For sure it’s a different experience from my 34 years in America. There is no Christmas music playing in stores, I don’t see Christmas sales and commercials, and my kids don’t beg me for a million presents. I definitely don’t feel like I’m trying to “keep up with the Jones’s.”


*Photo of Rachel’s six-year old’s drawing of her on a horse, with a dreidel on the tail…for Chanukah, apparently!


Tradition and religion in Israel is practiced differently. There are gifts, for sure, but the feeling and emphasis in the country centers around children and simple activities. The Holidays are a time to teach children about their heritage, commemorate the holiday by enacting ritual and ceremony, and tie the family together with community through services.


In this way the different religious communities in Israel share a very common bond – children, family, and tradition.


And for sure, it’s a beautiful time to ride in Israel.


Rachel Kontorovich, a mother of four, moved to Israel with her husband and children in 2013 from Chicago. She was born in California, raised in Hawaii, and spent many years in Oregon and North Idaho (and a bit in NYC). She holds a MA in Philosophy from Northwestern University, worked as a media professional, and last year earned her certification in Israel as a horseback riding instructor. She works and trains at a professional Show Jumping stable in Israel and is the Founder/ Owner of IsraTrails, the premiere horseback riding vacation provider. You can follow her on Facebook and on Instagram @ rachel_kontorovich.


*Photo of Rachel befriending a beautiful Bedouin girl while out on a ride


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