The Charms of Rehovot

by Brian on August 24, 2007

in Only in Israel

For parents, the long days of summer become particularly arduous in August when all the day and overnight camps let out and kids (particularly the littler ones) find themselves with too many hours of free time spent in front of the television or computer screen. We’ve strived in the past to solve the “what should I do” dilemma by scheduling our travel overseas in August, but this year we’re not going until the end of September when my brother is getting married in California. So we decided this week to take a family day trip in Israel.

Now, we’ve been to most of the major hotspots in Israel, so now we’re down to second run locations and the often overhyped “off the beaten track” attractions. But this week we found three real gems all in a single city we never would have suspected would have been so charming: Rehovot.

Rehovot is located about 20 kilometers southeast of Tel Aviv and has a population of just over 100,000. The city was founded in 1890 by Polish Jews who planted vineyards, almond orchards and citrus groves. The city is close enough to take advantage of the nearby port of Ashdod and has today become one of Israel’s main citrus export centers.

Our first discovery in Rehovot was the “Touching an Orange” exhibit. The site of the first orange groves in Rehovot have been turned into an extraordinary outdoor art exhibit. We packed a picnic lunch and ate in the shade of the citrus trees while, all around us, 100 sculptures by well known Israeli artists depicted oranges in various shapes, poses and states of peel.

There was, for example, an orange made entirely out of computer chips. An orange with a large nude embalmed on it. An orange made up to look like a giant golf ball. Another called “student orange” was dressed up in a black cap and gown. There was a surreal orange with floating fetuses named “DNA,” a “Hard Rock Café” style orange with a giant guitar sticking out of it, another covered in beads and our favorite, an orange carved to look like Mr. Potato Head complete with giant buck teeth.

The orange festival comes alive after 6:00 PM when various children’s art workshops and musical performances are scheduled. The festival continues until the end of August. To get to the orchard coming from the center of town, make a right off Herzl Boulevard just past the train tracks into the Rabin Science Center office park and continue until you see the festival signs on your right.

Our next stop was the Ayalon Institute, just a 5-minute car ride from the orange festival. We joined an English speaking tour for a fascinating hour at this unique museum, dedicated to the memory of the (literally) underground munitions factory which clandestinely assembled bullets for the Israel Defense Forces during the 1948 War of Independence. The topic may sound overly militaristic, but our personable guide focused on the human drama.

45 members of a Scouts troop who intended to (and eventually did) set up Kibbutz Ma’agen Michael were reassigned for 3 years to the factory which was hidden under the laundry room on Rehovot’s “Kibbutz Hill.” The kibbutzniks snuck down a narrow staircase every morning and spent the next 8 hours in the dim light and the heavy machinery-scented air putting together ammunition that the British, who were in charge of Palestine at the time, had banned but which the fledgling Israeli Army desperately needed.

The operation was so secret that the kibbutzniks up above who weren’t involved somehow never suspected that some of their colleagues were not spending their days in the fields tending to Rehovot’s proverbial oranges. 2.25 million bullets were assembled in the factory’s 3 years of operation.

Same directions as to the orange festival above. Follow the signs directing you to the left up a small hill to the Ayalon Institute in the Rabin Science Park. The unassuming interactive experience is well worth the price of admission – NIS 17 for adults and NIS 14 for children. Call ahead to find out when the next tour in English is. Reservations required.

Our final stop of the day was deep within the well-manicured lawns of the Weizmann Institute of Science. Named after Israel’s first President, Chaim Weizmann, the school is also host to a unique outdoor science museum, called the Clore Science Garden. We’ve been to science museums all over the world, but being outdoors somehow made this more fun.

Admission was NIS 90 for our family of five; we paid an additional NIS 100 to hire an English-speaking guide, a grinning university physics major who clearly enjoyed his kid friendly techie job. He led us through the museum’s most popular exhibits, including “The Singing Bowl,” a basin of water that can be made to vibrate and “sing” and is reportedly used by monks in Tibet; a number of cool experiments using gyroscopes; and the “Trampoluna,” a rope and pulley contraption that simulates gravity while jumping on the moon.

With a sudden sense of drama, our guide set fourteen-year-old Merav, who was strapped into the Trampoluna, into orbit, her expression alternating between glee and terror as she spun “around the moon” as the forces of gravity kept her in near perpetual motion. The Science Garden also has plenty of scientifically significant swings, wave machines and a “sound mirror” – enough to keep all three of our children, even two cynical teenagers, enjoyably engaged for a pleasant couple of hours.

The Clore Science Garden is located in the heart of the Weizman Institute – head in the main gate off Herzl Boulevard in Rehovot and follow the well marked signs.

For dinner, we drove twenty minutes to neighboring Ramla for an authentic vegetarian Indian meal at the Maharaja restaurant run by immigrants to Israel from Bombay and other parts of the great sub-continent (I’ll have a restaurant review in an upcoming blog post).

It was a fabulous day. Who knew there was so much to do in Rehovot? Well, now you do too.

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