Though we have been members of a congregation for many years and have led an involved Jewish life, neither my husband nor I have ever been to Israel. Now our daughter wants to go to Israel next year on a high school program. On one hand, I am thrilled that she is so connected to Judaism, yet on the other I am afraid and conflicted. We have never been — why should she go? Is it safe? How will it change her? What do you think? Is it a good idea?
While I have traveled on a number of occasions to Israel, spent extended periods of time there, and have had children study in Israel in the past and, in fact, currently, I appreciate your question. It is not a casual deed to send a child to Israel. Given the political landscape, the distance, and the simple foreignness of any country abroad, your concerns are compelling. Despite these challenges, you probably already suspect that I would strongly advocate travel to Israel, especially for youngsters.
Of course, I genuinely recognize any parents’ reservations. Here are some of my experiences, beliefs and deeply felt emotions about Israel. Perhaps they will help you make peace with your daughter’s plans.
There I was, 10 years old. The year was 1968 and we were taking off from Lod Airport to head back to Pittsburgh after a summer family trip to Israel. “Jerusalem of Gold” was playing over the airplane’s intercom and to my youthful consternation, tears were trickling down my cheeks. I was overwhelmed by feelings I could neither identify nor understand.
Now I know: I was in love. In love with everything that was Israel — the sand, the soldiers, the holiness, the heat, the astonishing landscapes, the language, falafel and pita, the rush of the people, the proximity to Torah and history, the unbelievable palatable feeling of being home. That was 1968. Some of that has never left me, and despite the fact that so much has changed, the romance lingers on.
Subsequent trips, growing up, and deeper knowledge have seasoned and complicated my initial impressions, but this I know: no one travels to Israel and returns the same as when they left. Perhaps this phenomenon reflects the deep primal connection that we as a people have to the land. From Abraham’s ancient journey to the Israelites’ entry into the land, through the medieval mystical pilgrimages up until the modern aliyah movement, our people have sacrificed to make the connection.
Travel for teens is essential to their growth. Being away from home and learning how to cope with the vicissitudes of life without Mom or Dad is a step toward maturity. Laundry, tummy aches and homesickness are the stuff of growing up and small challenges that are good for the soul. The ability to navigate and negotiate peer relationships is critical and can sometimes be hard tests, but these can happen anywhere and should be a part of growing into adulthood.
Why Israel? Here are my three most compelling reasons why I think study and travel for teens in Israel in particular is meaningful:
1.Israel is the authentic hands-on classroom. Education for students in Israel is like nowhere else. You open the Bible and head out to the locales of the action. Scenes of Joshua, Deborah, David and Goliath come alive with the reality of standing where they once stood. The land becomes the text as you traipse through the excavated cities from the time of the Mishna. The Second Commonwealth comes alive as you walk through the Old City of Jerusalem and see Herod’s Palace and the Burnt House. Great as any of our lessons and classrooms are, here nothing replaces the reality of being there at the very spot of the action.
2. Hebrew is the language that connects all Jews. It is the idiom of the Torah, the cadence of our prayers, the nuances of our heritage, and the vessel of our collective memory. Any study that one will hope to embark on Jewishly is profoundly enhanced with knowledge of Hebrew. To truly master the language one must be given the opportunity to speak it fluently. A teen trip will launch your daughter on a lifelong relationship with the language and equip her with future potential.
3.Though Israel is a modern, tech savvy, up-to-date, Burger King, Ikea, Home Depot kind of place, it exudes a spirituality that cannot be missed. The holiness of sacred sites joined with cadres of devout penitents creates an ambience of otherworldliness. Once experienced in the Holy Land itself, it cannot be replicated elsewhere. Standing at the Holy Wall in Jerusalem on Friday night is a sight to behold. A miscellany of languages sprinkle the air as peoples from the entire world stream through the gates of Jerusalem headed toward prophetic fulfillment.
Finally, I am not sure that I have any definitive answer in regard to safety, and I am not sure that anyone can provide that sort of comfort. Israel programs take tremendous efforts in regard to security. They plan carefully and spare no costs, but there are no guarantees.
I can tell you that our children have studied there and our daughter is spending a year studying there right now as well. Teen programs have an impeccable track record in terms of security and steer away from potentially volatile areas. It is one of those leaps that we parents take as our children leave the shelter of home.
Finally, this thought: experiences throughout our lives build upon each other. They become a multilayered, rich texture with shades and hues that change over time. Each lesson informs the next. That first trip to Israel becomes the first installment — hopefully many others will follow. For me, nothing will ever replace that emotional plane ride home in 1968, but others sure have come close.
Rivy Poupko Kletenik is an internationally renowned educator and Judaic Principal at the Seattle Hebrew Academy. If you have a question that’s been tickling your brain, send Rivy an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.