OPINION: Taking my congregation to Israel let me see the country through new eyes

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OPINION: Taking my congregation to Israel let me see the country through new eyes

Rabbi Danny Burkeman
Rabbi Danny Burkeman

by Danny Burkeman, Community Synagogue Port Washington, NY 

Rabbi Danny Burkeman
Rabbi Danny Burkeman

In the British Jewish community, many of us around the age of 16 have the opportunity to join an Israel tour with one of our wonderful Zionist youth movements. I still remember very fondly my two months in Israel with RSY-Netzer as a participant in 1995 and as a leader in 2000 (it’s hard to believe it was so long ago).

Just over 50 percent of British Jewish 16-year-olds go on an Israel tour, and for many who miss this great opportunity, they now have a chance in their early 20s to join a Birthright trip. Alongside these organised trips, with Israel less than five hours away, many are able to take their family holidays in the Holy Land.

Over here in America, with Israel that much further away, and as a result of significantly higher airfares, fewer people are able to have these Israel experiences. For many, their first (and sometimes only) trip to Israel takes place on a congregational family trip, where children, parents, and even grandparents, join together for a countrywide visit.

In my RSY-Netzer days, I had several opportunities to lead trips to Israel, but that was a very long time ago. This year, after more than a decade, I finally had the chance to lead another; this time for the families of my synagogue in Port Washington, New York.

In all my previous organised trips, everyone was of the same generation. This time, the youngest participant was six while the oldest were over 70 – we had to programme for them and everyone in between; and we complicated matters further by adding a specific teen component to our trip. The multigenerational nature of our group presented a wonderful opportunity to see Israel through young and old eyes – our older participants brought the perspective of history and countless years of Israel engagement, while the children saw Israel with new eyes filled with awe and amazement.

One participant, Lauren, who travelled with her mother, husband, sister, and children, said: “It was my first time in Israel and I had the chance to see it through my children’s eyes and my mother’s heart.

“Israel moved me. It gave me a sense of place, history, purpose and understanding. My whole life, my mother tried to instil in me a Jewish identity. In Israel, it clicked. My kids were wide-eyed and engaged every day and I feel excited for their future of passion for their faith and for the complicated and beautiful land we discovered with our congregation and our extended family.”

There were many highlights on this trip, and there is not space to share all of them here. When we arrived at Masada for our morning hike up the mountain, we had the fortunate coincidence of walking alongside members of the Israeli army who had just completed their basic training.

These soldiers were teenagers, and it was clear the children and teens looked upon their peers with eyes opened wide to the commitment these people were making to protect our Jewish State.

In contrast, the adults looked at them from the perspective of parents, recognising the sacrifices they were making to defend the country.

Through the adults’ explanations, the children on the trip gained some understanding of the significance of seeing soldiers climbing Masada, and when our group came together for the Shacharit service on top of the mountain, there was added significance to the prayers we recited.

Towards the end of the trip, as Jerusalem was covered in a blanket of snow, our group decided not to allow the weather to determine our schedule and so we walked to the Yemin Moshe windmill for a beautiful view of the Old City.

It was the enthusiasm of the children that motivated the group and energised us (despite the treacherous conditions) and then they were the ones who instigated the building of our snowman, creating a unique memory for all the group.

Another parent on the trip, Kate, shared her memories by saying: “It was great to travel with the teens on this family trip. Their energy and enthusiasm were infectious. The teens’ interest in Israel and their own Jewish identity was great for my children to see.”

In Britain, synagogue trips to Israel are unlikely to become the norm – there are simply too many other wonderful, established opportunities for spending quality time in the country, although it could be interesting if there was the potential to supplement Israel tour, Birthright and private family holidays with organised congregational tours of Israel.

It was a unique experience for me but, more importantly, it enriched, invigorated and inspired every single one of the participants. Seeing Israel through the eyes of my congregation allowed me to see the country with new eyes, opened wide.

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