When my cousin went to Israel on a teen tour 20 years ago, she came home raving about the experiences she’d had: the taste of fresh pita, the surprising contrasts in landscape, the day spent hanging with soldiers in Israeli Defense Forces.
To this day, she peppers her speech with the Hebrew expressions she picked up.
But I also remember that my cousin came home early from that summer tour. I don’t recall exactly why, but it had something to do with homesickness and a feeling that she’d had enough.
As a new generation heads off to Israel this summer, I started thinking about my cousin’s experience. It lay the groundwork, as such tours are supposed to do, for a lifelong attachment to Israel (she went back for a summer in college) and to Jewish life. But a little more knowledge and guidance may have helped to smooth her way through a month far from home.
With this in mind, I called a number of experts to ask them what tips they offer to teens and their families contemplating a first summer in Israel. After all, for 80 to 90 percent of the travellers, it is “the farthest away they have ever been, for the longest time,” said Paul Reichenbach, director of camping and Israel programs for North American Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY) and a summer-tour veteran. The advice is useful both for students about to embark and for those just beginning to think about next summer.
While a few spots are still available for last-minute travellers, most book the autumn or winter beforehand, said Rachel Russo, director in North America at Israel Experience, which coordinates a wide variety of summer programs for its affiliated organizations.
Participation in summer teen tours has fallen in recent years, a decline most attribute to the ever-expanding smorgasbord of summer activities. Today’s teens are under pressure to pad the resumé with an internship and have the kind of meaningful global experiences that bear fruit in a college essay: volunteering in Costa Rica, sailing down the Yangtze, studying physics at Harvard.
And nobody discounts the impact of Birthright Israel, the organization that sponsors free 10-day trips to Israel for young adults ages 18 to 26. But those in the teen trip business emphasize the advantages of a longer, more comprehensive tour at a younger age.
Teens are old enough to appreciate the complexity of Israel, and one’s first trip abroad is inevitably a defining experience. “Kids come home feeling an intense connection to Israel, to the narrative of the Jewish people,” said David Goldstein, U.S. director of Israel Experience for Young Judaea. As teens mature into adults, “the journey of the Jewish people becomes their journey.”
In a way, added Reichenbach, the trip becomes an investment in the larger community. Teens come back to serve as Jewish role models for younger siblings and peers. Arriving at college, “they’re in a better position to articulate why Israel is important,” he said.
Then there are the secondary benefits — the personal growth and life skills honed through supervised independence, as teens navigate financial, emotional and social challenges without their parents around.
Reichenbach points out that a month in Israel is excellent training for college and adulthood. “Keeping organized, budgeting, making good decisions,” he elaborated. “All of the stuff that comes with being an adolescent, but navigating it six to nine thousand miles away.”
If that’s enough to convince you to go, here are some other things to consider:
1. Decide what kind of experience you want.
Families perusing the options will notice little variation among itineraries — and accordingly, among prices. The standard format is to show as much of Israel as possible in three to six weeks, so virtually all include Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Masada, the Galilee, the Negev and a dip in the Red Sea.
Russo said teens commonly opt for a program affiliated with a particular movement or denomination. Many are already involved with NFTY, the North American Federation of Temple Youth (Reform), NCSY, the National Conference of Synagogue Youth (Orthodox Union), USY, the United Synagogue Youth (Conservative), or the pluralistic Zionist movements Young Judaea (Hadassah) and BBYO (formerly B’nai Brith Youth Organization). The unaffiliated should look for a tour that caters to a wider audience; an example is Israel Discovery, which is run by Young Judaea for those not previously involved in the movement.
Whatever your bent, experts say to look for a program that includes meaningful contact with Israelis. This contact could take the form of community service, Shabbat with a local family or time spent with members of the armed forces.
For the academically inclined, there are study trips like the NFTY-EIE Summer Session, which combines intensive studies in Jewish history and Hebrew with active touring.
Some trips offer optional add-ons like a week with Gadna, the Educational Division of the Israel Defense Forces. For those who want fuller immersion in Israeli military life, there are programs like Tzofim Chetz V’Keshet, a month-long joint program of Gadna and Friends of Israel Scouts that promises greater immersion into Israeli culture.
Another popular add-on is a European travel segment, said Russo, who is seeing this option exercised more and more. The excursion might focus on Jewish heritage in Poland, with visits to concentration camps, or a Jewish community in Spain or Italy.
2. Ask lots of questions.
Start with the practical: How old are the staff members, and how are they trained? How is medical care provided? How can parents get in touch 24 hours a day?
How closely does the program mesh with one’s own values about Israel and Judaism? Will kids from different or no religious backgrounds feel comfortable? What does Shabbat look like on the program?
3. Consider traveling with a friend.
Most teens sign up with at least one companion, say experts. And for good reason: for most teens, “this is the farthest away they’ve ever been, for the longest amount of time,” said Russo. Having a familiar face around can take the edges off a month of constant novelty.
Another option is to travel with what’s known as an “affinity group” — classmates or fellow summer campers, for instance.
3. Stay connected, but not too much.
“Don’t bring your life with you,” urges Goldstein. “Make it a blank slate, an exploration.”
That advice was easier in the days before smartphones and the Internet made keeping in touch not just easy, but inevitable. Gone are the days when you spoke to your parents once every week or two on a crummy payphone connection. Today the challenge is logging off Facebook long enough to go on a hike.
The digital age has made it harder (though not impossible) to feel homesick, and easier to keep everyone back home up to date on your daily adventures. Parents also benefit: most programs let family travel along vicariously via daily blog posts and web updates. But for the helicopter-parenting generation, it’s important to strike a balance between too much and too little communication. Learning to do so can be important practice for college.
4. When you get back, give yourself time to process the experience.
Set aside some time and space for reflection. Making a presentation about the summer at your temple or youth group might help you sort through your observations and changed point of view.
“Kids are inspired to think about what it means to be Jewish, and to want to return to Israel,” said Goldstein. “It gives you new perspective on being American. It truly is a life-changing experience.” ◆