Examining graffiti art. Meeting with Druze and Bedouin families. Visiting an Arab neighborhood in Haifa. Assembling crutches for a nonprofit. Making challah in Tsfat.
Sure, the Israel trips run by 10 Bay Area Jewish day schools and high schools still visit traditional spots such as Masada and the Western Wall in Jerusalem, and there are camel rides and Shabbat dinners.
But evolutions in Israeli society and changes in the interests of the teenagers making those trips has led school administrators to adjust their itineraries as they expose the kids to a diverse, multicultural nation.
“Nothing can replace the Israel trip in terms of fostering the beginnings of a connection, the beginnings of a desire to grapple with the complexity of what Israel is,” said Debby Arzt-Mor, the director of Jewish learning at the Brandeis School of San Francisco. “This is really about sowing the seeds.”
Rabbi Howard Ruben, head of school at Jewish Community High School of the Bay in San Francisco, said the trip leaves students, about half of whom are making their first visit to Israel, “with a deeper appreciation for the complexity and nuance of Israel as a pluralistic and multicultural society and country.
“So what that means is our students encounter Israelis who are artists, who are activists, who are soldiers. They encounter Christians and Muslims and Druzim, and they encounter poor people and entrepreneurs. And they see places in Israel that are homes for people who aren’t always featured on the front page of the newspaper.”
There are eight day schools and two Jewish high schools in the Bay Area that go on Israel trips. The day school students take the journey in eighth grade, while the high schoolers go as juniors. Most of the schools travel right before Passover.
Some have been doing these trips for more than a decade, while Yavneh Day School in Los Gatos ran its first Israel trip earlier this year. Contra Costa Jewish Day School has been traveling to Israel with the Portland Jewish Academy the past seven years.
“We try to provide the students with a basic understanding of the different aspects of life in Israel. Students have met with poets who live in the Gush [West Bank settlement bloc], have met with Israeli students, have met with Ethiopians, have spoken to people who live on the borders of the country, with environmentalists, with peace activists, with Bedouin leaders,” said Bat Sheva Miller, assistant head of school at Oakland Hebrew Day School. “There are places that are a constant part of our itinerary — Jerusalem, Negev, Tel Aviv — and some that change according to the needs of the group, opportunities that arise or events that shape our decisions.”
For some students, the trip is a life-changing experience; they have gone on to make aliyah or take a gap year in Israel before college.
Joy Cheskin of Mountain View went to Israel as an eighth-grader with Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School in Palo Alto, and made a second school trip as a junior with Kehillah Jewish High School, also in Palo Alto. She said the Hausner trip “was the most transformative experience I’ve ever had.”
Now 17 and a high school senior, Cheskin became Israel Club president at Kehillah and plans to take a gap year before college to spend time in Israel. She said she hopes to make aliyah after college. None of those decisions would have been possible without the eighth-grade trip to Israel, she said.
“I fell in love with Israel from the Hausner trip. I truly felt I had gained a second home — I felt I belonged in Israel more than any place in the world. I began to explore my Judaism more deeply, and became traditionally observant in high school,” she told J. “Before going to Israel in eighth grade, I didn’t feel a strong connection to the country. After, I plan to dedicate my life to learning about and advocating for Israel — in Israel.”
Many of the Bay Area schools began their Israel trips as part of an initiative called BASIS, which was implemented by Jewish LearningWorks with grants of nearly $7 million from the Jim Joseph Foundation between 2008 and 2013.
The goal of BASIS, according to its website, was to “integrate Israel education across a school’s curriculum” and to support the building of students’ and educators’ connections to Israel and the Israeli people.
The framework of the school trips has remained the same over the years — giving many kids a first taste of life in Israel, introducing returnees or Israeli natives to previously undiscovered elements of the society, and bringing their classes and Hebrew lessons to life while developing bonds with Israel.
For Jules Willick, the enticement of a trip to Israel led her to transfer to Kehillah halfway through her junior year. She said the journey increased her attachment to Jewish holidays and led her to attend synagogue more often, and now has encouraged her to spend half of a gap year before college in Israel.
Willick, 17, of Palo Alto, will spend the first half of her gap year in Spain before moving to Jerusalem to take intensive Hebrew classes. Willick, who plans to attend Colorado College as a physics major starting in the fall of 2019, said it’s unlikely she’d be spending part of her gap year in Israel if she hadn’t gone on the Kehillah trip.
“I don’t think I really had a good idea of what Israel would be like before I went on the trip,” she told J. “One of the experiences I remember most from the Israel trip was when we went to the Western Wall. A bunch of people started singing and dancing, and a lot of us joined in. It felt really unified. That encouraged me to want to go back there.”
Though school groups hit most of the usual Israeli tourist sites, they also try to focus on building bonds between their students and Israeli kids their age, often by partnering with schools in Israel.
“Our itinerary has grown to focus more on mifgashim (encounters) with different Israeli populations, meetings with near peers, minority groups and homestays,” said Hadas Rave, director of Jewish life at Contra Costa Jewish Day School. “We are working to move away from the ‘on the bus, off the bus’ tourist experience. We want our students to experience Israel as a living, breathing, real place with challenges and issues that they can connect to and hopefully be involved in finding solutions to in the future.”
Such encounters include everything from group discussions to games of Ultimate Frisbee with Palestinian teens. Community service in Israel also has become an emphasis for several Bay Area schools.
Kehillah, Hausner and the Ronald C. Wornick Jewish Day School in Foster City are among those whose students play with kids at Save a Child’s Heart, a nonprofit based in Holon that brings youngsters with heart defects to Israel for treatment from around the world. Students also assemble crutches at Yad Sarah, an Israeli volunteer organization that provides free or low-cost assistance to the sick, disabled and elderly.
“While you’re having this amazing experience, you should be giving back to that community and making the world a better place,” said Lisa Strauss, director of marketing and communications at Kehillah. “For the Israel trip, it’s seamlessly built into the itinerary — instead of a walking tour, we’ll go volunteer.”
At Brandeis Marin in San Rafael, the constant search to keep teenagers engaged has led to a focus on graffiti.
In each of the last four years, students have selected an Israeli graffiti artist and connected with that person before the trip — often by Skype or other social media. When the students see that artist’s work in Israel, they point it out to their peers and discuss the social themes behind the graffiti.
“The graffiti itself touches on issues related to diversity, refugees, Arab-Jewish issues, so the kids are able to grapple in age-appropriate ways with these issues, and that is a really profound experience,” said head of school Peg Sandel. “I’ve been on Israel trips for years and years, and I’ve never seen anything like it before.”
The program has become so popular that Brandeis Marin is developing an art and culture sequence, starting in kindergarten, to engage students in thinking about Israel and the complexity of its society.
“It’s a hip medium the kids are naturally drawn to, and it cultivates attachment to Israel,” Sandel said. “We’ve tried to move away from looking at the history of Israel through its wars.”
To Ora Gittelson-David, the director of Jewish studies at Hausner, the key is to keep the kids entertained while also dealing with the conflicts and changes in contemporary Israeli society — including the development of high-tech innovation that is familiar to kids from the Silicon Valley.
“The trip is about the kids forming a connection where they hug and wrestle with Israel,” she said. “Eighth-graders are on the cusp. They have the ability to really understand nuance more. The trip is a fun thing for them — so you need to find those places they can see some of the more conflictual stuff that doesn’t involve sitting around and listening to a lecture.”