Sixty one educators, ten days in Israel: from the perceived dangerous heights of the north, to the history and culture of Yerushalayim, to the unpredictable Sderot and Gaza Strip, to the pioneering Arava, and to the more modern discoveries of Tel Aviv; the inaugural KKL-JNF Australia Educators Study Tour was without doubt a most insightful, inspiring and intensive exposé of Israel through the lens of KKL-JNF. For many of us it was the first time to Israel, and for others a welcome return journey, to experience this land of contrasts; this land of challenges and stereotypes; this most holiest of lands; and this land full of spirit and opportunity.
On our final day in Tel Aviv we shared some very special moments with students from the progressive Beit Ekshtein school of special education, located at the 100-hectare Israeli Wildlife Hospital and Safari. Twisted tongues caressed hands as we offered the giraffes treats, elephants diligently offered their feet a pedicure; yet we all know that, should it be possible, the plains of Africa are a much more suitable home for these and the other 1600 animals within the safari.
The captivity of these animals marked a stark contrast to the cats that crossed our path, from north to south, as we climbed on and off buses in search of toilets; our movements slowing each day as we were burdened by the choices of consuming outstanding and delightfully fresh local food, including enough capsicum, tomatoes, cucumber and hummus to last a lifetime!
Motivational educators at Alexander Muss High School in Israel challenged us to see Israel through a different lens; an opportunity that they provide to Australian and north American senior high students for 11 months of the year.
A packed agenda and Tel Aviv traffic resulted in a rushed visit to Independence Hall where the most meaningful and emotional closing ceremony brought tears of joy to many participants as we reflected what this life-changing and privileged opportunity meant to us.
On this study tour, together we have formed life-long relationships and friendships. It is with this spirit of collegiality from participants at nine disparate educational environments that this conclusive blog has been drawn. Many have offered wise words of counsel on what this inspirational opportunity has meant to them.
Interesting, intense, at times overwhelming, and always surprising and positive, the tour has exceeded all expectations and consolidated Jewish learning. It has helped to open our eyes as educators on how we can bring about a rich and deeper understanding of Zionism to each of our roles.
Frequent visitors to Israel have been humbled by the reactions of their fellow participants who are seeing Israel for the first time.
Noam and Zeev, our always accommodating and highly knowledgeable tour guides, offered unique and incredibly informative commentary that was drawn from their soul to ensure that we gained insights into Israel’s politics, history, science, and culture.
From the depths of despair at Yad Vashem, our emotions were uplifted as we read a letter from our loved ones, delivered exactly at the right time and handled with such diplomacy and poignancy – a credit to Tammy and her perseverance; although many were disappointed that the fifth Wiggle never made an appearance, and from one who has heard her sing, Tammy’s voice is as delightful as her willingness to provide insightful advice and direction.
Gabbie’s pre-tour preparation, oversight and daily coordination provided us all with time for fun, while having the time of our life, not dissimilar to school camp for adults; yet at all times, remained ‘on message’, reflecting JNF Australia’s powerful commitment to the Israeli people and the environment. Many donor honour boards have been seen, reflecting a commitment that goes significantly beyond the Blue Box received as a token gift at our closing ceremony.
This priceless study tour presented us an Israel that is at one junction predictable – the stereotypes that we see so often portrayed in the media, centred on Yerushalayim – and at other times, completely surprising and unpredictable, fascinating, uplifting, dynamic, mind-blowing, and deeply enriching.
Yigal’s stewardship, careful curation and tireless negotiation of the exhausting and busy schedule provided us with short moments to reflect and process this perplexing nation state. We were granted access to exceptional guides, hosts, facilitators, and communal leaders. The thoughtful program enabled some participants to see an Israel that made them proud Australian Jews, highlighting the exceptional links between the two countries, spanning generations. For others, they have been enlightened by the experience which has changed their perceptions of Israel and helped to better understand Israelis. Further, some now feel like a non-Jewish ambassador for Israel – an emissary, even!
As we planted trees in Lavi Forest on our first day to bring new life and growth to Israel, so too did KKL-JNF sow seeds with us to germinate ideas with our students in the months and years ahead, remaining true to our schools’ vision… motivated to bring the spirit of Israel to our students’ learning environments.
We are lucky, privileged, fascinated, and overwhelmed that we have been provided with this amazingly educational, edifying, and informative thought-provoking and phenomenal opportunity that has exposed the sobering cross-cultural challenges faced by Israel.
We are collectively grateful and thank the many people involved behind the scenes that made this tour possible. Our guards and drivers provided us with security, comfort, and a few local hints on where to go to meet the locals.
The deepening connection and collegiality that has developed on this tour, across schools and within schools, has helped to form new connections and to reshape existing bonds in a powerful, thought-provoking, challenging, powerful and impactful environment. As I overheard one participant on our final day: “This is the best ever professional development program at any (Jewish) school.”
As much as people have said so much about Israel, it’s only when I experienced it through my own eyes do I gain some sense of the beauty and barrenness of the land, the generosity and resilience of her people, and a deeper understanding of the challenges and the possibilities for generations of Jewish peoples.
While our awe-inspiring tour has ended; our mission has just begun as each of us put into practice what we have learnt, with the support of Yigal, Gabbie, and Tammy and teams at KKL-JNF Australia. This next part is even more exciting than our last ten days and I hope that through the rewarding relationships that we have forged over the past two weeks we can see the fruits of each others’ diverse and innovative interpretations of Israel and, more broadly, our students interpretations on Zionism, under our guidance.
Kol hakovod to all involved!