I’ve been home for a few days now, and I think I’ve just about recovered from the 17-day trip with our school’s junior class to Israel. Since returning, a lot of people have asked me, “How was the trip?” I usually say something like, “It was really good!” and then scuttle away like a crab because conversation is hard. So this is my attempt to genuinely answer that question in some detail for those who might be interested. I’ll briefly recap what we did, and then I’ll give you my take-aways.
From there, we headed into Jersualem where we spent five days exploring the city. We walked around the City of David, shopped in the Mehane Yehuda Market, welcomed Shabbat at the Western Wall, went to services at a synagogue where the resistance hid weapons during the War for Independence in 1948, checked out the wall/fence at the border of East Jersualem and Bethlehem, walked around the old city and went to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (where Christ was crucified, buried, and resurrected), went to Yad Vashem (the national Holocaust museum) and Mt. Hertzel (Israeli military cemetery).
We then headed to the north for a few days where we learned about the Ethiopian Jews, hiked the Arbel Cliffs overlooking the Sea of Galilee, went to the Lebanon border, spoke with soldiers at an IDF base, made chocolate in the Golan Heights, walked around Tzfat (the home of Kabbalah), learned about the Arab Christian community in Nazareth, and learned about the Druze community on Mt. Carmel. Next, we traveled to Haifa where we checked out the Ba’hai Gardens, walked around Akko, and conversed with Iraeli-Arab students.
Finally, we spent the last few days of our trip in Tel Aviv. There, we shopped at the Carmel Market, biked along the coast, explored Old Jaffa, enjoyed our second Shabbat of the trip, heard from a LGBTQ activist, relaxed on the beach, hung out with kids at a home for Save a Child’s Heart, experienced Dialogue in the Dark, and went to Independence Hall.
Besides all of that, we had amazing guides through an organization called Keshet. We ate a lot of shawarma, falafel, and kababs. We saw many, many stray cats. Overall, this was an amazing trip for me. I had never been to Israel before, and I didn’t think I’d ever end up visiting. (Of course, it was extremely exhausting to wear my teacher-hat for seventeen straight days.)
I’m still processing a lot of what I learned and experienced, but below are some of my take-aways as of right now. Not all are incredibly insightful or deep, but sometimes it’s helpful to re-realize things.
- This shit is complex. By “this” I mean pretty much the whole geopolitical situation in that region. Going into the trip, I knew next to nothing about any of it. I knew Israel was a country. I knew Palestine was something. I knew there were problems between those two entities. After learning some of the history and talking to some of the people, I now understand a bit more of the details, but mostly I’m walking away with an appreciation of how little I know about the situation. It’s complex, and I’m not sure there’s any comparable situation in the world. This made me think about how often I feel the need to form an opinion on topics about which I know next to nothing.
- Conversation is powerful. One of the things I really appreciated about Keshet’s tour is that they made an effort to expose our students to the diversity of Israel, setting up programs with speakers representing several minority groups in the country (most of which I mentioned in my recap above). It was powerful to hear their perspectives and to have the chance to ask questions. While it’s certainly not going to resolve all the problems in the world, it’s a first step toward breaking down some of the barriers that perpetuate misunderstanding, fear, and conflict.
- We need to learn other languages. In order for the kind of conversations I mentioned above to occur and to be more than just one-way, short-lived spectacles, we (Americans, mostly) can’t just rely on others to know English. Language is important. We must learn other languages and have the ability to have these conversations not just in English if we truly hope for transformation.
- Maybe mandatory service is a good idea. One of the things that I kept thinking about while on this trip was Israel’s requirement that all Jewish and Druze citizens are required to serve in the military (2 years for women, 3 years for men), with some exceptions. As a pacifist (in theory), this rubbed me the wrong way. But the more I learned about it and thought about it, the more I saw the potential benefits of such a requirement. First, students entering college are 21 or so instead of 18 and bring “real life” experience. They might have more maturity and a better sense of what they want to study than students who are just pushed straight into college after high school because it’s what they’re supposed to do. Second, politicians (and citizens, in general) who have served in the military themselves might consider more carefully the costs of entering war–especially if they have children who might lose their lives as a result. Finally, for some segments of the population, there’s the ability to serve in another capacity such as working in a community service capacity instead of combat, which can affect people in many positive ways. Of course, there are many negatives I can think of as well, so I’m still thinking on this one.
- Getting to know students outside of the classroom is good for a teacher’s soul. I was in a unique position going into this trip–I knew only a handful of the students, who were all juniors. I just started teaching at the school, and I have sophomore and senior classes. This initially struck me as a negative, but it was actually refreshing to get to know students outside of the context of the classroom. I could just have conversations with them about their lives, Star Wars, their reactions to different parts of the trip, etc. I didn’t have preconceived notions of who they were based on how well they could write essays or how often they completed homework, and I knew I didn’t have to grade them on anything when we returned.
- I need Shabbat. I know Judaism is not the only religion that commands followers to take a Sabbath once a week, but one of the most amazing things about this trip was seeing the Jewish quarter of Jerusalem completely shut down from sunset on Friday until sunset on Saturday. Stores closed. The roads were filled with people instead of cars. People powered down cell phones and electronics. In such a hyper-connected world, it was almost magical to see this happen and to conceptualize the fact that it happens weekly. You don’t even need to be religious to see and sense the value in carving out and protecting a time to rest and be present with one another.