Israel Programs: The Case for Tel Aviv

Photo by Itay Barnea; Wikimedia Commons

Photo by Itay Barnea; Wikimedia Commons

Israel has changed over 66 years. Our programs should reflect those changes.

by Benji Lovitt

I recently performed a stand-up comedy show for a Birthright group in Jerusalem. When I inquired about their itinerary to get an idea of what exactly to joke about, I was told that not only did the group not have the usual “free night” out in Tel Aviv, they didn’t even sleep in Tel Aviv a single night on the trip! Not in Jaffa, not in Bat Yam, not in Kibbutz Shfayim on the way to Netanya, nowhere in Gush Dan (the greater Tel Aviv area). They took a day trip from Jerusalem, spent several hours there, and returned that evening.

I had to finally write this article to address what I believe is a significant problem with Israel trips not only today but going back several decades since educational tourism became popular. From synagogue and organization missions to Masa programs, and from high school trips to Birthright, we do a horrendous job of exposing Diaspora Jews to Tel Aviv and everything it stands for: modern Israel, the “start-up nation”, religious pluralism, and Jewish peoplehood.

It’s almost become a cliché to reference the Pew Report over the last few months but here we go. We know that a growing number of American Jews simply do not connect to their Judaism through prayer and religious identity. While we can all agree on the need for better education to strengthen Jewish identity (pre-Israel trip programming, post-Israel trip programming, non-Israel related Jewish programming, etc.), we insist on bringing Jews to this magical Jewish laboratory called Israel while almost completely neglecting one of the places/sites/Jewish playgrounds we know many of these people will most strongly connect with.

I learned this the hard way. My first Israel trip was at age 15 on a Young Judaea teen tour. It was so powerful that I returned two years later on Year Course, the gap year program now part of the Masa umbrella. I can count on two hands the number of days I spent in Tel Aviv over the course of nine months. Only 10 years later, when I came on a Federation mission and extended my stay, did I finally discover this “secret community”, still mostly unknown to English-speakers in 2003. In just a few days, I managed to lie on the beach, go dancing till 5 AM, walk around staring at Israelis with my tongue hanging out of my mouth, and ask, “HOW AM I ONLY DISCOVERING THIS NOW?????” This wasn’t about bars and sand. This was about connecting to modern Israel and my Israeli peers in a way that I had not done before.

And I get it. Jerusalem (the place most often compared to and measured against Tel Aviv) has thousands of years of history, heritage, and religious sites. The Kotel, Yad Vashem, the City of David (and not to mention, the offices for most Jewish organizations which have traditionally been based there), and so much more. As Jews have looked east for thousands of years saying “next year in Jerusalem”, this is the place we’ve yearned for, and justifiably so.

But that’s not enough to deprive tourists of what for some of them could be as impactful an experience. To be clear, while we can not and should not minimize the importance of Jerusalem on a trip, it’s critical to also maximize and showcase the role of Tel Aviv in modern Israel. Not this or that. This and that.

How can tour operators possibly be expected to find time in short-term programs? That’s the wrong question. If we decide that it’s critical, we work backwards and we make it happen.

Let’s take a site like Masada (just an example, not necessarily the one you’d choose). I have spoken with a number of educators who share this viewpoint: why is it an absolute must that every group HAS to go there? Is it at all possible that it’s because groups have always gone there? “Their grandparents climbed Masada at sunrise, their parents climbed Masada at sunrise, and gosh darnit, they’re going to climb Masada at sunrise!” I suspect that if you ask a group of 100 average program alumni what they remember about the time they hiked Masada at sunrise, the vast majority will say that they hiked Masada at sunrise. Not the story or the history or certainly not how it affected their Jewish identity today. Where is the educational value in that? While it no doubt was a trip highlight at the time, can we say with certainty that whatever they took from it stayed with them? Remember, time is valuable and limited. Is this really a CRITICAL lesson in the development of Jewish identity? It takes courage to make change. If we don’t send a group to Masada, they might complain at first. Why? Because we’ve led them to believe that every group is supposed to go to Masada. By the time the trip is over, no one will say a word. Everyone appreciates the trip they experience, not the one someone else thinks they’re supposed to have. (People who came to Israel during the 2nd intifada or Second Lebanon War don’t report having lesser trips just because their itineraries were modified, just different ones. In some ways, their trips were even more meaningful.)

Does Masada make a bigger impact on Jewish identity than time in Tel Aviv? I would argue that it does not. Is Masada more likely to make thousands of young Jews excited to possibly return to Israel for a long-term program, date other Jews, get an internship at an Israeli start-up, or discover a connection to Jewish peoplehood which they never had before? In my opinion? Absolutely not. Now repeat this exercise for many possible sites in place of “Masada”.

(Please don’t get me started on camel rides. Tour guide: “Welcome to Israel, the 21st century land of innovation! Ok, who wants to visit a fake Bedouin tent?” Participant: “Umm, can we see the office of Google Israel?” Guide: “No, but did I mention the tent? I think you’ll love their dirty mattresses.” Why do we send groups to the Bedouin tent? Because it’s fun. You know where else is a fun place to visit? Tel Aviv.)

Too much of Israel program itineraries are designed because of tradition. We’ve been doing it this way for decades so why change now? This is in my opinion a huge flaw.

The word is out. English-speaking olim are moving to Tel Aviv in greater numbers than ever before. Musicians such as Rihanna, Alicia Keys, and Cyndi Lauper have performed in Tel Aviv in just the last few months with many more to come in 2014. Actress Claire Danes couldn’t hold back her shocked enthusiasm to Conan O’Brien at what a cool city this is. Whereas I hardly stepped foot in Tel Aviv during my gap year, more and more Masa programs have woken up and realized the value of basing all or part of their programs there. Tel Aviv is now known worldwide as the hub of the “start-up nation” and one of the best LGBT cities on the planet but most Israel programs remain stuck in the 20th century.

Are there fewer obvious historical things to see than in Jerusalem? Yes. Are there thousands of years to explore? No. Should that stop us from being creative? No. Visit Neve Tzedek, walk along Rothschild while hearing the story about Baron Rothschild who helped bring Herzl’s dream to fruition, have participants interview random passersbys on the street (Young Judaea had us do this in high school), visit cutting edge high-tech companies … we have fantastic Jewish educators working on both sides of the ocean, I have full faith that we can come up with something.

Are hotels more expensive? Yes. Might we have to eliminate sites which no question have incredible value? Yes. Eliminating certain sites are not a rejection of them but rather an admission that despite the incredible experiences people have in Israel, study after study shows that we can do better to keep Jews engaged long after the trip euphoria is over.

This is not a suggestion of “fun” over “education”. This is focusing on exploring membership as part of the Jewish nation, a nation and people that young Jews are often “reborn” to feel part of after meeting Israelis who are like them.

Lastly, this isn’t only about the “White City”. This is about evaluating Israel programs and figuring out not only what will turn on our participants to Israel and Jewish identity but also what will not. Israel has changed over 66 years. Our programs should reflect those changes.

The word is out about American Jewry as well. Many young Jews have decided that what the establishment is selling, they’re not buying. Israel has what WE KNOW many of them want in Tel Aviv. To not even expose them to one of the best products we have to offer is a big mistake.

Benji Lovitt is a comedian and educator living in Israel. He is currently booking comedy shows and workshops in North America for Spring 2014.

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  1. says

    well said, benji. (i have been advocating the general concept for a while because i want trips to add a component about tzedakah which is different than what they have been doing for years and years. but no, ‘we don’t do it that way’……)

  2. Libbie says

    you are absolutely right – couldn’t agree more! glad you wrote this piece and are spreading the word. Tel Aviv is the best kept secret from American students and it shouldn’t be a secret anymore! Plus I know so many olim who only made aliyah because of Tel Aviv. It’s time for these educational programs to catch on.

  3. Judy Lash Balint says

    Benji is right on–and it applies to all tour groups, not just Birthright or Masa. The majority of “mature” visitors never experience Tel Aviv either…The first and only custom-built Jewish city in the world should have a much higher profile.

  4. says

    Great article. This is exactly why Aardvark Israel prides itself to being one of the only gap year programs located in the heart of Tel Aviv!

  5. Brooke Weinbaum says

    I couldn’t agree more about your point of camel rides. It’s really a double-edged sword. On one hand, it’s pretty awesome to say you’ve ridden camels in a desert before and maybe even sung “Arabian Nights” from Aladdin. But when participants get home it’s one of the most photographed events of the trip. All I picture are (mostly non-Jewish) people on Facebook stalking those albums going “Wow there really ARE camels in Israel” and our image of this typical middle-eastern country continues. But it also seems that there are more and more niche trips that are taking participants to places they would be interested in i.e. high tech companies. I think five years from now these trips will look a lot different!

  6. says

    Excellent article, it captures most of key arguments. I will add another who comes back and visits almost every year- the French and the British- Who comes once in 10 years the Americans. Who spends time in Tel Aviv…..

  7. Jay Rosen says

    I’ve been making the same remark for some time, and have participated in educational trips through Tel Aviv, including a pilot itinerary when I proudly worked for Taglit-Birthright Israel.

    Tel Aviv is programmable, from an educational standpoint, but I don’t think that’s the issue here; the issue is teaching what makes Israeli and Diaspora Jewry different from one another, ‘The New Jew’ that is embodied in Herzl’s Zionism and that in many ways runs in opposition to American Jewry’s success in Diaspora. We don’t always feel comfortable in admitting our ideological differences, and certainly in front of supposedly-impressionable youngsters.

    Perhaps the time has come to trust that students are capable of having such a conversation, and that it’s OK if they decide to spend more time in Israel to figure out their identity?

  8. DPR says

    Maybe less time with Robert/Avraham in Tzfat, more time on an all-day walking tour of Tel Aviv. Neve Tzedek > Rothschild > Bialik > Trumpeldor > Nahalat Binyamin > beach > namal. I’m pretty sure you don’t have to pay anything to walk around.

  9. Neil Gillman says

    absolutely agree – 100%. More and more young Olim are headed to Tel Aviv. My experience prior to Aliyah was the same as yours but Tel Aviv is where the jobs are, it’s where the clubs are, it has the beach, lots of culture and so much more!

  10. Kalela Lancaster says

    Yes and while you’re at it don’t just stick to the North Tel Aviv bubble. Take them to the South and to Jaffa, to confront issues of social justice, human rights, racism etc which are the real issues with which Israel is wrestling today

  11. says

    Every word “Basela” (in stone). Additionally, south Tel Aviv offers a prism through which to see some of the most critical social-welfare challenges facing Israel today, an important aspect of getting to know Israel up-close and personal. The Secular Yeshiva in Tel Aviv offers opportunities for learning, volunteering and visiting for short term groups (BR etc.) up to year-long programs, check out Tikkun Olam Tel Aviv – Jaffa at .

  12. says

    Excellent article! I would extend this beyond American Jewry. On my Australian Birthright trip 10 years ago — my first trip to Israel — we spent a dismal couple of whirlwind hours in TLV. I’m sure many things have changed since then (like the term “Start Up Nation”), however, I distinctly recall going to a shabby looking Independence Hall on Rothschild (which didn’t even have the flag of Israel anywhere on the outside of the building), and being told THIS is where Israel’s exciting modern history all began. I was bored out of my wits. Then we went to Rabin Square to pay respects to where Rabin was assasinated. Again, with very little understanding of what Rabin stood for at the time, this bored most of us to no end. THAT, in a nutshell, was our Tel Aviv experience. Not realising it at the time, years later, I would make Aliyah and settle in to this amazingly vibrant and diverse city of Tel Aviv, which boasts an enormous amount of fascinating history around every corner. I know that students at Alexander Muss High School in Israel cover Tel Aviv in roughly 2 condensed days (over 8 weeks). There is definitely room for improvement in this area of Israel programming. Kol Ha’Kavod to Benji for bringing this topic to light.

  13. Florence Broder says

    Benji- you did an amazing job with this article. It’s very well said. I have much respect for tradition and our biblical heritage. However, when I moved to Tel Aviv I quickly became aware of its importance in Israel’s zionist history. Tel Aviv was established as the first Hebrew city. The Bauhaus walking tour gave me incredible insight into the city’s significance. I also think that the Rabin Center in Ramat Aviv is one of THE best historical museums and can help Birthright participants understand modern Israeli beyond just visiting Independence Hall.

  14. Dorothy Kushner says

    Benji, As my childhood family used to tease when someone discovered a well-known secret, “Look who discovered America!” Only this time there is more to it than a simple secret: the very goal of the Birthright trip and other Diaspora tours for young people forgets that young people everywhere (and some stranger older people) like to look forward as well as backward to Jewish history and traditions. The program planners must listen to the alumni like yourself and rejuvenate the programs. The 25 years I have spent in Tel Aviv have been the most interesting in a long life, and have definitely made my outlook more youthful and optimistic.

  15. Julie Ohana says

    Independence Hall is one of my favorite must see spots, especially as a first timer to Israel. it is so moving and so important to get to know the side of Israel where the connection isn’t just a religious one. You make lots of good points, Benji. Well said.

  16. Arieh says

    I thought Tel Aviv was the funnest part of our trip. The beach, renting bikes, good restaurants, Old Yaffo (it’s CLEAN compared to most “old cities”), walking around the Port, the outdoor parks/playgrounds near the beach.

  17. Sharon Bar-Lev says

    I couldn’t have said it better myself!
    When my nephew came on birthright this past June, I was SHOCKED when I saw that his itinerary only included a few hours in Tel Aviv. No beach? No nightlife?
    I feel that it should be a MUST! It exposes the youngsters to the fun part of living in Israel. The “mini” New York lifestyle that they all want and love.

  18. Elan Ezrachi says

    You can rest assure that Israel program participants of all programs do not get to know Jerusalem as well. They visit the Old City and Yad Vashem, but that’s it. They skip yerushalyim shel mata, the largest and most challenging, diverse, and conflicted city in Israel.

  19. Renee Rosenheck says

    If you believe in the future of Israel, you must believe in Tel Aviv! TA is really the heartbeat and pulse of what drives Israel and Israel’s economy.

  20. Ofer says

    Totally agree with the Massada issue, even in a personal way.
    During 2007-2009 I used to work for one of the origanizers of BR.
    In the planning of one specific trip, no matter what we did Massada just didn’t fit in.
    I suggested to give it up and said, ok it can’t work…so this group won’t go to Massada. The second I said it, everyone looked at me as if I am crazy to even say that!
    Needless to say that eventually all of the itinerary was flipped over again in order to fit Massada in…

  21. Allyson says

    The case for Tel Aviv is well represented in this article.

    Now it is essential for the powers that be to listen to the suggestions and revamp the itineraries for these trips.

    It is not difficult to implement the new itineraries incorporating Tel Aviv (the way it should be) and in fact without eliminating Masada and the memorable sunrise it offers.

    This article should be taken seriously as it is NOT someone just speaking out and venting but rather focusing in on the future. And the future of Israel is in fact the reason the “Israel” trips and missions exist at all.

    Now naturally you can say to me “who are you and what do you know. “. To that I believe suffice to reply with the facts. I have lived in Israel over 30 years ago. Have been back and forth to visit numerous times with half my family living there from my husbands side. I have been involved and on “the boards” of the organizations who make birthright and the mission trips happen. I have one daughter who has made Aliyah and living (of course) in Tel Aviv. I have learned a lot from life experience alone and feel confident in saying that the suggestions in this article should be taken seriously and not just for conversation.

  22. says

    I am an educator and tour guide living in Jerusalem’s Old City and studying archaeology and the Ancient Near East in Tel Aviv University. Besides the 5 or so museums relating to 1948, if you want contemporary youth to meet people like themselves who are Israelis, if you want them to have a broad view of Israel, if you want them to understand start-up nation, if you want them to see Israel as modern, and as hip and as fun, and if you want them to be exposed to a range of Israeli views, you must include Tel Aviv- the shops, fashion center, entrepreneur district, beach, and the TAU campus (an unbiased addition…). While the spirit and pulse of Judaism beats stronger on the surface in Jerusalem and we want them inspired, Tel Aviv can enable them to see themselves in Israel and relate to Israel. I would not skip a camel ride somewhere, and a taste of the desert, but I would give much more weight to Tel Aviv the city. If there is a Nike night run, White Night, or other event, include them. Arrange with the university, with a hi-tech company, with a cafe, for them to meet peer groups.