Israel Programs: The Case for Tel Aviv
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.