Israel Tour 2013 with LJY Netzer

Year Eleven came to a close; the Promised Land was here. No more GCSEs, no more work (well, until next year anyway) and a long, glorious summer waited ahead. But my summer, like a lot of Jewish kids around the UK, was going to be slightly different; I was going on Israel Tour. A month spent away from family on a trip of a lifetime. Could it really live up to the hype?

The answer in short, is YES. I was lucky enough to go on my trip with LJY Netzer, the Liberal Jewish Youth Movement, in conjunction with the UJIA. I can’t thank them enough for making my experience enthralling, challenging and most of all, thought provoking. I am, without a shadow of a doubt, getting more involved in LJY and I hope to lead at the next available opportunity.

Even as we arrived into Ben Gurion airport I was already captivated by the landscape of mountains and sand; it was truly amazing. I came to learn that this natural beauty occurred throughout the country. Masada at dawn, something worth getting up at four in the morning for, was one of the most incredible sights I have ever seen. We were treated to the lush, green hills of the Golan Heights and the stunning Kinneret, which provided the most unbelievable backdrop to our first kabalat Shabbat as a tour group. This contrasted with the Judean desert and the Negev, reflecting the geographical diversity of Israel which makes it such a beautiful place.

But it wasn’t just the landscape that was diverse. We were introduced to a rich spectrum of cultures throughout Israel tour. One religion that particularly struck me was the Druze people who lived in the north, their way of life firmly embedded in the hills of the Golan. Their beliefs are very secretive and a lot of information is never released to people outside of their faith. We also visited the Bahai Gardens, and learnt about Christian and Muslim history in Israel. It was an interesting feeling to arrive from a country where Jews are just a tiny proportion of the population to a country where Jews are the majority; and to be able to see and experience, all around us, the diversity of Jewish expression, from secular to very Orthodox.

We spoke to a couple of Israeli Arab communities during the trip, and I was disappointed to hear how some felt about their place in Israeli society. But, in contrast, at several points on tour, we spent time at summer camps, where the children were both Arab Israeli, and Jewish Israeli. There was no better thought on those days than realising that some of this generation of kids will grow up to feel like friends, not enemies. We sang songs together, played football and painted faces; it was so simple. It felt just like a summer camp back in England. Everyone there was equal and there were no bad feelings on either side. Whilst these camps and centres are only building blocks for something much bigger, it’s a very big step in the right direction and it was a pleasure to be a part of it. It felt like Tikun Olam in action, repairing the world, by bringing people together.

Israel tour was also about seeing the sights and experiencing all that Israel has to offer. A personal favourite of mine was snorkelling in the Red Sea, swimming alongside exotic fish and the most beautiful coral. And then, in Jerusalem, where we ran into some Israelis and managed to get caught up in an impromptu Bar Mitzvah celebration, singing and dancing with the family of a man and his son. Others included kayaking down the Jordan River, riding camels in the Negev and walking along Ben Yehuda Street at night, witnessing the bustling, busy community of Jerusalem. The Carmel market in Tel Aviv was also an amazing experience and I’ll never forget haggling ferociously with stubborn shopkeepers over a couple of shekels.

I brought back from Israel two things. Firstly, the friends I have made during this trip. Situated mainly in London, some have been in LJY Netzer for years, others are relatively new just like me. I really couldn’t have wished for a better group of people to spend a month with. We went through some tough times together! Bug bites, sunburn and a broken air-conditioning on a coach when we were ‘conveniently’ right in the middle of the Negev desert! We played guitar together constantly, singing song after song until our voices were hoarse. It felt like everyone brought something very different and special to the group as they were all dynamic, outgoing individuals. As someone new I was initially worried I would not be accepted into the main bulk of the group, but they couldn’t have been more welcoming. Furthermore, our UK leaders Flora, Josh and Gabriel and our Israeli ones, Tal and Inbar, were excellent, making sure we had both fun and that we learned a huge amount from our time in Israel.

The second thing I brought back was really how I feel about being Jewish. My beliefs and ideology remain the same, but have become clearer and more distinct. I do feel different, not as isolated; I feel like I have more Jewish friends, know more about Israel and feel more connected to it. I remember walking out of the Yad Vashem and looking over the viewpoint right down onto Jerusalem and thinking – “this is it … this is Israel”. A place where Jewish culture has, and will be, embedded forever.

I remember standing at the Kotel, thinking about my life as a Jew; from a small child and my first memories of synagogue; my Bar Mitzvah and the people I shared it with; the High Holy days spent in Shul, to that moment, when I was in Israel, at the Kotel, surrounded by other Jews doing exactly the same thing. It struck me that Israel tour was a massive milestone, bigger than I expected, and a very formative moment in my life.

AD (Birmingham Progressive Synagogue. August 2013)

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