It feels surreal to be writing this from the Old City of Jerusalem, after having just spent a few minutes at the Kotel, on a beautiful sunny day. When various members of the community find out I am accompanying yet another Israel Study Tour (IST) group, they often ask me, “How many times have you done IST?” and “What is it about IST that makes you want to go again?”. Truth is, I am not even sure how many ISTs or part ISTs I have accompanied (although I have noticed that my daughter has ‘borrowed’ my IST jumper from 2013). As to what it is about IST that makes me want to go, there are many reasons, which I am happy to share with you and, in so doing, provide you with a glimpse of some of the highlights of yet another IST. Colleagues from other Jewish schools are shocked to hear that we made it to Israel for a four-week program, and when I explain that we hope to have a second IST happening at the end of the year, they are blown away. The Old City is bustling with tour groups and locals all going about their business. The coffee shops are full, and the ice-cream and waffle stores have queues out the door (many of them, Moriah students). All of this confirms that we made the correct decision to bring our students to Israel on IST.
Our students always comment about how natural it is to be and feel Jewish in Israel. For many, it creates an opportunity for them to be more conscious of their own level of observance and some try to do even more. Boys start wearing their kippot (by attaching clips so it remains in place all day), students start taking Tefillah a little more seriously and actually read the words, concentrating on some of the key concepts. Students put their phones away for Shabbat and realise that they can actually live without the need to constantly check Instagram and Snapchat for a 25-hour period. Discussions among themselves and the madrichim focus on questions like, ‘is it more important to be observant or make Aliyah?’, ‘Can Israel still survive without a military?’, and ‘what does being a good Jew look like?’ These discussions continue over many days, and they can be heard as they enjoy their meals, spend time on the buses travelling, or as they ‘chill’ in the lobby waiting for the next activity. There is nothing more pleasing than listening to them defend their decision with passion while respectfully disagreeing with their peers.
Being in Israel on Yom HaShoah and in the days leading up to Yom HaZikaron and Yom Ha’Atzmaut is so important for our students. To see the Israeli flag draped over a table with six yahrzeit (memorial) candles, with the word Yizkor written across the flag in the lobby of the hotel, sends such a powerful message to our students. In Israel, we are all obligated to remember the horrors of the Holocaust. The display, front and centre in the lobby, is a proud reminder of this obligation, as was the alarm that sounded across the whole country at 10:00am on Yom HaShoah. Our students were taken to a park in Jerusalem for a short service which began with the haunting sound of the siren. They could see the nearby traffic come to a halt, they could see the religious families who were enjoying a stroll in the park stand still, and they could see the secular Israelis having a coffee at the kiosk all stand in respect of the siren. The same can be said about the streets being decorated with Israeli flags in preparation for Yom Ha’Atzmaut. To see council workers, wearing kippot on trucks and ladders, placing Israeli flags in special holders attached to the street poles, instills within our students a sense of Jewish pride that extends to the core of who we are, and it is this pride they would not feel anywhere else in the world.
While most of the students have already visited Israel, it is still their first time experiencing so many of the unique sites we get to enjoy throughout IST. Experiencing this excitement with them throughout the program is one of the great attractions for me. This not only includes activities like walking through the water tunnels at the City of David or learning the secrets of how to create your own chocolate designs, it also includes learning how to navigate a very small, busy makolet (supermarket) to purchase important provisions, such as ice-cream or snacks, in under 15 minutes, all in Hebrew. It is surprising to see that when our students need to communicate, they manage to find the correct Hebrew words, or for many, a combination of sounds that might resemble the correct word. Nevertheless, no student has left one of these shops empty-handed because they are not able to ask for a watermelon flavoured ice-cream. Despite the challenges that come with an IST group celebrating Pesach in Israel, students became experts in making sure the food products they were purchasing contained no kitniyot (grains not eaten by Ashkenazim on Pesach) and were kosher for Pesach.
On IST, student health and wellbeing remains our primary concern. Students still become unwell, and in some cases, need to visit the hospital. Staff take turns to accompany students and make sure they are cared for and looked after throughout their visit. During Pesach, I was on hospital duty and after the students had undergone a series of tests and the doctors were analysing the results, the nurses asked if the students had some food they could eat, as we had already been there for a few hours. The students had no food with them and so the nurse excused herself and said she would see what she could do. About 15 minutes later, she returned with matzah, butter, jam and an egg. This was food she was able to collect from her own supplies. She could have easily directed us to the cafeteria but went out of her way to make sure the students were being looked after: one tiny example of the kindness and chesed that is simply part and parcel of everyday living here in Israel.
On IST, it is often the events that happen in between or after the planned activities that become such memorable experiences. During Pesach, a large family was also staying on the same campus as our IST group. One evening, as two of our students were playing the violin and guitar, just having some fun outside, one of the members of this family gestured for the musicians to come with him into their dining room. A few of us followed to find about 40 people sitting and singing to the sounds of a trumpet. The guests encouraged the musicians to play and, after a few minutes, when the two students realised what was being asked of them, they decided to play a repertoire of Jewish songs. The man playing the trumpet joined in and before you knew it, the audience was singing and dancing. This remains as one of the many highlights for the two musicians who are now looking for any opportunity to entertain others.
Finally, one of the highlights for me is to witness the new friendships that develop throughout IST. The students change their roommates each time we change hotels, and students who have rarely spoken to each other are now getting to know each other. Old friendship circles are opened up as new friends are added, and this is a vital element of the IST program. The relationships that develop here will continue throughout their High School experience and beyond. This is a great source of pride. The students support each other, they encourage each other to express themselves, and congratulate each other after doing so, making them feel as if their contribution to the program is unique and of significant value.
I conclude this article from the hotel we are staying in overlooking the beautiful Kinneret Sea, which is filled to the brim. We often tell the students to make the most of every experience as their IST journey is coming to an end. However, I believe that while the Israel trip is close to the end, their IST journey is just beginning. Their journey to strengthen their Jewish identity and connection to Israel and the Jewish People has just begun, and they will have further opportunities to reinforce and bolster this relationship in their final years of High School. I am still not sure how many times I have been on IST, but if I get to play a small role in nurturing the neshamot (souls) of the next generation to love Israel and remain positive in their outlook towards Yiddishkeit, then I guess I’ll just have to attend yet another IST.
About the author
Ronnen Grauman is the Acting Head of Jewish Life and Learning at Moriah College in Queens Park, NSW.