A friend of mine recently shared the following story from his daughter’s Jewish preschool. Before the start of school, his child’s teacher requested the parents send in a picture of their child on a family trip to Israel to use for the class bulletin board. My friend was very upset.
At first, I couldn’t understand why. As someone who has been teaching Israel for many years, I love the idea of using Israel as a focal point in the classroom. It says a lot about a school that so many of their families have been to Israel and featuring this in the classroom sends a strong message to the children about the centrality of Israel in our minds and hearts. From my perspective, living in a community where so many Jewish adults have never been to Israel and where so many Jewish families vacation all around the world but not in Israel, hearing this story was heartening.
However, as my friend pointed out, there was one challenge with this teacher’s request: it came with an assumption that every family has been to Israel. A trip to Israel is expensive, and while paying tuition and mortgage payments, it’s not something that every family can afford; including my friend’s family, which was why he was bothered enough to tell me this story. When families are already overburdened with the financial realities that come along with being frum, adding to the pressure of “keeping up with the Cohens”, only makes things more difficult. But that deserves a whole piece on its own, which I will write one day.
However, finances aside, from an educational standpoint, I wonder what is the best age to take a child to Israel so the trip is most impactful.
In a society plagued with feelings of entitlement and the expectation of instant gratification, as parents and teachers, we sometimes find that any gift or experience, no matter how exciting or moving (or expensive), has the potential to become blasé very quickly. We struggle with trying to inspire our students, to teach our children appreciation and reverence but in today’s generation, it can sometimes feel like a losing battle. Which means that if we want a lesson or experience to have a great impact, it can require great forethought and planning. And how or when a topic is introduced can sometimes make all the difference.
This challenge applies to so many areas of education and/or parenting: When do we introduce teaching the Holocaust, so that students aren’t overly familiar with the history therefore, emotionally detached from the stories? You hear about high school students in public school crying when they first learn about the Holocaust because they are shocked by the horror; how often does this happen with our children who have been hearing about the Holocaust since first grade? (I am not suggesting we introduce the Holocaust in high school). How do we teach Chumash so that the ideas are new and exciting to our students when they’ve been learning them for so many years? How do we make our children appreciate the gift of our time or resources when they’ve come to expect them as their due? And I believe this question also applies to when is the ideal time to first take our children to Israel and how do we adequately prepare them for such a trip so that they will truly appreciate what it means.
When I was in elementary school, there were some girls who went to Israel every year, from as young as they could remember. For some of them, it was just what you did on Succos and invoked about as much excitement as we had for going to Great Adventure on Pesach. When I re-entered the classroom as a teacher, I observed this phenomenon again, with some kids even complaining about going to Israel again. After all, they said, what else was there to see when they had been so many times?
I imagine that the cases I refer to are unusual. Many families take their children to Israel year after year to visit family members who live there and I’m sure the kids are very excited to go each time. Even when going “just for vacation”, there are many pluses that come from frequent visits, including feeling at home when visiting Israel and being comfortable with your surroundings. However there is a risk of losing the sense of excitement and wonder that comes with habituation; specifically when kids are so young to really appreciate what it really means to be in Israel.
I think back to my own experiences. While my parents were struggling with tuition and mortgage payments and could not afford to take us, my grandparents who lived across the street from us would travel back and forth from Israel many times a year. In my memory, they were either in Israel or their living room was littered with suitcases for an upcoming trip. It was the days before the invention of e-mail and when phone calls to Israel were unaffordable and I remember hungrily reading the airmails they sent with reports of their trip, with stories as mundane as using the wrong Hebrew word at the grocery store to the majesty of spending Shabbos in Yerushalayim. When they would return, I would witness the glow on their faces, as they shared their love of all things Israel, imbuing me with a sense of wonder of this place that existed in my imagination alone. I became familiar with the names of the Israeli politicians they admired and learned a few Yiddish curse words about the ones they didn’t. They told me about the miracles of the wars and looking through the travel books they would buy me, I became familiar with the map of Israel and its famous sites. Through their stories, and perhaps because I couldn’t have what I so desperately longed for, I fell in love with Israel long before I got to go. That love only increased when my family went to Israel for my Bat mitzvah and I got to experience firsthand, everything I had heard and dreamed about.
My own children are reliving my childhood experience. Over the past six years, I have been incredibly lucky to lead many trips to Israel but for my husband and I to take our four kids to Israel is an expensive endeavor that we have never felt able to embark on. Every time I book a ticket, my children clamor for me to take them with me, even though they know I will be working and cannot. But I try my best to share my experiences of the trip with them- not to make them jealous but to inculcate a yearning within them. I show them my pictures, tell them stories and attempt to share my sense of wonder and passion of the history of the State of Israel, that my grandparents shared with me. I try to show them the mundane, yet magical signs of a Jewish state: the Hebrew street signs, the washing station at the food court at the airport, Jewish soldiers and policeman protecting our state. I tell them about the majestic: the ruach of Friday night at the Kotel, seeing the sites of stories they’ve learned in Tanach, the shared pain of Yom HaZikaron shown on the face of every Israeli when the cars come to a standstill at the siren, leading into the jubilation of Yom HaAtzmaut; the gorgeous array of colors: Jerusalem of gold, purple mountains of the Shomron, the greenery of the Galil, the turquoise of the Mediterranean.
I hope that by whetting their appetites and creating this sense of anticipation, it’s increasing their desire to see these places for themselves so by my daughter’s Bat Mitzvah, when I take her for the first time (and we can somehow get the points together to make it happen), she will truly appreciate the gift that going to Israel truly is.
And so, perhaps the key to a child’s first visit isn’t so much about how old they are when they go but that we, as parents, realize the tremendous responsibility in our hands as we introduce our children to Israel and prepare them beforehand, so they can anticipate the trip and reap all it has to offer.