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Early Tuesday morning, 17-year-old Lea Derbo and her 11th-grade classmates at the religious ORT high school in Beit She'an boarded a flight from Ben-Gurion Airport to Krakow, Poland.
Several hours later, after a visit to the city's former Jewish quarter and ghetto, they arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau, where they spent the rest of the day at the site of the Nazi concentration and death camps. Twenty-four hours after leaving home, Derbo and her classmates were on their way back to Beit She'an.
"It doesn't matter where you came from," said Derbo, whose family immigrated to Israel from Ethiopia when she was two years old. "It's something you have to know about as a Jew."
Every year, approximately 25,000 Israeli high school students depart for Poland on journeys planned and overseen by the Education Ministry. But unlike the one-day trip undertaken by Derbo and her classmates, the Education Ministry trips - which have been taking place for over two decades - last a minimum of eight days, per ministry regulations.
"Of course I would have liked to go on a longer trip, like some students at my school do," Derbo said. "The thing is, my mother can't pay for it, because it costs more than $1,000."
"My brother had to pay even for this," she said of the subsidized $100 fee that she and her fellow students were charged for their trip.
Organized by the local municipalities of Beit She'an and Tiberias in collaboration with the ISSTA travel agency and supported by El Al, the trip, in which approximately 200 students from both cities participated on either Tuesday or Wednesday, took place for the first time this week after a pilot experiment last year.
The Education Ministry, however, is far from happy about this private initiative. In a letter sent out last week to the director of the ministry's northern school district, David Wasserman, ministry Director-General Amira Haim called on Wasserman "to urgently convene the teachers intending to depart within this framework and to inform them that their decision to join the trip was their own personal responsibility, and was not approved or supported by the Education Ministry."
At a brief press conference convened in Krakow during the trip, Shimon Siboni, ISSTA's board chair, strongly criticized the ministry's reaction.
"This journey was born of a reality that we do not think should exist in Israel in 2006," Siboni said. "In most of the periphery towns, only a very small number of students can afford to take part in this important journey. The Poland Headquarters at the ministry's Youth and Society Administration exercise a hegemony over student trips to Poland. This project undoes this hegemony, and they see it as a threat."
To circumvent the ministry's lack of approval, Siboni explained, the trip had been redefined as a municipal delegation and departed on the first day of the Pessah school vacation.
"The Education Ministry format suits financially strong families, but it created conflicts in our schools and enlarged the gaps between students," said Beit She'an Mayor Jackie Levy. "In a development town, most of the families are from Middle Eastern origins, and they did not grow up in homes with a personal connection to the Holocaust. We wanted to give every 11th grader in town the possibility to go on such a trip."
"I cannot understand the ministry's efforts to torpedo the trip," Levy added.
According to Noach Shalev, director of the Education Ministry's Youth and Society Administration, "A 24-hour trip simply cannot allow students to contain, understand, and process this very complex experience and the educational, emotional and other values associated with it. We believe it requires a minimum of eight days, six months of preparation, and a follow-up period after the trip."
According to Shalev, if the municipalities and companies that subsidized the trip had appealed to the ministry, students could still have participated in the eight-day trip with a very significant discount.
"This trip simply does not meet our educational, professional, and security criteria," he said.