Journeying through the real Israel

Polish and American teens taste a side of the country not usually experienced by tour groups.

A group shot showing both American and Polish tour members onThe Roots Israel Service Learning Adventure (photo credit: PAUL ALSTER)
A group shot showing both American and Polish tour members onThe Roots Israel Service Learning Adventure
(photo credit: PAUL ALSTER)
IT USED to be the case that an overwhelming majority of Jews in the Diaspora from all shades of the political spectrum supported the State of Israel, but it seems times have changed. That tacit approval is no longer a ‘given.’ More than ever, if Israel is to retain its majority Jewish identity, Jewish youth from across the globe must feel a positive but realistic connection to the land of their forefathers. With antisemitism on the rise once again in Europe and elsewhere, Israel remains a haven for those fearing or fleeing persecution, but when they arrive in this ancient land do they really know what awaits them? The huge growth of Jewish youth tours that give youngsters a taste of Israel are a tremendously positive thing, but it is sometimes questionable how realistic a picture of Israel they present. Is modern Israeli life and day-to-day reality really epitomized by the Tel Aviv beachfront, the Dead Sea, the Old City of Jerusalem, Masada, a boat ride on the Sea of Galilee, Eilat etc.? The answer, I would suggest, is a very definite “no.”
So, if this is the basis for making a decision about potentially emigrating here, it is not unreasonable to suggest that that decision might be based on a misleading, gilded impression. The harsh truth is that Israel, while a great place to be in so many ways, is not an easy place to live, and getting by day to day and dealing with the particular problems life throws at you here is no easy matter.
The Roots Israel Service Learning Adventure, a three-week tour of Israel created by director Marni Heller, is jointly run by JNF USA and the Alexander Muss High School Israel (AMHSI). It seeks to present Israel in a realistic, pragmatic way. The tour this year was made up of young Jewish teens from the US, together with 10 Jewish teens from Poland, a country whose role in the Holocaust remains a focal point of high school education in Israel, with most 11th grade Israeli students visiting Poland on a one-week tour to see for themselves sites such as the infamous death camp at Auschwitz.
How realistic though is the impression given of modern Poland, and how, in the case of the Roots Israel tour, would young Polish and American Jews relate to each other, coming as they do from such different backgrounds? The answers, as I found when I joined the tour recently at a center for Israeli children at risk, were unexpected and thought-provoking.
The Neve Michael center in Pardes Hanna is a haven for children from dysfunctional homes, children whose parents may be drug addicts, alcoholics, violent, or sexual abusers.
This remarkable charitable project deals with the tough reality and the casualties of such abusive environments, [and] is run by a dedicated staff of carers who give support and guidance in a safe environment to youngsters who might otherwise go on suffering and be in danger, even mortal danger.
I arrived as a lecture was underway at which the teenagers of the Roots Israel tour were seated and listening intently. There was no fidgeting, playing with their mobile phones, or gossiping at the back of the group. They were genuinely engaged and clearly touched by the stories they were hearing, and the questions they posed to the speaker were intelligent, pertinent, and caring.
They were to spend most of the next two days engaging with children from Neve Michael.
This is not the usual take on Israeli life presented on youth tours, and it followed this group joining other mainly JNF projects around the country; visiting agricultural workers in the Golan; working in greenhouses in the northern Negev; helping farmers in the Gaza border communities whose crops had been torched by Hamas kites; helping clean rubbish in a Negev Bedouin village; visiting a wastewater treatment center in Tel Aviv; visiting the Syrian border and learning of Israeli humanitarian missions that have saved thousands of Syrian lives. There were plenty of fun elements as well, but the volunteering was the main focus of this group.
“I think if you are a Jew in the Diaspora, you grow up learning about Israel, a certain type of Israel, an ideal,” Maor Perry, educator at the AMHSI and guide for the teens on this tour, told The Jerusalem Report. “Here you get to see the challenges and the other side of Israel, the other side of the coin.
Most of them aren’t summer camp kids. We find these kids in their schools, in their Jewish communities. We’re looking for people who want to do something else.”
“The Polish kids – mostly from Warsaw, but two are from near Katowice – behave differently and have other interests than your typical American teenager. They are interested in different things.”
Basia Monka, a 41-year-old former Polish TV presenter who moved to live in Israel four years ago, was accompanying the tour, acting as a guide and translator for the Polish students.
“There are many [Polish] people who discover their Jewish roots only when they are a teenager, or older,” Basia explained, “but I grew up in a 100 percent Jewish family and was involved in a typical Jewish life.
I wondered how modern-day Poles truly view Israel? “There are a lot of Polish tourists here nowadays,” said Basia. “If you walk on the beach in Tel Aviv, you can hear a lot of Polish.
They have great respect for the hi-tech, and now [due to the opening up of low-cost flights to Israel] it’s a popular beach destination.
But also, for the last 20 years there is a huge Jewish culture festival in Krakow, and there is also the Singer Festival in Warsaw, and the Warsaw Yiddish theater, one of the few in Europe that has existed throughout the years.
“I think the problem in Israel,” continued Basia, “is that they only see Poland through the concentration camp lens. Most Polish people have respect for Israel, and for Jews.
Of course, there are pockets of antisemitism; I experienced antisemitism, but that doesn’t mean that all Poles are antisemites.
The Polish news, in general, is much more pro-Israel than, say, the French news or the BBC.”
So what about the teenagers themselves, experiencing not only a different take on life in Israel, but also encountering Jewish youth from another culture? “I think people come to Israel for the history,” 16-year-old Noah from Ventura, California told me. “Being Jews, they come to experience the Jewishness of Israel, but there’s so much more to it than that. I’m more interested in the people than the history.
The history is important, but current events and the people of Israel today are much more interesting.”
“I’m only 13 and there aren’t a lot of programs for my age,” said Natalia from Long Island, New York. “A lot of people tend to underestimate me, and I thought this was a really good opportunity. I’ve been here on holiday before doing touristy things, but I really wanted to volunteer and understand what Israel is about and meet the real people who actually live here.”
“When me and my mom heard about [this tour], we started to check it out,” Roy (15) from Warsaw told me. “I hadn’t read the program before the trip but I knew it was more about helping. It’s just so nice to go to a farm where there have been fires and leave there with a smile on the farmer’s face. It was really special.”
“I think a lot of the time the main focus [when talking about Israel] is the political issues with the Palestinians and the Arab nations,” suggested Adam (16), from Manhattan, New York. “You get distracted from the issues that are present in Israel, such as the rising prices, kids from broken homes.
People don’t know there is real poverty here like most other places. This trip is not for every kid, it’s for a certain type.”
“When we were in Sderot [near Gaza], there were bomb shelters on every corner, but the city is still building and getting bigger. It showed Israeli resilience,” noted Sophie (16), from New York. “Their playground was the bomb shelter. It was as if they were saying that Israel is here and we’re not going to leave because of a few bombs. We’re going to stop the bombs and have a good life.”
Morris (16), from Warsaw, found being away from the population centers particularly inspiring and it has made him think about his future. “Kibbutz Ketura was my highlight,” he said. “I just loved being in the desert. This is my first trip here. My mom told me many things about Israel over the years. For sure, I think Israel is a place I’d like to be.”
My conversation with this engaging group moved on to the subject of being Jewish back home, and how, in particular in Poland, Israel is perceived.
“Many people in Poland are scared about Israel,” suggested 16-year-old Agatha, from Warsaw, “but nothing antisemitic has ever happened to me in Poland.”
Sixteen-year-old Jacob had an interesting take on the subject.
“I don’t go to a Jewish school because I live in a small village close to the city of Katowice. I don’t tell people I’m Jewish – only four or five of my friends know I’m Jewish. When I told people I’m going to Israel, some of my other friends said to me, “You're not a religious Catholic so why are you going there?” “Maybe when you live in a big city, when you have a Jewish community, it’s easier to say you are Jewish. In Poland, every family lost somebody in WWII, so it’s not easy to talk about this.”
Roy added that his public non-Jewish high school had offered a trip to Israel this summer but only a handful of kids said they would go and the idea was dropped. Parents had been frightened to send their kids to a “war zone.” Fifteen-year-old Marcel, also from Warsaw, gave his experience of being Jewish in Poland that reflected the general experience of the other nine Poles on the Roots Israel tour.
“Being Jewish in Poland for me is not hard. In my case I haven’t met any problems.
I used to go to a Jewish school and now I go to a regular public school. I really like Poland – of course I’ve never lived anywhere else – but it’s comfortable living in Warsaw. It has a good atmosphere. In my opinion people think about Poland from the prism of what happened nearly 80 years ago. It was another time. It was war. I haven’t experienced antisemitism.”
Then the American kids stepped up and offered their experiences of antisemitism, something I hadn’t anticipated. Virtually all of them, contrary to the Polish teens, suggested they have encountered antisemitism in the US at some time or other.
Fifteen-year-old Teddy, from Brooklyn, New York, said he’d one day like to join the IDF as a medic, before going on to relate his experience back home.
“I wear a yarmulke every time I go to New York City,” he said, after telling of how he has encountered antisemitism on a number of occasions. “I would like someone to tell me why they hate me. I’m proud to be Jewish.
I don’t wear [a yarmulke] here because I already feel so connected. I wouldn’t move here because of the discrimination – I would want to stay there because of the discrimination, so that if anything were to happen in Brooklyn I’d be there to stand up for my country and my religion. I would think of moving to Israel, but definitely not because of antisemitism.”
“There are so many different cultures in the United States, and Americans are pretty discriminatory against everyone else. I don’t know why, it’s not just Jewish people,” said Casey from Jacksonville, Florida.
“If I was to pursue my Jewish culture, I would definitely come here.”
“One time I was on my way to a bar mitzvah and a lady started yelling at me asking why I wasn’t Christian. I felt really threatened.
I was just a kid,” related Leo, from Orange County, California.
This unusual blend of Jewish teenagers from Poland and the United States traveled together for three weeks on a tour that most suggested had made a lasting impression. It made them consider their Jewishness, their Jewish roots, and the life lived by everyday Israelis.
I’m often cynical, but I left the Roots Israel tour group genuinely impressed by the idea of the experience itself and the caliber of the young people I met. I also left with a new take on the life of young Jews in Poland, and, worryingly for that matter, on how antisemitism in the US is perceived by the teenagers I met to be more of an issue for some Jewish youth than it might have been in years before.

Paul Alster is an Israel-based journalist. Follow him on Twitter @paul_alster and visit his website: www.paulalster.com