Postpone Israeli trips to Poland to a later age - opinion

This may not be a bad thing: Perhaps we can use this “off-time” to think about whether “Israeli children” – those were his words – should be going to Poland in the first place.

 PARTICIPANTS IN the March of the Living at Auschwitz-Birkenau, May 2019: The educational and emotional benefits of a well-designed visit to Poland can be huge, says the writer.  (photo credit: YOSSI ZELIGER/FLASH90)
PARTICIPANTS IN the March of the Living at Auschwitz-Birkenau, May 2019: The educational and emotional benefits of a well-designed visit to Poland can be huge, says the writer.
(photo credit: YOSSI ZELIGER/FLASH90)

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid dropped a bombshell last week when he canceled upcoming Israeli high school trips to Poland, saying, “They [the Poles] won’t tell us what to teach Israeli children.” Until the two governments work it out, the trips are on hold. This may not be a bad thing: Perhaps we can use this “off-time” to think about whether “Israeli children” – those were his words – should be going to Poland in the first place

“They [the Poles] won’t tell us what to teach Israeli children.”

Yair Lapid

Note: my question is not if young people should visit Poland. The educational and emotional benefits of a well-designed visit to Poland can be huge. Indeed, when the Israeli government and the founders of the March of the Living (MOTL) decided in 1988 to create the trips, they had great foresight: the trips have been powerful identity tools for a generation of young Jews. However, the world is changing rapidly. People are changing. Perhaps we should reevaluate the trips’ timing? 

There is little doubt that teens have changed over the last 10-20 years: Their attention spans are shorter. They are more easily distracted. There is more stress, anxiety, eating disorders and depression than ever – at younger and younger ages. Many young people seem, at least, less mature than in the past. 

Research seems to back the idea that growing up is slowing down. As the BBC reports, “At the end of the teens... maturation of the brain is far from complete.” Frank Furedi, professor of sociology at the University of Kent, explained that today, “adolescence extends into your late twenties.” Similarly, CBS News cited a peer-reviewed study in child development which found that “US teenagers are maturing more slowly than past generations.”

It is unclear why this is happening, but it is happening. Columbia University’s Dr. Mirjana Domakonda summarized the literature on the subject: “Twenty-five is the new 18, and delayed adolescence is no longer a theory, but a reality.”

 A HOLOCAUST SURVIVOR holds a Torah as he arrives at the entrance to Auschwitz for the annual March of the Living marking Holocaust Remembrance Day in May. (credit: KACPER PEMPEL/REUTERS) A HOLOCAUST SURVIVOR holds a Torah as he arrives at the entrance to Auschwitz for the annual March of the Living marking Holocaust Remembrance Day in May. (credit: KACPER PEMPEL/REUTERS)

Visiting the death camps is hard for anyone and requires significant emotional maturity. It is not clear that it is the right thing to do with all (or even most) young people today. What is the goal, exactly? Are we still achieving it? Most importantly, for our purposes: Are high schoolers today ready? 

I asked MOTL this question explicitly and await a response. When I asked the Education Ministry, they directed me to a study based on participants from 2009 – which begs the question: what about 2022?

From what I am told from guides and trip leaders, it seems clear that the “effectiveness” of teen trips to Poland is more of a question than it was 10 or 15 years ago. Veteran guide Raphael Klatzko told me, “Let’s be honest: For many teens today, going to Poland is not super-effective… I suggest taking people who are a little more serious about life, which is not the majority of teens.”

“Let’s be honest: For many teens today, going to Poland is not super-effective… I suggest taking people who are a little more serious about life, which is not the majority of teens.”

Raphael Klatzko

I asked Rabbi Shmuel Lynn, the director of Olami Manhattan, who has extensive experience in the area. Worldwide, Olami has brought thousands of Jewish college students and young professionals to Poland (and, for purposes of comparison, tens of thousands to Israel). They focus on college students and young professionals. 

Why?

He explained to me that “the power of the trip requires a modicum of maturity… participants need to be able to process the experience and put it into the context of their lives: who are they, what will their family be like, what will they pass on to the next generation? The teen trips existent today are important for identity. That being said, in an ideal world, for a hard experience like this, the more maturity the better.”

MY POINT is that perhaps the whole Poland trip experience can wait a few years, allowing participants to mature a bit. The trips can be organized for Israeli soldiers and/or students (today only a small percentage of soldiers go). Similarly, perhaps the MOTL trips can also be “updated” to focus on college students: “Birthright Poland.”

Would this conflict with Birthright Israel? No. The two trips (to Poland and Israel) would strengthen each other. Perhaps Birthright Israel can even be involved, with Poland being a kind of follow-up program to the main Israel trip. 

Note that today, both MOTL and Israeli high school trips require payment from parents, which not everyone can do. That should end. The Holocaust is part of who we are and it is the right of every Jew to “witness” it, so to speak, regardless of financial means. The State of Israel and philanthropists worldwide can and should fund the trips. As we’ve seen with Birthright Israel, the payback is much larger than the investment.

Sound crazy? Too complicated? Too expensive? Not Zionist enough? 

Perhaps. 

However, when, in 1994, Dr. Yossi Beilin first suggested the concept of a free trip to Israel for every young Diaspora Jew, the idea was seen as crazy, too complicated, too expensive and, incredibly, not Zionist enough. Today, Birthright Israel is one of the most widely supported programs (and budget items) in the Jewish world. Roughly 50,000 young Jews go for free every year – over 750,000 so far! Birthright is a big operation.

In comparison, this suggestion (delaying the Poland trips a few years) is much less of a paradigm shift than Beilin’s original idea: Trips to Poland already happen and they are shorter and far cheaper than the Israel trips. We do not need to reinvent the wheel, just adjust it a bit. 

Perhaps the decrease in maturity noted in teens is not as significant as some think. Or, perhaps delaying the trip a few years is more costly or complicated than it seems. Still, at a minimum, can we rethink the timing to make sure this core part of Jewish identity-building is being “offered” in the most effective way possible?

The writer is a veteran Jewish educator and bestselling author of Why Be Jewish (Mosaica Press).