It’s been 10 years since I packed a bulging suitcase and boarded an El Al flight to Israel for what had been billed as “a rite of passage”. I went on tour while the second intifada was raging. The summer before, numbers had plunged to just 400, and they took years to bounce back.
Many teenagers have since gone on Birthright trips or visited independently but it is a shame so many missed out when they were 16. For the post-GCSE Israel trip is one of the crucial milestones in the life of a young Jew.
Certainly, the educational aspect is lost on the majority; on their summer holiday, teens don’t have the greatest desire to learn about the Balfour Declaration.
The trips may be run by Zionist youth movements, but plenty return with a love for Israel based solely on “Eilat trousers” and Bamba. For most, the experience rests on friendships forged and romances begun.
Nonetheless, even if all a teenager takes away is memories of singing under the stars in the Negev, the value of the experience should not be underestimated. For those not at Jewish schools, or who live outside north London and Manchester, it may be their first chance to meet many Jews their own age.
And whether they are conscious of it or not, they will have built a connection with Israel, Judaism, and the wider British community. They will have lit candles on Shabbat with their peers and they learned something about the Jewish story.
You cannot ensure the community’s future in four weeks – but it’s a start. Not every teenager who goes will want to maintain their Jewish connection. But others will go on to participate in communal life and advocate for Israel.
A few will even end up under the chupah with someone they met kayaking on Kinneret.