It's that time of year again. Some 1,200 teenagers are gearing up for a busy month in the Holy Land.
Tour is a rite of passage for most Jewish teenagers in Britain. Four weeks are spent criss-crossing Israel, hiking and staying in kibbutzim from the Negev to the Galilee. It's a furious, at times Darwinian social environment. Warily at first, but with growing enthusiasm, the different Anglo-Jewish tribes start to interact with each other. Chirpy lads from Leeds mix with JFS girls from Hendon, spiky-haired Stanmore boys cast their eye over previously unseen talent from Hampstead Garden Suburb. It can be tough for the less socially adept but on the whole it is good fun and a chance to find out that there is more to Israel than the mega-hotels of Eilat.
Of course, the experience is intended to be educational as well as social. Participants may come away with increased affection for the country and a desire to return. Many will have developed their Jewish and Zionist identities without even realising it. In this sense, tour will have achieved at least part of its mission.
But whether it intends to or not, tour treats Israel as a vast holiday camp. Hordes of youths are whisked around in coaches, from Yad Vashem to Ben Gurion's grave at Sde Boker. The country seems like a heritage theme park: hike along an ancient river-trail one day, walk round the Old City the next. Undoubtedly an interesting journey, but ultimately for the participants - thrust into a fierce melting pot of teenage Anglo-Jewry - Israel is little more than a backdrop to a social marathon. Coming in at close to £3,000, one wonders if the money might be better spent.
It is natural that the experience should be a fiercely social one. But why not channel some of the enthusiasm into building relationships with actual Israelis, not just the monuments and the landscape? How much more enriching it would be if the participants came home with Israeli friends, whom they could easily stay in touch with online, or visit? Surely more important, long-term, than meeting fellow Brits whom they would probably encounter at university anyway?
The same problem applies to the year course schemes run by youth movements. School-leavers spend almost an entire year (and more than £10,000) in Israel, yet many return with not a single Israeli friend and barely enough Hebrew to order a drink in a bar.
How might this be improved? Not by abolishing tour or year course but by reorientating them, perhaps by introducing more prominent aspects of exchange or work experience. Not 20 Brits living together on a kibbutz, but one or two living and integrating with Israelis. Movements could offer cut-price programmes with less official direction, allowing participants to explore Israel under their own steam, as they would if they backpacked elsewhere. Youth movements have attempted this, for example FZY with the recently introduced special-interest week on tour, where participants can, say, spend time with Magen David Adom. But a more radical move in this direction would be beneficial.
This issue is representative of a larger problem with British Jewry's relationship to Israel. In many ways, this bond is very strong. Politically, there are influential groups such as Bicom. There is a thriving business relationship and a firm charitable one. Israel is key religiously and culturally for many Jews in Britain, and many spend substantial time reading about Israel, discussing it and visiting. But, for the most part, it is not a close social relationship.
Those who do not have friends or family in Israel (and many do) may interact with the idea of the country on a daily basis but, with the reality, hardly at all. They might visit yearly but do so ensconced in overpriced hotels or on the beach with fellow Brits.
The imbalance between the idea and the reality matters. A relationship based on religion and business and politics is a strange friendship, more about mutual interest than mutual affection. One way to address this would be to use the formative youth trips to start building friendships. That way we might all get to know each other a little better.