For most British teenagers, a one-month tour of Israel at the age of 16 is a rite of passage. For some, the experience marks their first visit to the Jewish state. For others, it is a chance to renew acquaintance with Israel — social and tanning opportunities included — after completing their GCSEs.
The tour experience has been on offer for 60 years and is today orchestrated by the various youth movements under the aegis of UJIA, which provides a range of support. Tours are tailored to the participating groups, catering to all from the secular to the Orthodox. Bnei Akiva, FZY, BBYO and RSY-Netzer are among the 10 movements represented by this year’s 1,215 tour-goers.
The light-hearted divide is clear. BBYOers accuse FZYniks of being “so becky”. FZYniks say the BA teens are “too frum”. And the strong allegiance to their respective groups is evident as they descend from coaches, chanting movement anthems with commendable ruach (spirit).
In Jerusalem, two FZY tour groups meet on their way to the City of David. Friends who have been apart for all of four days leap into each other’s arms with high-pitched squeals. Moments later, the madrichim (leaders) separate the groups and the newly-divided loudly attempt to out-sing the competition. “Tour, tour, tour, tour, tour… Tour Seven!” generates the greatest decibels.
“It’s amazing,” says FZYnik Natalie Chaplin, a Watford Grammar girl. “I’ve never been to Israel before but I expected a good time, bad food, a spiritual connection and a tan — I’ve got them all. Oh, and Tour Two is the best,” she adds before running off to join her comrades.
Medical student and FZY Israeli madrich Dor Atias, 23, looks on approvingly. “For us Israelis, it’s amazing to see the British students come here and connect with their Jewish identity,” he says. “They come to Israel and are independent for the first time. As time goes on, they start to feel less self-conscious and grow together.”
Former Stanmore boy Sam Sank, 22, a second-time madrich who has now made aliyah, says he will try “to influence and strengthen their identity. I do this out of love for Israel. Some have never seen the Kotel before and others have never been to Israel. It’s the most amazing experience for them.”
For many, the group becomes their family for the summer. With only sporadic digital contact from their parents and abroad alone for the first time, sibling-like relationships form between friends and with madrichim.
“This group is the craziest wildest family you have ever met,” declares Yavneh College pupil Amy Sharer, on tour with BBYO. “I fell down Masada during the hike and was on crutches. But I wasn’t left out once — the madrichim and all my friends made sure I wasn’t excluded,” she adds before proudly showing off a gift from tour leaders. “When we arrived they gave us necklaces with our names in Hebrew — it’s so nice. And it’s also great that they’re so close in age to us.”
Amy Hart, also from BBYO, has not felt homesick. “I only called my parents once — and that was because they paid for my ticket. If I was ever upset — which I wasn’t — the madrichim and my friends were here.”
Their madricha, Sophie Berkin, 20, says: “The group have really bonded. This experience is not just about seeing Israel. They have learnt a lot and are making friends for the rest of their lives. They feel part of something bigger.”
It is a sentiment supported by Watford Grammar student Rob Angel, who is running for BBYO national president this year. “Tour is a great way to meet Jewish people, especially as I’m not at a Jewish school,” he says. “When we went to the opening ceremony of the Maccabiah Games, I felt really proud to be Jewish. And the President of Israel definitely waved at me!”
For Ethan Herman, who is also contesting BBYO national office, tour differs greatly from family visits to Israel. “My parents avoided seeing everything. I’d never been to Ein Gedi or a Bedouin tent. This experience is very different.”
Although camel riding in the south, snorkelling in Eilat and kayaking down the Jordan River form a fun part of the itinerary, trips to Holocaust memorial museum Yad Vashem and military cemetery Mount Hertzl are integral to appreciating the serious side of Israeli history. Even though around 70 per cent of Jewish students in the UK go through Jewish schools, the tour groups receive a bespoke education. And the impact is often emotional.
“My main role is to educate them, establish a connection to Israel rather than just Judaism,” explains FZY madrich Omri Elani, a 23-year-old former JFS student, who is leading a seminar preparing students for their imminent visit to Yad Vashem.
“Some say they have been to Yad Vashem before and don’t want to go again, but there’s always something new to learn. I tell them to educate other members of the group and share what they know with people who have never been. I try to make it more accessible for them — for instance, you’ve just heard an artist rap about the Holocaust.”
Thanks to UJIA’s partnership programmes with areas in the north of Israel, many Israeli teenagers join the British tour groups. Sitting in the FZY Yad Vashem preparation seminar are Israeli Adi Dolev and Briton Saskia Feldman, both 16 and Yad Vashem first-timers.
“The organisers said it would be good for the British people to see what teenagers are like in Israel,” Adi says. “They have asked me questions about my life in Israel, keeping kosher and going into the army. It’s hard to always speak in English, but I do my best.”
Saskia, a Mill Hill High pupil, is “really interested in the lifestyle and growing up in Israel, so I’ve been asking Adi lots of questions”. She says the tour has changed her perception of Judaism. “I’m Reform and don’t go to a Jewish school so I’m not used to being around so many Jewish people. I’m really surprised to see some people here who are Orthodox and dress normally. It’s teaching me a lot and I’m hoping to increase my Jewish circle of friends. I was nervous about it being ‘cliquey’ before I came — and it was for the first couple of days. But now we’ve all come out of our shell.”
On the Yad Vashem visit, a number of the teenagers put on their sunglasses to help disguise the tears. Adi describes the experience as “hard to bear and emotional — especially seeing stories of all the children who were killed”.
Fellow group member Sam Helfgott, a UCS student, also finds the experience difficult. He says: “It’s quite personal for me because my grandpa [Polish survivor Ben Helfgott who went on to represent Great Britain in weightlifting] and his sister were the sole survivors from their family during the Holocaust. It’s hard because I love spending time with my family and to know what could have materialised upsets me.
“When I’m older, I see myself as having an obligation to educate on the Holocaust because when there are no more survivors, it will be easier for people to deny it.”
Another UCS boy, Jack Green, says that visiting Yad Vashem is “the best Holocaust education I’m going to get. I came on tour to learn and have an amazing time with my five best friends.” Also from UCS, Max Beecham says the trip has already impacted on his identity. “I’m pushing to be a better Jew. My dad had to convert to Reform because my mother wasn’t Jewish and he didn’t like the way she was treated [by the Orthodox]. But I’m slowly changing to Orthodox because it speaks to me more than Reform.
“I’ve been to Israel before with family, but I’m excited to see it in a different light,” he adds, casting an admiring glance at Israeli girls in IDF uniforms.
The Yad Vashem experience was equally affecting for students at Jewish schools. “I learnt a lot from Yad Vashem,” says Hasmonean pupil and BA tour member Gadi Melcher. “It’s different when you’re at the place and learning about the heroes who helped the Jews.”
Also with BA, Immanuel College pupil Oscar Wagner describes the museum as a “turning point. You get to understand it more and the terrible things that happened. I would definitely encourage more people to come on tour. It’s education with a fun twist.”
However, the tour is a less positive experience for some. JFS student Jake Marlowe (BBYO) “enjoyed the activities like snorkelling, but wanted to go home a few times. But everyone else had a good time, so I would still recommend it.”
But he, too, was moved by Yad Vashem. “It’s definitely different to learning about the Holocaust at school. You got to see something first-hand.
“We watched a video of a survivor who met his wife at a concentration camp, and they promised to marry each other if they got out. It showed that there is light at the end of the tunnel.”
UJIA fundraising director David Goldberg acknowledges that the Israel Experience is “unashamedly Zionist — a bastion of Zionism in the community. This tour is a connection to Israel and a central component to Jewish identity. The chanachim [tour members] are going on to be the future representatives of their communities, supporting communal activities and Israel.”
For some families, the tours, costing an average £2,700, are unaffordable without financial support. This year, one-in-five participants received a bursary towards the cost from UJIA via an independent committee process, with a total outlay of £190,000. In addition, UJIA provides youth movements with £210,000 of core funding and assists with legal and financial planning.
Annabelle Lancaster has never been to Israel before. She received her bursary three days before the FZY group flew out. “My mum is a single mum and applied for a bursary, but at first we didn’t get the one we needed,” she explains.
“I thought it was a sign that I was not supposed to go, but my mum fought for me and we got the call. We had to run out and go shopping because I had no summer clothes — I didn’t think I was going anywhere this summer.”
The JFS girl adds: “My best friend loved her time on FZY. She was telling me all about the Kotel, scuba diving and amazing activities. I want to get the experience as a whole — the religious and the fun side.”
David Goldberg stresses that the leaders are key to the programme’s success. “All the madrichim are volunteers. They are amazing. Without them these tours simply would not happen.”
BA madricha Ella Polden, 23, a Leeds University student, says her time on the UJIA leadership seminar in London and Israel “definitely helped”. Leading a tour “is exhausting and sometimes it’s tricky when it comes to having a fun relationship yet also having to discipline them.
“But to all be here in Israel together is an amazing feeling. Our group has bonded really well and there’s a great atmosphere. I’m so proud of them.”
On her second visit to Israel and in her last week of tour, BBYO member Gabby Lawrence would “now say Israel is my second home. We’re all one family on tour. Lighting the havdalah candles at the Kotel was so emotional. I just love the spirituality and I’m learning so much here.
“I really don’t want to go home, but we’re having a reunion when we get back.”