What could possibly go wrong for the young leaders tasked with the responsibility of looking after the 1,200 16-year-olds taking UJIA Israel Experience tours in Israel this summer. For Mancunian Lindsay Weisberg, 21, “the worst thing that could ever happen to me as a tour leader would be, God forbid, if I lose a child. Can you imagine?”
Weisberg is one of 70 leaders being prepared by UJIA for their rather different Israel experience of being in charge of groups of 30 teens, many abroad without family for the first time.
Another is Nick Gee, 20, from FZY, whose concerns are more health-oriented. “My worst case scenario is someone could get dehydrated or ill and we have to deal with that.”
Bnei Akiva’s Robert Sher, 21, recounts a horror story told by a friend who led a tour group last year which was “taken to a beach they thought was safe. One of the participants swam out too far and the tour leaders had to save him. It was fine but my friend spent an hour crying to his mum that night.”
To prepare for all eventualities, the training programme is conducted over a four month period and involves 13 youth movements, who select the leaders in partnership with UJIA (the tours are organised by the Jewish Agency with UJIA support). The idea is that proper preparation and the leaders drawing on their own experience as tour group members will see them through their unpaid challenge. As UJIA director of informal education and Israel engagement Anthony Ashworth-Steen explains, the training runs the gamut from welfare and emergency essentials to an understanding of Zionism. “They also explore Jewish diversity, non-Jews in Israel and the Arab-Israeli and Palestinian-Israeli conflict. And we cover the big six sites they will visit.”
A key element will be a pre-tour visit to Israel. “This is where they will get ideas for programmes and meet the organisers. Each two tour leaders get two Israeli organisers who will accompany their tour for the whole time. One of them acts as a tour guide, the other is in charge of medical and welfare needs.They are a few years older than the tour leaders and more experienced to deal with problems if they arise. It [the pre-trip] makes what they are about to do much more real and gives them a place to work out everything before they are thrown in at the deep end.”
Sher reasons that “the fact we’ve all been on tour before means we know what it is like to be them. We know what they will worry about and we can support them. And more importantly, we know the tricks.”
Gee agrees, explaining: “I think the main thing we will have to worry about is them skipping curfew. I remember when I was on tour we had a curfew and no matter what the time is, at 16 you just want to skip that. Even if they have a 4am sleep time, they will want to stay up till 6am because that is what you do.
“I’m not looking forward to getting up in the middle of the night if they are not asleep. But I guess that is our punishment for having done it ourselves. Now we have to experience it from the other end. At the end of the day, we are there to educate them about Israel, look after them and make sure they have fun. We are not there to be an authority on top of them 24/7.”
Sher adds: “We need to accept they are mature enough to know the boundaries and come up with their own values that we as tour leaders can help them build on.”
Weisberg believes prior involvement in youth group activity gives tour participants a higher level of maturity than many of their age.
“Most of them will have been away from home for a longer period than just a sleepover at their friend’s house down the road. They will have done camps and be able to deal with it much better than your everyday 16-year-old.”
She wants to show her tour group that Israel “is not just sun, sand and ice cream. There is so much more, the culture and society. They might not know the diversity within Israeli society. You hear a lot about the negatives. As tour leaders we have the opportunity to educate the young ones about the side of it they don’t hear. For me tour was one of the first times I had thought about Israel education. I don’t want to load information and opinions on my group. I want to encourage them to talk and debate within themselves to make it a mutual learning experience.”
Gee highlights the opportunity to acquire valuable life skills post GCSE study. “It provides kids with the opportunity to grow as human beings. Something I learnt on tour was you are not necessarily going to get on with everyone all the time, but you have to learn to get along. That is important because in our future careers that is going to be the case.”