What is happening with Israel Tour?

The JC speaks to youth movements and parents about the dilemma of whether to take 16-year-olds to Israel this summer


A previous Israel tour, organised by UJIA (Photo: UJIA)

For many Jewish teenagers, going on Israel tour is as significant a rite-of-passage as their bar or bat mitzvah was three or four years earlier.

However, October 7 and the war in Gaza have left many parents feeling anxious about sending their children on what is frequently billed as “a trip of a lifetime”.

By the same token, some youth movements are feeling torn between trying to fulfil their Zionist ideologies while also attempting to respond to the concerns of parents — and, in some cases, teenagers too.

So, perhaps it is unsurprising that half as many 16-year-olds have signed up to organised Israel tours this summer compared to last year.

In July 2023, over 1,200 teenagers went to Israel, whereas current application figures stand at 600.

While some youth movements are continuing with their regular programming, others have modified or postponed trips to the Jewish state this year, offering alternative destinations.

Organisations such as FYZ, Bnei Akiva, Ezra Boys, Ezra Girls, Sinai Youth and Tribe will be going to Israel as usual.

Some movements, including JLGB and BBYO, are not going to Israel and are instead offering trips elsewhere, while Habonim-Dror and Noam have altered their Israel tour to include some time in Europe instead of three weeks in Israel.

Secondary schools JFS and JCoSS, which traditionally offer an Israel trip to Year 9 pupils, are replacing the experience with alternative destinations.

Adam Waters, director of UJIA Israel Experience, the umbrella organisation overseeing young people’s trips to Israel, told the JC he was “delighted” that nearly 600 young people had signed up to Israel tour this year, and they understood that the decision to apply “may have been difficult for some families”.

Waters added: “Whilst the application deadline has passed, UJIA Israel Experience and the youth movements will do all we can to accommodate late applicants wherever possible.”

He said that bursaries and payment by instalments were available for participants of Israel tours or trips with an Israel element.

Over 300 young people have signed up to FZY’s Israel tour this year, and despite being lower than the “record-breaking numbers” from the summer of 2023, FZY says there remains a demand from its membership to create “safe and meaningful opportunities for them in Israel”.

An FZY spokesperson told the JC that while they understood the concerns of parents, their schedules for all programmes are approved by the cheder matzav, Israel tours’ situation room, and other security partners.

They said: “Whilst the agencies who provide us with detailed safety and security guidance for our trips to Israel state that it is safe to travel there, we are not considering alternative trips elsewhere.

“As a Zionist youth movement, FZY feels strongly that it is important to show our support to Israel during these challenging times and for our membership to be better educated on the realities of the current situation.”

Bnei Akiva’s Israel tour, which is in July, is promoted as being “more important this year than ever before”. This year, there will be a large focus on volunteering initiatives and working with displaced families, which each group of between 30 and 38 teenagers being assigned its own armed guard to “both serve as role model as well as support” participants.

A mother, who is sending their youngest to Israel with Bnei Akiva this summer, told the JC it was “100 per cent” the decision of her son, saying: “Many of us have experienced Israel tour as a rite of passage. It is such fun, and mostly everyone my son knows is also going. But I’ll be holding my breath for three weeks.”

Another parent, who is sending a child on an Israel tour for the first time, said they were doing so “nervously”.
She said: “There are some parents I know who are not even giving it a thought; for them, it is definite and a no-brainer. For me, I’m surprised by their zeal. Israel will still be there next year for those who are uncertain.”

One parent, whose older child went to Israel with FZY in the past and whose youngest won’t be going on tour this summer, told the JC that the decision was “teen-led, but one we were quite content with”.

She said: “The decision was not due to any kind of personal or ideological affiliation. It’s just that our daughter and her friends said they felt very anxious about going to Israel at this time, which we felt was a completely valid anxiety.”

Despite having “more than 20 family members and very close connections” to Israel, the parent said: “I’m not sure if the coming-of-age, fun experience, which is a part of what Israel tour is, is very appropriate in what is effectively a warzone with a humanitarian crisis on its border.”

The teenager is now joining the BBYO tour of Europe, which “sounds fantastic, and her best friend from shul is also going”, said her mother.

BBYO this year made “the difficult decision” to not run Israel tour this year over concerns that they “cannot guarantee a safe and well-rounded trip in the current environment”.

BBYO told the JC that the decision was arrived at after consulting with their parent network, who had a “reasonably overwhelming preference to run an alternative programme. Given the lack of demand from customers but also the fact that current Foreign Office guidelines warn against unnecessary travel to Israel, we weren’t comfortable moving forward with Israel tour under those circumstances.”

Noam, administered by Masorti Judaism, is “in light of the tragedy of October 7 and the unfolding turmoil and unrest”, adapting their Year 11 summer programme to include 10 days in Europe followed by a week in Israel.

Their “Nesiya” programme reflects the “wants and needs of our community” and ensures the “safeguarding of our chanichim (participants) and madrichim (leaders)”.

Participants will “trace the story of Zionism in the diaspora” in Prague, Budapest, and Krakow before going to Israel to focus on “making a positive impact through volunteering and collaborating with local communities”.

Habonim-Dror’s Habo Tour ‘24 will also be offering a trip to Europe followed by Israel, where young people “will get to actualise their values by volunteering and experiencing immersive learning”. An option for those only wishing to travel to Europe, in the cities of Prague, Budapest, and Vienna, will also be on offer.

RSY-Netzer will not be going to Israel this year due to insufficient demand for the programme. Instead, the Reform youth movemement will be bringing year 11s to Prague, Vienna, and Budapest in August.

LJY-Netzer, meanwhile, will offer Year 11s a chance to join Year 12s on a tour of three cities across Andalusia in Spain to learn about Sephardic Jewish history and Jewish life in Spain.

Movement worker Mia Harris said: “LJY-Netzer Israel tour is a life changing experience, and although we are not able to run it this year, we are committed to ensuring our Year 11s don’t miss out. So, in the summer of 2025, our Israel tour will be open to them as well as those currently in the year below.”

JLGB, Jewish Lads’ and Girls’ Brigade, the UK’s oldest Jewish youth movement, will this year not be organising a trip to Israel. Instead, they have over 50 Year 11s signed up for their Europe tour.

JFS, who normally oversee a three-week Israel programme for Year 9 students, will not be arranging it this year. Abi Keene, director of Jewish Life at JFS told the JC: “In keeping with other Jewish schools, JFS is unfortunately unable to run trips to Israel this year. We know how positive such educational opportunities are for our students, the school is exploring trips to Europe to take place in the summer term.”

JCoSS is taking their Year 9 group to New York in the summer term. Debbie Juggler, the school’s director of Jewish learning, said: “We wanted to create a programme that focused on Jewish life and showcase a community where a wide range of Jewish culture and religious practices permeate the lives of the Jews that live there.”

A mother, who said her daughter was not going on Israel tour this summer, said the decision was reached “out of pragmatism and not ill will”.

She said: “There’s always mild uneasiness for security reasons; we’re used to that. But I think, this year, it is jarring to send your child to a country which is at war and which has had unbelievable trauma in the last few months.

“Them going there to have a nice time, almost oblivious to the fresh wounds that have scarred the country, my friendship group and I decided it wasn’t the right time. My daughter understood that and is excited to visit in a year or two when things settle down.”

However, one parent, whose daughter is going on Israel tour, said that she felt reassured that the groups would be safe.

“I led Israel tour myself about 25 years ago and was struck by the layers of security and leadership which were above me that the kids weren’t even aware of. Every decision was made through the organisation’s situation room, so I trust that my daughter will be in very safe hands this summer.”

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