As a teacher, I love planning school trips. I work at a private school, and trips might be seen as a perk of privilege but our bursary students’ costs are covered, and for them the trips offer one-off, life-changing opportunities. And besides, as I know from my children’s education, every school now offers the chance to travel all over the world.
Most recently I’ve taken 16 students to the Arvon Foundation’s converted barn and farmhouse in Devon. The charity runs wonderful creative writing courses and I’d wanted to do one for years but with four children, term-time restrictions and almost-monthly Jewish holidays, a week away to write was laughable. As a school trip, it’s perfect: inspired by the Arvon tutors, the sleepy, thatched-roofed village and the fields replete with sheep, the students’ imaginations were set free. They loved it so much, I’m running the trip again this autumn to the Shropshire venue. The 16 places filled less than an hour after going live, and the waiting list is long.
In September 2019, I planned a trip to Vietnam. Covid scuppered it, but parents emailed me to say what a shame it was to cancel because Covid would be “long over” by July 2021. It certainly seemed that way back in March 2020 but we were still very much in the thick of it a year ago, with Delta on the rise and Omicron around the corner.
Now I’m thinking of planning a trip to Costa Rica to help save turtles. I’m aware of the irony of flying abroad for a conservation project but I think there are other costs and benefits to bear in mind: travel is immeasurably educational, broadens the mind and fosters empathy. And if you’ve read my novel, How to Save the World with a Chicken and an Egg, you’ll know why that mission is close to my heart.
But the one trip I’ve wanted to do for a while – and the trickiest of all – is to Israel. Our director of spiritual care is a Church of England priest: he and I talked about an Israel trip pre-Covid. Now, we’re discussing it again. We’d love to take a group of students there but, well – it’s Israel. Tensions flare, rockets fall, wars break out and stabbings happen in broad daylight on busy streets.
School groups – even Israeli ones – take valley walks and day trips with armed guards. It’s a trip you plan tentatively, long in advance, aware you may have to cancel it at the last minute. Parents might be twitchy about signing up – even the Jewish ones – and that’s a shame because Israel desperately needs visitors. The unpredictable situation means Israel-bound visitors tend to change plans when it flares up, and this has been going on for years; Israeli businesses that rely on tourism have been badly affected.
I know this first hand. My in-laws’ family shop in Mamilla, Jerusalem, selling handmade silverware embellished with filigree (kiddush cups, Shabbat candlesticks, Chanukah menorahs, mezuzot) struggled during the pandemic, as did many businesses in the country. Some took multiple bank loans to tide them over and while some have survived so far, many haven’t. If there were ever a time to support Israeli businesses, it’s now.
Hence my rethinking the trip. I feel strongly that teens need to see the country first-hand to understand the historic, religious and political situation there. This is especially important when they re-post memes on social media to show allegiance and share outrage without knowing or understanding what it is they’re promoting. Exposing them to worldviews through religious lenses; to Israeli Arabs living in villages alongside Israeli Jews and Druse; to Yad Vashem and the Old City, and to Israel’s varied landscape and diverse demographic will help them understand why land and faith is so deep-rooted in the region. Jews understand the importance of sending our own teenagers to Israel – on Tour, on school trips, on gap years. But it’s important that non-Jewish students go as well.
Surely a trip there is worth the many emails answering parental concerns, and the months of admin and planning – potentially for nothing – if our students have even a chance of experiencing the complexity and power of the Holy Land for themselves. There’s so much to gain. And Israel could sorely do with the visitors.