Having spent many happy years teaching at the Alexander Muss High School in Israel and guiding for Taglit/Birthright (for both“CIE” and “Amazing Israel”) since its inception, I can safely state that nothing replaces an experience!
It does not matter how many classes one attends, how many great films one sees, or inspirational speakers one hears outside of Israel; one doesn’t “get it” until one has the sensory experience inside the country on the land itself. In order to fully benefit from what sociologist Shaul Kelner refers to as a “pilgrimage tour” one need to feel the land with all of ones senses; to see it, to touch it, to smell it, to hear and to taste it. One cannot passively do this from a distance but one has to actively walk the land with ones feet and embrace it with both an open heart and an open mind in order to gain the maximum benefit from such an experience.
A couple of summers ago I was guiding a tour group in the Ellah Valley, just past Beit Shemesh, where the seminal confrontation between David and Goliath forever altered the course of Jewish history. The group was the Fellowship Program of Manhattan Jewish Experience (MJE). It was a small group of young-professionals, who despite largely coming from backgrounds of little or no Jewish connection, had voluntarily spent the past year studying Jewish texts twice-a-week at the MJE and connecting to their heritage. The culmination of their year is the experiential trip to Israel.
The group had already learned text of David and Goliath from the biblical book of Samuel, but now they were standing at the very place where the actual events took place! After I lead a role-playing of the text with a lot of enthusiastic participation from the participants/actors, and played a contemporary musical version of the battle from the popular Israeli group “Kaveret,” the group Rabbi, Pinny Rosenthal, took out his guitar and following the standard rendition of “David Melech Yisrael Chai Vekayam” (“David, King of Israel, lives!”) smoothly slipped into the wedding version of the popular song. Spontaneously, two wildly dancing circles formed and celebrated on the very same dusty ground the victorious Israelites had rejoiced on three millennia previously!
The following evening in Jerusalem, maybe stimulated by the joyous scenes from the previous day, two of the participants from the group announced their engagement, thus perpetuating their link in the chain of Jewish continuity.