“Certainly, travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.”
– Miriam Beard
Last week I caught lottery fever, along with most everyone else in the United States. Clutching my tickets in hand, I thought about what I would do with the money if, overnight, I became a billionaire. Or if I had to share the winnings and became merely a multi-multi millionaire.
Beyond securing my own family’s future, winning such a massive sum of money would allow me to finance whatever worthy project I desire.
My dream project? To organize and lead free tours to Israel for local high school teachers.
Every year I am invited to many high school classrooms to speak about Israel, Judaism, or a combination of the two. Without exception every teacher has expressed frank curiosity about Israel and a desire to visit. “It’s on my bucket list”, they say. “But no way can I afford such an expensive trip anytime soon…maybe when I retire.”
I want to take these teachers and show them Israel myself. The earlier in their careers, the better. I know just one non-Jewish high school teacher who has visited Israel. He did so while in college, forty years ago, a trip that still profoundly influences how he teaches Israel and the Middle East.
People whose job it is to educate the next generation should see the Israel that exists outside of soundbites and headlines. A real place, in all it’s messy complexity. A place that must be seen, heard, felt, and experienced to even begin to be understood.
A place that demands nuanced thinking and defies easy answers.
I want these teachers to see that Israel is much more than a story of conflict. It is a fascinating country that’s more diverse and more multi-faceted than what they’ve seen reported by the media or what they might have been taught in college. Every place in the world can be reduced to a caricature. When people go and see a place for themselves, they may still come home with more questions than answers. But their one-dimensional image will be replaced with something infinitely deeper.
What do I imagine the teachers on my dream tour doing? For starters:
Let the world religions teacher stand at the Western Wall listening to Jews pray in every language, while above, the muezzin chants the Muslim call to prayer, and church bells peal nearby.
Let the history teacher stand on Masada, on the Crusader walls at Acre, and in so many other places that tell the tale of this much-conquered land.
Let the political science teacher sit in on a session of the Knesset to see how a multi-ethnic country works out the business of governing itself.
Let all of them see the Western Wall tunnels, the Dead Sea scrolls, and the archeological evidence that documents over three thousand years of Jewish history in the land.
Let these teachers experience geography in a way that they will never forget: Mt. Hermon and the Dead Sea, the Kinneret and the Mediterranean, lush farmland and the Judean desert. All viewable in one day’s drive. Furthermore, Israel’s security challenges will be abundantly clear by the end of that day.
Let the teachers experience Israel by meeting Israelis: Jews and Arabs, Druze and Beduins, new immigrants from France, second generation immigrants from Ethiopia and Russia. Soldiers. Journalists. Kibbutzniks.
While the conflict between Israel and Palestinians cannot and should not be avoided, and the reasons why peace is elusive must be clearly explained, I would still focus on the positive. Let the teachers visit Rawabi, the brand new city that is going up in the West Bank, so that they can see for themselves that there are some Palestinians who envision building an amazing state next to Israel, not in place of it.
Let the teachers visit one of the Hand-in Hand multi-cultural schools to see how Jewish and Arab Israeli children are being taught together in both Hebrew and Arabic. Let them visit Hadassah Hospital and see a medical staff of Jews, Arab Muslims, and Arab Christians treating a melting pot of patients.
And after they have done all of these things and many more, let them have fun. Yes, FUN! Whenever I tell a classroom of teens that Israel is one of the most fun places they could ever visit, they look at me as if I had just sprouted a third ear. So let the teachers check out the world class restaurant and arts scene in Tel Aviv, try hiking the Ramon Crater, or snorkeling in Eilat.
Then let the whole experience sink in, as they travel seven thousand miles, back to Minnesota, back to their classrooms, and back to all the students they will teach in the years ahead….about the Israel they saw with their very own eyes.
Forget the yachts and private planes. If I ever win the lottery, this project will be my dream come true.