As this long summer draws to a close, we are still unable to comfortably talk about Operation Protective Edge in the past tense. We weep for the terrible loss of life on both sides even as we stand solidly together with Israel’s people, who faced indiscriminate and deliberate attacks from Hamas for most of July and August.
British Jewry, in our own way, has also had an intense summer. Surging antisemitism, extreme anti-Israel demonstrations and internal disputes on how best our community’s political leadership should respond, have dominated the community conversation.
I would like to focus on just one aspect of our response that I believe is a source of both hope and pride: the UK Zionist youth movements’ Israel Tour 2014.
I’m incredibly proud that UJIA, working with the Jewish Agency for Israel, the providers in Israel, and the movements, have successfully delivered this crucial Jewish rite-of-passage to 1,230 16 year-olds in difficult circumstances.
As the conflict broke out this summer, a small number of the 32 Israel tours were already in Israel but the vast majority were just days away from travelling. Together with our partners, UJIA needed to immediately decide what to do. Do we consider bringing back the teens already there and cancel tour, or adapt the programme and continue?
After consulting with our partners and Israel’s Situation Room, a 24-hour safety and security monitoring hub for group travel, we took the decision that we would continue the programme so long as we were confident of our ability to ensure tours would be both safe and educational. This decision was guided by decades of experience and expertise in supporting Israel Tour, including during times of war.
Of course, we totally respected the decision of those parents who wished to withdraw their children from tour. We are incredibly proud to say that only 23 participants didn’t go on Israel Tour for security reasons this summer – less than 2% of the cohort. I can think of no other greater statement of our community’s commitment to Israel and her people.
In practical terms, our various teams in the UK and Israel worked around the clock for the next 6 weeks writing and rewriting itineraries, communicating with parents, holding conference calls, supporting tour madrichim (leaders) and visiting tours, as well as dealing with all the usual issues of welfare and education that emerge every summer.
The tours were a phenomenal success, notwithstanding the fact that many groups did experience one or two sirens and visits to shelters. The teens behaved overwhelmingly with maturity and responsibility. They encountered key Jewish historical and cultural sites but also a very raw and very real Israel.
I have received scores of letters from grateful and enthusiastic parents thanking us for both continuing the tours and keeping them informed and updated throughout. Some of these came from among the hundreds of families who received a UJIA bursary that enabled them to send their child on tour. One mother ended a long letter with, “you will never know how happy I have been that my son was able to take the trip bearing in mind my circumstances. I will never, and I mean never, forget the help I received.” Another father described the effect of Tour on his daughter as “a seminal moment in her Jewish experience and identity.”
Many letters moved our staff and me to tears.
We are aware of our responsibility to support UK based Youth Movements in developing sophisticated follow-up programming to take the teens forward in the next stage of their Jewish identity development in the aftermath of their summer.
It only remains for me to thank these extraordinary movements, the madrichim, the tour operators, and the Jewish Agency for working so effectively with us at UJIA to give our children this experience, which is the lifeblood of informal Zionist education in the UK. My biggest thanks however are to the teens and parents who demonstrated a passionate and ideological commitment to both Israel and our own Jewish future.
While tour was going on, UJIA also raised £211,000 for urgent relief projects in the south of Israel, and we took 115 people on our UJIA Israel Now Mission to show support, volunteer and learn. While we grieve for lives lost and ruined this summer, we must never give up on our efforts to try to make a difference.
UJIA seeks to inspire Jews to “make your mark on the Jewish story”. This summer we enabled 1,230 teens and their families, as well as thousands more, to do just that.