Ask any Jewish professional in America what the best way to get to Israel is, and as a college student or young adult Jew, the most likely answer will be a list that includes Masa, Onward Israel, kibbutz, yeshiva, and related programs. These can have price tags (excluding flights) ranging from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, with time spent on documents, forms, letters, and trying to email with Israelis (which, for the average American, is no easy feat). Now, these programs are life-changing for most every Jew that goes on them. But they can also be inaccessible to young Jews who either don’t have the financial base to pay for such programs or who want to explore Israel on their own but have no information on how that would be possible. In an atmosphere of competing Israel programs all trying to strengthen the connection of Diaspora Jews to Israel, maybe they’re not quite doing it right.
Millennials are all about our own experience, sometimes to a selfish fault. After a K-12 education, we want the freedom to choose our own path and represent ourselves without any middleman. At least, that’s what many of us will say, but in reality, we are scared and overwhelmed by things like picking a major, finding an internship, or any form of “adulting” as we know it. As Jews, we develop an overall distrust of any pro- or anti- Israel organization seemingly telling us what to think and how to think, as well as where to go and how to go, because we haven’t discovered the way for ourselves. This is easily visible in the statistics of Jews on college campuses who refuse to engage with Israel to stay away from the polarized political conversation they encounter. So if they avoid the conversation, why would they spend large sums of money to join any sort of program in Israel that they see as someone’s propaganda?
The solution is surprisingly simple: make Israel a real travel destination. As I write this, I’m sitting at the reception of a tiny hostel in the Golan Heights where I’m volunteering in exchange for free lodging and meals, listening to the 13 international students currently staying here have conversations about politics and religion and jam out to Foo Fighters songs. I came to Israel like many travelers go anywhere else: with two bags, two pairs of pants, four pairs of socks, four pairs of underwear, four shirts, a few warm things, assorted toiletries, my computer and iPhone, and no plan. I wanted to hike to Yad Vashem from my first hostel in the Old City of Jerusalem, so I did. I didn’t want a fine for not knowing how to use my train ticket, but I got one anyway. I needed to get to my hostel in the Golan, and my bus took me directly through the West Bank as casually as if I was going from Minneapolis to St. Paul. Instead of experiencing an Israel curated for me, I simply experienced it as it is.
That’s the beautiful thing about real traveling, and specifically traveling alone: you’re all in. It’s an incredible experience that pushes you out of all comfort zones, where every day you learn something new about yourself and the place that you’re in, where you interact with all kinds of people through sheer chance. And that’s how thousands of travelers connect to a place: by being in it and experiencing it fully, with the good and the bad, while learning its stories from the people directly.
Jews in the Diaspora, especially young Jews, have no idea how to connect to Israel. No longer is Israel the perfect Jewish country fulfilling all our dreams, supported by a Zionism that asks no questions. In the desperate drive to rectify this, mainstream Jewish effort has put the emphasis on Israel education, hoping that more hipster Herzl, hummus, and facts about Tel Aviv will get Jews back to connecting with Israel. And though this may bolster campus politics, a large portion of young Jews are not more informed, more engaged, or more connected to Israel. All the while Israel programs like Masa, as phenomenal as the opportunities provided are, are still curating and structuring the way Jews interact in this country, as opposed to the sheer freedom of lo-fi traveling.
Young Diaspora Jews don’t need the thousandth AIPAC conference. They don’t need the millionth StandWithUs brochure. They don’t need another Birthright 2.x. To connect with Israel, they just need to travel like they would anywhere else. Traveling by volunteering on farms and at hostels, they will hear the stories of the real people that live here. They will grow to become more mature and have an open mind as well as an open heart because traveling alone forces those things to happen. If Israel is accessible as a real country, with just a plane ticket and two small bags with clothing and essentials and no plan, then young Jews can build a real connection without feeling like they are part of someone else’s propaganda machine.
Mainstream Jewish Israel education and programs are like a Jewish mother: well-meaning and sometimes overbearing. If you want your children to really grow up and get educated, then show us the door to lo-fi travel and let go, for us to fall flat on our faces navigating Israel and ourselves. Only then will we appreciate who we are, what we have, and our Jewish State exactly as it is, with her beauty and her grace and all the blemishes in between.