Kfar Kedem, Israel — It’s hard to visualize the world of ancient Israel while munching bagels and lox at a Sunday morning study session. This is why more trips and missions are being added to the study of history.
I love standing at Kfar Kedem, just north of Nazareth, and seeing group after group arrive to travel back in time to the era just after the destruction of the Second Temple, when the Mishna was being written. People are hypnotized by the place.
There, in surroundings reconstructed to evoke Jewish life two millennia ago, visitors dispense with technology and press oil, bring wheat and bake bread, all while learning about the times and personalities of the Mishna, the most important text of Judaism after the Bible. For refreshment, forget a frothy cappuccino — head instead to the nomad’s tent for sweet tea.
For Arnon Katz, one of the best-known travel professionals who organizes trips for North American communities, Kfar Kedem gets to the heart of what educational tourism is all about. “What we aim to do is make the places and events that people learn about in synagogues and classes much more real,” he says.
Communities contact him with details about what area of Jewish heritage they want to investigate, and he goes about building the itinerary. Sometimes, the vision is very specific — one congregation from Oakland, Calif., brought a group of 26 people who had just finished studying both Books of Kings with their rabbi; it requested a tour that visited places mentioned in the Books. The group visited all sorts of sites relevant to the text and the back-stories of its characters, such as the site of the battle between David and Goliath.
Katz, CEO of The Jewish Journey, says that while Israel is a good destination for a beach holiday, his push is always towards a more focused trip — whether for a community group or for a family group coming for a bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah. “Fun and sun alone just isn’t me — I go for package deals of informal education through sites, experiences to bring things to life, and meetings with people.”
Every year I meet dozens of groups that arrive in Israel on educational tours, and I am often asked to provide an insider journalist’s opinion about why Israel looks so different on the ground than in the media, or to brief on the geopolitics of the Middle East or Israeli politics. The questions are my favorite part, and I’m always struck by the hunger for education — even during jet-lag. But I see the groups for only a tiny slice of their trip, and often find myself fascinated by what they get up to the rest of the time. The lengths they go to in order to get an educational experience still suprises me.
Tour guide Aviv Jasman wants to give his visitors a chance to learn about Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency, so he gives them an opportunity to become agents. He likes an “experiential” approach to tourism and has a range of options for exploring different subjects, such as sending groups that want to experience ancient Israel to herd 20 sheep and use the experience as a basis for discussing leadership, but most unusual is his hands-on intelligence-gathering exercise.
He gets former Mossad officers to train tourists in their field, and then present them with a set of challenges, followed by a mission for which “you have to be accurate and imaginative, and think about everything — including disguises.” Ordinary Smartphones are transformed into surveillance tools, and the whole family can take part, with youth often proving an advantage. “We had a family from New York and set a challenge of getting into a museum that was closed,” recalls says Jasman, CEO of Israel Unlimited. “The girls covered themselves with mud and then asked to go in just to wash their hands — an idea that adults wouldn’t have thought up.”
Jasman is a guide as well as a tour organizer — but likes to step out of the limelight during tours and the stage to others. Asked why this is important, he relates a story about how he secured one of his most important clients, Facebook, which books him to run tours for its visiting employees.
“They were looking for a company to take their people to Jerusalem, show them the city objectively and with different layers of history,” he says. “I said, ‘I’ll do it with layers of history, but I cannot be objective.’ Yet during a tour, every hour we’ll meet a local person and hear their stories.” So while he narrates the city as a Jewish-Israeli who takes a “traditional” attitude towards religion, his clients will also hear about the city Arabs, charedim and others.
The archeological sites dotted around Israel are impressive — but what you don’t grasp from visiting them is are the debate, discussion and disagreement that go on among archaeologists over the significance of what you’re looking at. Oni Amiel, president of Amiel Tours, has a passion for excavations and likes not only to take his groups to the sites, but also to introduce them to the key people who uncovered them.
He says: “If you are interested in archaeology and you want to understand the debates between archaeologists, we can have a day where we explore this, discussing with them issues like how big the Kingdom of David really was.”
Amiel also likes to help groups explore contemporary Israeli society. He is running tours focused on Israel’s 70th anniversary this spring, with different days dedicated to different decades in Israel’s past.
Israel has become synonymous with innovation, and many groups arrive wanting to explore the success of the “Start-up Nation.” Israel Experts, a company known for giving people a well-rounded encounter with Israeli society, sets up meetings with different ethnic groups and organizes visits to Arab villages.
Tzvi Richter, the company’s director of education and programming, says that a day looking at innovation may open with a meeting with a soldier from army intelligence talking about the IDF’s use of technology. It could continue with a visit to a leading business that exports technology, and then at lunchtime change tack to look at other incarnations of Israel’s spirit of innovation.
“We may have lunch at Liliyot in Tel Aviv or Mataim in Zichron Yaakov, restaurants that tell a story of Israeli social enterprise,” says Richter, explaining that these establishments employ and train at-risk youth. The day may continue with a visit to an educational institution like the BINA Secular Yeshiva, “as innovation also happens in Israel in terms of engagement with Jewish tradition.” He sees his job, in large part, as finding that will stimulate even those who have visited the country dozens of times. “We spend our time seeking out new opportunities,” he says.
The energy you find today in educational tourism can be seen, in part, as a very Israeli response to a major challenge that faces the tourism industry. “Today to book a flight, Airbnb and car people don’t need us,” admits Amiel, discussing how much his company has changed since his family established it 40 years ago. “We sell only a very small part of our packages as flights and hotel alone — we’re there for the educational content, for the culinary experiences, for the focus on contemporary Israel. We’re there for added value.”
Follow Nathan Jeffay on Facebook via @nathanonisrael.