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Galilee Diary: Pilgrims

Galilee Diary: Pilgrims

by Marc Rosenstein
(Originally published in Ten Minutes of Torah and Galilee Diary)

And the Lord said to Abram... "Up, walk about the land, through its length and its breadth, for I give it to you."
        -Genesis 13:14, 17

One thing that I remember about myself on my first visit to Israel as an EIE exchange student in high school is that I adopted a conscious policy of trying not to sleep on buses, but to look out the window, because I felt it was wrong to miss an opportunity to see the landscape as it went by, to learn the geography and the feel of the country. I think I succeeded pretty well in sticking with that resolve on subsequent visits, until my travel here became more routine and repetitive. But often, still today, even on routes I feel I know by heart, I really like to look out the window of the train or bus. As a tour leader for high school Israel Experience programs, one of the common behaviors that drove me nuts was the way the kids would get on the bus, close the shades, put in their earphones, and disconnect from their surroundings as soon as they could.  I learned to give up on trying to wake them up to look at the interesting or important or beautiful views we drove past.

Over the past few weeks I had the privilege of helping facilitate a summer Israel seminar for a group of young Jewish informal educators from the US. They were sort of model tourists, curious, thoughtful, never bored, [almost] never complaining, really committed to getting inside the complexity of Israel as well as to learning basic facts of geography and history, never at a loss for a relevant question to ask, open to the possibility of being moved emotionally by experiences that might present themselves. This experience helped me reflect on the nature of Israel tourism and the wide range of different responses one sees among the tourists who have been so ubiquitous around here in the past couple of months. I think that there are different components of the Israel tourist experience that are present in different degrees in each group and indeed in each individual; it is this mix that determines tourist behavior and response:

  • Pilgrimage: we travel to a holy place to seek a spiritual experience, a transformation, a closeness to something of deepest meaning - and this holds for secular Zionists as well as for religious Jewish, Christian, or Muslim pilgrims.
  • Vacation: we travel to get away, to relax, to take our mind off of the tensions of work and other pressures, to escape.
  • Mitzvah: we travel to Israel because we feel some kind of obligation - religious or Zionist - to do so; if I'm going to go to the expense of traveling far from home, as a Jew, Israel should be a prime destination.
  • Adventure: we travel to test ourselves, to find the authentic - which often means pushing ourselves outside our comfort zone, in food, language, conditions, distance from home, risk... Overcoming these challenges results in growth and empowerment.
  • Curiosity: we travel to learn, to gain knowledge we didn't have before; and in the case of Israel, the learning is often, intentionally, not only about Israel itself, but about Judaism, about our collective memories, our roots, our texts and practices.
  • Assertion of ownership: like Abraham, modern Zionists saw (and see) walking-about in the land as a confirmation of our connection with it - and possession of it. 

Every tourist to Israel brings in his/her mental suitcase a different combination of these goals and expectations; indeed, sometimes they even conflict with each other.  The more aware the visitors - and their tour guides, group leaders, and fellow-travelers - are of their different motivations, the more satisfying their Israel experience will be.

Published: 8/11/2010

Categories: Reform Judaism, Israel
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