Have you ever wondered or asked how old your kids should be when they go to Israel for the first time?
My answer? “Are they alive? Then bring them.” And while that might be a tad overstated, it’s not dramatically so. If you are fortunate enough to be able to bring your children, do it. If you are able to send them on a trip with their peers, do it. If you can encourage them to do Birthright, do it. It is literally always the right time for your children to go.
When I am trying to convince parents to send their teens to Israel, one of the more colorful and persuasive arguments is that the trip will absolutely result in some kind of transformation. Perhaps they’ll come back with an interest in learning Hebrew. Maybe they’ll start following Israeli basketball or pay more attention to the news. There’s a chance they’ll want to be more religiously observant. At the very least, they’ll return with a broader perspective on their Jewish selves, and at the other side of the spectrum it could very well impact the choices, both Jewish and not, that they make for the rest of their lives.
No matter how you slice it, there’s a huge “there, there” about Israel, and that comes across in all of the data and research on the impact of Israel travel on U.S. Jews’ Jewish identities. The long-term research on Birthright Israel shows that the short, intense duration of an Israel trip has far-ranging impact on Jewish identity even 10 or 15 years after the fact – data that has baffled researchers, since other travel experiences do not have a similar impact.
Why? There are many factors, but Abraham Joshua Heschel summed it up nicely in “Israel: An Echo of Eternity”:
“The land is different. Those who built it and those who worship in it inspire it. It is an inspired land. Just to be in the land is a religious experience. It is a land where time transcends space, where space is a dimension of time.”
While it’s one thing to read and reflect on those words, it’s another to think about them as they relate to my own children and our family.
Over the past several years, I was fortunate to be able to bring each of my sons to Israel on a trip I was leading. Those experiences were incredibly meaningful for them both. I remember the awe with which they beheld the Western Wall; the love they felt from my friends whom they met and whose children they played with; and the immediate claim they placed on Maccabi Haifa soccer fandom (not a wise choice in retrospect). They fell in love right away with the country and made annual demands to come back with me. It’s hard to quantify exactly what clicked for them, but in the words of my now-11-but-then-8-year-old from 2014, “This trip is so amazing, it’s like a dream.” What else is there to say?
A year-and-a-half ago, the stars aligned and we were able to bring all five of the children to Israel on a family trip, which featured the bar mitzvah of my first-born son. That trip, those 10 days over the course of our family’s life, were without a doubt the most consequential days we have ever had together.
For my two boys, who had been twice before, it was a chance for them to share their passion for Israel with their sisters and their mother. They were proud to be experts in the sculpture garden at the Israel Museum; lead the way through the grottos at Rosh Hanikra; eager to return to the famed tables of Burgus Burgers Bar; and excited to go the Grand Kenyon in Haifa again.
For the girls, the magic was real. By the evening of our second day, they were buzzing around trying out Hebrew words. I had somehow transitioned from “Daddy” to “Aba”; that is still my default title, along with “Abi,” some little girl approximation of aba sheli or avi that I am totally fine with. When we hit the camel ride on Day 3 and the Masada/Dead Sea twofer later that day, Israel had sealed the deal with all of them. Everything was magical, everything was shining, and you could see dots being connected between our family’s Judaism at home and what we were doing in Israel.
Later on in the trip, the bar mitzvah and a lovely Shabbat in Zichron Yaakov iced the proto-Zionist cake, with a little help from blended iced limonana, chocolate croissants, breezy and lazy lunches on the Carmel, and the soft sands of Caesarea. Certainly none of us wanted to leave, and with even more certainty, all the kids make daily requests to return. With bar mitzvah Number 2 on tap in about one year, well, that might be the answer right there.
So no, don’t wait. Go now, go again, go as soon as you can, and bring or send your kids to Israel at every opportunity. Sure, you can wait for Birthright, and there are compelling reasons to do so, but if you can swing it, bringing your family to Israel will be the best money you ever spend.
Trust me, it costs way less than your average bar mitzvah in the States.