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My Cultural Chronicles: Tales of an Israel Tour Leader

Ellie Radford recounts her experience as an FZY tour leader in 2023, and how this has helped her further understand her Jewish identity and relationship with Israel.

I'm Ellie, and my aim is to uncover the fascinating interplay of travel and creativity, drawing from my own experiences leading FZY Israel Tour in 2023. Travel has always been a profound catalyst for personal and creative transformation, and nowhere was this more evident to me than in the vibrant landscapes of Israel— where ancient history meets modernity, and cultural diversity flourishes at every turn. I aim to celebrate the diversity and richness of cultural experiences available in this unique nation.


So first, I’d like to start with an imagination task. Close your eyes and transport yourself to the scorching streets of Jerusalem. Picture the ancient stones beneath your feet, warmed by the relentless sun, as the tantalizing aroma of falafel fills the air. You're not just here as a tourist; you're about to embark on a journey through history with FZY Israel Tour.


From the bustling energy of bar mitzvah celebrations to the ringing of church bells and the serene silence of prayer, the Western Wall Plaza beckons you with the sound of sacredness. Colourful markets line the streets, where the scent of spices lingers just beneath your nose. As the sun descends beyond the horizon, its light reflects upon the golden Dome of the Rock of the al-Aqsa Mosque while orthodox Jews, adorned in white and blue tallitot, make their final contact with the ancient stones of the wall before you – it’s the purest vision of cultural coalescence. As you reach the wall and trace the cracks and crevices with your fingers, the muezzin’s call to prayer pervades the plaza.


Here, surrounded by years of history, culture, and spirituality, you feel an intimate connection to centuries of tradition, just as thousands before you did. Israel tour is more than a vacation; it's a journey that expands the mind and nourishes the soul. But before we delve into why leading this tour was truly a life-changing experience for me, let me provide you with a brief history of travel.


During ancient times, travel manifested in diverse forms evolving across eras into systematic and varied undertakings from migrations and military campaigns to commercial and diplomatic missions. Recreational travel, though less common, began to emerge alongside these practical journeys and Herodotus, often considered the first tourist, documented his Mediterranean voyages and cultural expeditions in the fifth century BCE, laying the groundwork for contemporary notions of distant exploration.


Following suit, the era of classical antiquity saw affluent Romans embarking on journeys to expand their cultural knowledge, while the medieval period introduced religious pilgrimages to revered sites such as the Holy Land, reflecting a convergence of spiritual and recreational quests.


Perhaps the most notable hallmark of travel, however, was the Renaissance era's Grand Tour, an educational journey across Europe for young British nobles that became a cornerstone of cultural and intellectual development and is often cited as the genesis of the term "tourism."


Historically, travel was a luxury reserved for the elite, but the 19th century marked a turning point with the democratisation of travel, exemplified by Thomas Cook's package tours, making it accessible to a growing middle class and nurturing a wider culture of curiosity and exploration. From boats to trains to planes, the post-World War II era saw an unprecedented expansion in commercial air travel, turning mass tourism into a global phenomenon with post-war culture being defined by seaside resorts and leisure activities. Today, in the face of economic globalisation and technological advances, the now trillion-dollar tourism industry is constantly evolving, with online booking platforms and sustainability practices coming to the forefront, it can inspire future generations of travellers such as my FZY participants.


But, amidst this evolving landscape of global travel, where technology and accessibility shape our journeys, it's also imperative to consider how historical movements and cultural narratives have led to significant transformations in the way communities and nations interact. One profound example of such a transformation is the story of the Jewish people's return to their ancestral homeland, a momentous event that not only redefined the concept of nationhood but also illustrated the deep ties between travel, identity, and the pursuit of a collective dream.


For over two millennia of enduring exile, the Jewish people longed for the return to Zion, a dream realised on May 14, 1948, when David Ben-Gurion declared the establishment of the State of Israel in Tel Aviv, marking a new era for an independent Jewish homeland. Today, Israel stands as a mosaic of diverse Jewish denominations, including Sabras, Ashkenazim, Sephardim and Ethiopian Jews. It is also home to a variety of Arab nationalities, Samaritans, Armenians, Circassians, Baha'is, Druze, and Bedouins.


Undoubtedly, Israel is more than what's often depicted in the news; it's a culturally rich and knowledge-filled destination waiting to be explored. That is why today I wanted to tell you about leading a tour of 42 16-year-olds around Israel, an experience that gave me invaluable skills and memories I'll always cherish.


This story began when I was 16. For many Jewish teenagers, embarking on Israel tour is just as significant a rite of passage as their bar or bat mitzvah was three or four years earlier. This experience often marks the first journey without their parents for an extended time, and although deeply ingrained in their heritage, several have never visited Israel before. So, after finishing my GCSEs, anticipation built as I awaited the moment to go on holiday with my friends. Yet, what I didn't anticipate was for this trip to become a pivotal moment in my life - it was not just a holiday - it was an experience that left a lasting impact on my identity.


As a half-Israeli Jewish girl living in north-west London, I've always felt a deep connection to the country, with numerous relatives residing there, I was accustomed to yearly visits. However, my family is secular Jewish—an apparent contradiction but one that's meaningful to us. We are traditionally and ethnically Jewish but non-observant and atheist. So for me, Israel was never solely about religion; it was about culture, and going on Israel tour taught me that this perspective is valid.


Guiding me through this identity journey was FZY. The movement’s unwavering commitment to creating a safe space to explore what my Jewish identity means to me allowed me to understand myself more deeply than ever before.


At the age of 16, stepping foot on the sacred soil of Israel with 40 other eager and nervous teens is a moment filled with excitement, anticipation, and a touch of apprehension as you leave behind the familiar comforts of home and venture into the unknown. Yet, as the days unfolded, I immersed myself in a world of wonder and discovery—a world where every ancient stone told a story, and every encounter left an indelible mark on my mind. I forged bonds of friendship that will last a lifetime, connected with my faith, my people, and my spirituality in ways I never thought possible. It was in this crucible of cultural immersion, that the seeds of leadership were planted within me—a desire to share the warmth and profound insights of my experience with others, guiding them on their own journey of self-discovery and enlightenment. And so, in 2023, I volunteered to be a madricha.  


My desire to lead was deeply rooted in the understanding that a psychological transformation occurs when one immerses oneself in a foreign culture. Galinsky's insight on how adapting to new cultures fosters creativity resonated with me. History shows that living abroad has been a rite of passage for countless artists, writers, and composers, who produced their masterworks while away from their homeland. For example, figures like Nabokov, Hemingway, Picasso, Handel and Stravinsky found their creative zenith in lands not their own. This phenomenon isn't confined to a single era or location; the diversity of examples across time and space underlines a universal truth about the nexus between foreign experiences and creative breakthroughs.


Indeed, studies have shown a link between diverse experiences such as immigration, bilingualism, multicultural exposure, and heightened creativity - even merely enjoying different cuisines or interacting with foreign media can significantly bolster one's creative capabilities. Thus, there is no question why travel abroad, with its inherent exposure to novel ideas and perspectives, not only feeds the creative process but also prepares one to accept and integrate unfamiliar concepts, enhancing one's ability to approach problems innovatively and combine ideas in new ways. It is this body of evidence that fuelled my conviction that leading a tour in Israel could offer participants a gateway to this kind of profound personal and creative transformation - just as it had done for me four years earlier.


Equally important was my commitment to facilitating a space where participants could delve into, question, and discover their own Jewish identities. This endeavour aimed not only to provide a deeper, more nuanced appreciation of their Jewish heritage but also to embrace the breadth of experiences and perspectives that exist within and beyond the Jewish community. For me, leading these young participants across Israel transcended visits to historical and cultural sites, this journey was about creating a supportive environment for participants to explore their own identities against the backdrop of Israel’s multifaceted society, appreciating the complexities and beauty of a land that stands testament to human resilience and diversity.


In July 2023, FZY brought together a record-breaking 546 Jewish teens, navigating the land of Israel across 13 different groups. Each destination offered a new lens through which to view the world, challenging us to think critically and creatively about our surroundings and our place within them.


One of the most poignant experiences was our interaction with the Bedouin community in the Negev desert, offering a glimpse into a culture that has adeptly navigated the balance between preserving its heritage and adapting to modernity. Bedouins, known for their customary hospitality and sustainable lifestyle practices, are a nomadic tribe of indigenous Arabs living across the Middle East’s deserts. Upon being welcomed into their traditional tents, guests of all different nationalities and backgrounds enjoy a sugary mint tea, black coffee, and a taste of local delicacies before experiencing an incredible night of storytelling, music, bonfires and camel rides through the midnight desert landscape! This encounter, like many others on the tour, serves as a powerful reminder of the importance of cultural empathy and the role of travel in forming an appreciation for the diversity of human existence.


So there you have it! Leading Israel tour was a transformative experience, not just for the participants, but for me as well. The experience highlights how the impact of this tour extends far beyond mere tourism and reaffirmed my belief in the power of travel to inspire creativity, broaden perspectives, and cultivate a deeper connection to our shared humanity. Through the lens of travel, we discover not only new landscapes but new facets of ourselves, unlocking the creative potential within each of us and arming us with the tools and insights to become compassionate and engaged global citizens.

By Ellie Radford


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