Touring Israel With 8th Graders

by Abraham Benson Goldberg

Looking at the itinerary for this trip, sitting across the desk from the man who’s hoping to hire me, I realize that I’ve never been to most of these places. It’s a chance for me to explore the country I’ve called home for three years, and still seem to barely know. I’m in.

For the past year, I’ve worked as a “social counselor” every couple of months with various groups from all over the U.S., hanging out with high school kids as they go on a trip through the homeland. And I’ve gotten to see for the first time sites I’d never be able to afford or reach on my own.

In general, I like to have employment that’s at least medium-term (six months, or a year), and comes with neat benefits like free housing, or tuition remission, or a meal stipend. But whenever I find myself between jobs, or in a lean patch, I always seem to fall back on hadracha, staffing youth trips as they come to visit Israel for two weeks or longer.

It helps that the money’s decent too.

I just got paid for my last trip, which may in fact be my last trip, because eventually you age out of this sort of gig. At 26, it’s starting to be a little weird for me to work with some of the age groups, and as my next gig is 18 months of compulsory army service, I can’t imagine 28 becoming a somehow more appropriate age.

The trouble with these gigs is exactly what attracts me to them — I’ve never done X, so I’ll take the chance to do it on this trip. But when the kids ask me: What’s special about X, or what’s the best part, or is it scary — I have nothing to say. It’s supposed to be very windy, I’ll extemporize. Or, if I feel like we have trust (generally only after the first few days), We’ll just have to find out together. When I ask my co-staff how they answer, they often seem at a loss too.

There’s another, greater trouble: the gray area we occupy. We madrichim, social counselors, aren’t the tour guides. They’ve hired a real guide to do that. We aren’t the disciplinarians. They’ve sent teachers for that. But we’re meant to enrich the guiding, and we’re meant to create an atmosphere where we are the ones the kids look to for behavioral guidance.

This means that sometimes there are three sets of staff — the guide and the driver; the American staff (teachers and the trip director from the school); and us. All stepping on one another’s toes, doubling down accidentally on one-another’s missions, horrendously missing others, and at the end of the day, it’s the madrichim who are going to cry.

The first time I go with a group to the Supreme Court, I miss out on the guide’s speech, because I have to pick up lunch. The guy we bought lunch from is angry with me because the voucher I have isn’t filled out correctly, but I got it from the home office and can’t do anything about it. The Supreme Court building doesn’t allow outside food, so I have to sit outside. It’s winter, and I left my coat on the bus because I had been expecting to be inside with the rest of the group. Then it’s revealed that the lunch we’ve ordered, while perfect for all allergies, isn’t going to work for one of the kids who can’t eat dairy or fish without getting nauseous (except for pizza and fish-sticks, but why bother). I can’t order food if you don’t tell me you don’t eat this. The trip director tells me that this is an uncalled for statement, and I’m condescending to the kid.

I end the day in tears; I could have taken a vacation instead of doing this, I tell my former boss, who works one door over from my current one. I could have visited my parents!

Listen, she says, they chose you. They asked for you. So figure out how to give them what they want.

Another time, with a different group, we build an entire day around going to the particular site of Sde Boker, where the first prime minister of Israel, David Ben-Gurion, is buried. After all the bus rides, and half-hour stops here and there, we somehow don’t make it to his grave. This is the entire reason we’re there!

Not entirely. It’s a kid’s birthday, as well.

The guide is trying to hustle us off to the next site, because we’re running behind — but we’re having a picnic lunch and birthday celebrations.

This time, I refuse to be the one to go home upset: When he tries to get the kids to stop singing happy birthday, when he enlists me to be the bad cop for him, I say birthdays happen once a year. The entire Negev can wait.

At the end of the day, I’ve spent a lot of time showing kids where the bathrooms are in various parts of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Eilat, and Haifa. I’ve made the Israeli minimum wage (usually earned over 28 days) in 16. I’ve got to experience for the first time attractions and sites with people for whom it was also the first time.

And this is what they’ve chosen me for. Because I can share in the wonder with them.

Nothing will ever beat the satisfaction of getting to turn to the kid next to you and say: Whoa, and know that she’s feeling the exact same way; that when you all get back on the bus, there’s the thrill of seeing something so awesome, so outrageously grand, for the first time.

Abraham Benson-Goldberg currently gets to go home 2 days out of every 21, and writes a regular email about whatever comes to mind as a sensitive, gentle-hearted individual learning how to operate a tank in the service of the IDF.

Photo: Andrew Ratto

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