Recently, we completed our experimental three-month intensive leadership training program for young women between high school and the army. It was a challenging and rewarding experience for all of our staff: being responsible for a group of 18 year-olds 24 hours a day for three months, trying to create a cohesive group out of girls from every imaginable ethnic, religious, and economic background while teaching Jewish texts, life skills, and social activism. We think, in retrospect, that we were pretty successful, and are busy now planning for next years group.
An interesting discussion continued from our initial planning meetings through our end-of-program evaluations regarding the place of hiking in the program. Hiking the land was an important element of Israeli education from the very beginnings of Zionist education. I think we were influenced here by currents in Europe the romantic youth movements of that period, with their emphasis on nature, and in particular on the nature of the homeland, were a model for us. Indeed, pedagogical articles on homeland studies in the journal of the Teachers Association in Israel before the first World War, which seem to be the very essence of Zionist educational thought, turn out to have been translated from German pedagogical journals of that period. The young pioneers saw learning the land through walking it as a kind of taking possession, as in the case of Abraham a few millennia previously:
Up, walk about the land, through its length and its breadth, for I give it to you. -Genesis 13:17
The backpack and the sun hat were symbols of the New Jew. The annual school trip was a central ritual and it always involved serious hiking, escalating from day trips in the lowest grades to elaborate camping trips in high school. As we got more middle class and teachers lost their energy and enthusiasm for planning and chaperoning mass camping excursions, a whole industry of field schools and youth hostels grew up around the need to provide lodging and nature guides for thousands of students on their school trips. Today, the process of alienation from nature, and the sense that we have outgrown the romanticization of the land, and the proletarization of the teachers, have severely diminished the place of hiking in Israeli education and culture. Our children, who love to hike and camp, could never understand all the other kids in their classes who invented excuses to avoid participating in the annual trip (they didnt know about the teachers who did the same), not to mention the many schools that stay in hotels, and hire various kinds of entertainment contractors to keep the kids amused and out of trouble.
So here we found ourselves, charged with planning a program that focuses on identity development, wondering how strong a position to take when it became clear that the girls, indeed, didnt like hiking very much. The experience of hiking, learning the land intimately, the bonding experience of making a strenuous effort as a group all seemed to us important in a pre-army program. But they didnt get it. Were we trying to foist our nostalgic, romantic notions of the significance of this experience on kids who live in a different generation and hence a different world? Or were we standing, responsibly, for the truly authentic, insisting on experiences (by compulsion) that we knew would be good for them? We excitedly planned a grand three day hike with two nights camping, through beautiful country with interesting stops along the way, for the final week. But this was a leadership training program, so we couldnt justify not involving the girls in the planning - and they quickly cut the camping to one night and the actual walking to one day, substituting motorized transport on the other two days. They had a great time (except on that one day of hiking ) but we were left feeling we had missed an important opportunity. Could we have done it differently? Should we have dragged them kicking and screaming? How can a teacher (or a parent) translate the experiences that were formative for him/her into the spiritual and cultural language of the next generation? Not simple.
It is not for you to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it. Mishnah, Avot 2:21