By Akiva Gersh and Tamar Field-Gersh
What attracted us to the Threshold Fellowship was the idea of being part of a community of peers with visions of creating educational experiences for students that were personal, engaging, meaningful, spiritually-based and concerned with helping to develop them into more aware and more sensitive citizens of our world.
These are the ideas that form the foundation of our vision and venture, Tiyul B’Aretz, an alternative study abroad program in Israel. On Tiyul B’Aretz, students will leave the campus and classroom behind and engage in an educational journey that will open their eyes to what the collective ancient wisdom of our world has known for so long: that the world is our greatest teacher. Tiyul B’Aretz offers academic credit, but the experience will be so much greater than what a transcript can describe. Students will travel around Israel in a supportive community setting, using the land, its people and its communities to create an experience that simply cannot be had within the four walls of a university classroom.
Tiyul B’Aretz is a journey of a lifetime. A road trip for credit we like to call it. The development of Tiyul B’Aretz has also been a journey in itself, starting years ago.
For Akiva, it started over 15 years ago when, during his junior year at Brown University, he was seeking something different from the traditional classroom experience and joined the Audobon Expedition Institute (AEI). For a semester, he travelled around the Pacific Northwest in the U.S. on a school bus with 19 other students and 4 teachers on a study program that focused on environmental education, community and personal growth. Getting on that bus he had no idea how much getting out of the classroom would change his life. Camping out underneath the stars every night, the students’ learning on AEI was entirely experiential and hands-on. When the group wanted to learn about the effects of the logging industry on local ecosystems, they went into a forest and spoke with loggers. When they wanted to explore the local native peoples of the lands they were travelling through, they visited with a Native American tribe during one of their traditional drum circles. On AEI, all the senses were stimulated and learning could happen at any time.
For Tamar, inspiration for Tiyul B’Aretz also came during her college years when she traveled and learned in Australia and New Zealand for a semester. She knew she wanted to see new things, taste a new culture and discover new understanding of herself. While the entire 6 months of living in Australia and traveling all over New Zealand were life changing, the most significant parts of that time away were two courses Tamar took that brought her away from her campus-based experience and in to the “bush”. There she explored Aboriginal artwork in caves, hiked on paths shared by platypuses and echidnas, and went backpacking which forced her to live with others in a small, tight-knit community. These experiences and others like them opened up the space and time for Tamar to reflect upon herself as a student, traveler and as an individual, possibly for the first time in her life, and helped her to better understand the direction she wanted her life to go in. It became clear that this only happened because of the opportunity she had to step outside the classical modes of education and venture into the world of learning beyond the classroom walls.
These were our own separate journeys that would lay the foundation for our desire to one day create Tiyul B’Aretz. But it was really our work together as a married couple that solidified and clarified this vision.
From 2000 to 2009, we worked for the 92nd St Y in New York City as staff and then directors of a travelling summer program for Jewish teens called The Tiyul. In the world of teen summer programs, The Tiyul was unique. First of all, participants from a diversity of Jewish backgrounds came together for six weeks with the desire to simply change the world around them. Engaged in various community service projects, they explored the different ways that the Jewish value of tikkun olam could be brought to life. They sang as they painted murals, opened their hearts to children at day care centers for children of single women who were victims of domestic violence and ran a free day-camp for kids in a community that simply didn’t have the money to pay for one. They also learned about the ways modern-day humans affect our world through their lifestyle choices and had opportunities to explore changes they could make in their own lives to help make a difference. All of this is in a context that was celebrating being Jewish in new and fresh ways that opened their eyes to how their Jewish identity can play a meaningful and inspiring part in their lives.
When each summer was over, we would get e-mails from parents testifying to the changes that they perceived in their kids, from boosts in self-confidence to a stronger sense of purpose and life direction. Many participants shared with us that their time on The Tiyul significantly helped them to discover the kind of person they wanted to be and opened their eyes to a different way of living life.
After The Tiyul program came to end in 2009 we wanted to keep this fire and passion going. As our students moved on to college, we wanted to create an experience for them, or at least others like them, that would capture the magic of The Tiyul in a university setting here in Israel. Finally, Tiyul B’Aretz came into the world and the work began putting together all of the necessary pieces to bring it from our dreams into reality.
One night, during one of our meetings, we spoke about how we felt confident with our years of experience and skills-set to create the inspiring educational aspect of the program and to oversee all of the logistical details of running it. What we were missing was guidance. But where would we find these things? Who would want to help us?
The very next morning we saw an e-mail inviting us to apply for the Threshold Fellowship in Jerusalem. With Threshold we have received what we were looking for and our deeply grateful for the opportunity to be part of such a committed community of educational entrepreneurs, mentors and coaches. Just one month in to the Fellowship we already feel better equipped to take the classroom on the road with Tiyul B’Artez.
Tamar Field-Gersh has spent most of her professional career working in the field of Jewish and environmental education. Immediately after college, Tamar worked for two years as a Jewish environmental educator and trip leader at the Teva Learning Center in Falls Village, CT. Since 2003, Tamar has worked as director and program coordinator of teen travel programs for the 92nd ST Y, a world renowned community and cultural center in New York City. These alternative summer programs traveled around the U.S. and Israel focusing on environmental ethics, Jewish values, community service, leadership building and American-Israeli cross-cultural encounters. Tamar received her BSW from New York University and her MSW from Hunter College. She currently resides in the city of Jerusalem with her husband Akiva, co-founder of Tiyul B’Aretz, and two very lovable kids. Tamar is the co-founder and director of Tiyul B’Aretz and oversees the Tiyul B’Aretz semester program.