Our last day in Jerusalem gave us a choice of tours – I took the walking tour of the Jewish Quarter of the Old City. Our guide had been brought up in Jerusalem and we walked through various suburbs hearing the stories of his life and who lived where. We ended up at his sister’s house and enjoyed a surprise feast with the family. Later in the day we visited Ammunition Hill and took a tour of the new museum, walking through the trenches and hearing of the historical and momentous liberation of the City of Jerusalem during the Six Day War.

Driving East on Route 1, we were heading to the Negev. As a biologist, deserts are fascinating habitats, and I was looking forward to admiring the landscape and seeing what birds I could spot. The tour guides’ focus was very much on Israel’s boundaries with its neighbours and the complicated and often violent politics behind the existing conflict. Standing as close as I could imagine to what has been referred to as ‘the fence’, ‘the wall’ and ‘the security barrier’, brought home the precarious conditions under which communities in this area live. We were apparently within 15 seconds’ range of the rockets and were told that if we heard the sirens, we should duck down (if we were in the bus) or, if outside, find a safe space within five seconds. If this proved impossible, then we should protect ourselves by putting our hands over our heads. This is the brutal reality for people living in this area of the Negev.

One of the projects sponsored by the JNF in the area is to build bomb-proof roofs on 14 kindergartens, so the children can continue to play even when the sirens sound, and not have to squeeze into a space not conducive to learning. We were privileged to have the opportunity to visit soldiers guarding the Iron Dome protecting Israel’s border. I hadn’t realised that the sophisticated apparatus is moved according to need and it was fascinating to consider just how successful its technology has been in intercepting missiles. The Hannukiah made of spent rocket shells that we saw at Yeshivat Hesder was both a beautiful artwork and a disturbing reminder of the political situation in which these people live.

We visited various areas near the boundary, learning about the history of the Gaza strip and the West Bank. When asked why people choose to live here, it was explained that a practical reason may be that the taxes are very low which make it a more affordable place to live. There are no doubt other more subjective and emotional reasons.

In the evening, we partied outside under the stars in Golda Meir Park until very late, with rugs and cushions spread out on the grass and plentiful food and drink. Two fabulous singers got everybody dancing and it could have been an Australian summer party until I turned around and saw that we were entirely surrounded by a ring of armed security guards.

Our final days involved visits to Ben Gurion’s house, the Ashalim Solar Plant and a combat army base on the Egyptian border as well as the ANZAC Memorial Centre, where we learnt of the light infantry horsemen of Australia and how they were instrumental in the battle of Be’er Sheva.

At the site of the Maccabean bridge disaster, our group laid a wreath in memory of the Australian athletes who perished when the original, temporary bridge collapsed. The 2022 Maccabean Games are happening this week and President Biden’s visit had already meant that we had been warned about getting to the airport early to avoid any issues with roads being closed for security purposes. After a moving closing ceremony with the Australian Ambassador to Israel, Paul Griffiths, we were dropped off at the train station in Tel Aviv to make our way home.

As I set off for what was to be a very convoluted journey home to Perth, I took the time at Ben Gurion airport to reflect on what I have learnt during the ten days of my JNF study tour. I bring home a significantly greater understanding of our school’s mission, Am Yisrael Chai as well as a greater appreciation of what drives our community When parents, students and colleagues talk about their impending travel to Israel, I’ll have a better understanding of what they will encounter as well as reasons why they love and support their homeland so much. I now know that the JNF is not just a tree planting organisation, but one which is genuinely changing areas of Israel to make them more habitable. I have made important connections with educators from Jewish schools in Melbourne and Sydney and will also be able to build on my very basic understanding of reading Hebrew as the year unfolds. This journey has been a special one and although I’m looking forward to being back in Perth with my family, I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. I am incredibly grateful to have had this opportunity.