Over the past three decades, travel to Poland for youth and young adults has become increasingly popular, to the extent that it is even seen as a “rite of passage” for members of many Jewish communities. For these groups, the accompanying guides or educators are central to their educational experience. Based on a series of interviews with educational guides, this article sets out to understand the trips from the perspective of the guides. A deeper appreciation of the guiding experience—the guides’ goals and reflections—will enable a more holistic understanding of these trips.
The educational guides usually accompanying these groups are predominantly Jewish educators, ranging from teachers and licensed tour guides to clergy and university professors, accompanied sometimes by local Polish licensed tour guides. From the interviews, I will explore the guides’ motivations for doing this work, their educational goals, and their own evaluation of their achievements. I will also examine if and how their perceptions of the sites have changed over time. The educational guides who were interviewed mostly guide Jewish Diaspora youth and young adults from North America, Australia, and the United Kingdom. Interviews were conducted with seven individuals, all of whom have worked for many years—most over 20 years—as educational guides to Poland and other European countries. Not only have they witnessed a changing geographical landscape and shifting political, social, and economic orders, but they too have evolved and changed, facing the sites, the history, and the students at various stages of their own emotional and professional development. Thus, one could argue that the educational guiding experience is never the same.
This research is based on in-depth interviews conducted with seven educators who are experienced educational guides. The interviewees all volunteered to participate. The study design was based on a semi-structured set of questions based on a list of issues and questions we wanted to explore through in-depth interviews. The interviewees were asked: How and when did they begin guiding groups in Poland? If and how has their guiding changed over time? What are the most challenging sites to guide and which are the sites which the guide felt he/she was most successful in conveying his/her message. The interviews lasted from 60–90 minutes. All of the interviews were analyzed using a grounded theory approach to analysis to allow for theoretical concepts to emerge through close reading of the data. The individuals who I chose to interview are not necessarily representative of the overall guide population; they all work and live in Israel and many groups are guided in Poland from individuals from all over the world. However, their levels of affiliation and religious identity vary: secular, liberal and modern Orthodox. They engage in the teaching of Jewish history in a variety of settings: informal educational frameworks, historical museums, or as Israeli tour guides. Most of them guide only young adults and adult groups, having spent time guiding youth groups in the past. While some have guided Israeli groups, most of the guides are involved with guiding Diaspora Jewish groups and Christian groups. For the most part, these guides have studied the Holocaust and have a very strong knowledge and understanding of the historical period.
It is important from the outset to point out my own position in this research. I have worked for over 15 years as an educational guide to European sites relating to European Jewish history. In a sense, my own curiosity about the experiences of my colleagues stimulated this work. In listening to their accounts, I have been able to compare my own feelings and reflections on my work as a guide, particularly how their positions, methods, and stance reflect or challenge my own. As a researcher, I have endeavored to describe and present their understandings and meaning-making in order to analyze their experiences as they affect the programs. However, as a guide myself, my own subjectivity has inevitably affected my reading and analysis of the interviews.