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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
It's tourist season in Israel. The country is inundated with visitors from abroad. They come in all shapes and sizes - young and old, religious and secular, Jews and Christians. They spend their dollars freely, boosting our economy. Tour guides are employed again, hotels are overflowing, restaurants are filled and souvenir shops are busy.
It is indeed impressive that despite the ominous clouds of war that hover above, nothing seems to stand in the way of these foreigners flooding our shores - or, does it?
WELL, IF we set aside Christian pilgrims, who have proven over and over again that nothing deters them from coming to the Holy Land because their theological commitment to Israel is fearless; if we exclude many Orthodox Jews, who are not scared off by Scuds, suicide bombings or outright hostilities; and if we leave out college-age youth because birthright israel supplies them with a free trip (and, when we are young, we're oblivious to dangers), then what's left? A smattering of high-school trips, synagogue tours, bar/bat mitzva visits, rabbis on study programs and individual travelers.
And so we are actually confronted with a harsh reality - Diaspora Jews are not coming to Israel en masse. It may not feel that way, but it is an incontrovertible fact - only a minority of Diaspora Jews have ever been to Israel.
A synagogue which boasts 3,000 families and entertains a grand total of 40 people on its Israel tour does not constitute a success story. A little more than 1,000 teenagers from the Reform and Conservative movements on their Israel summer programs out of a potential 100,000 does not indicate an Israel-awareness breakthrough. Only 100 rabbis studying at the Shalom Hartman Institute, one of the most compelling rabbinic learning experiences for rabbis of all denominations, is nothing to write home about.
WHAT IS it about Israel that doesn't attract large numbers of Jews to visit? Is it that that they consider violence endemic to the Middle East? Do many Jews see Israel as an occupying bully, thus implementing a "moral" boycott of the country? Are liberal Jews turned off because they sense a creeping theocratic takeover of the country?
The above are only a small part of the problem. The major reason that Jews do not come is not because of what is happening to the State of Israel, but what is happening to the state of their own Jewish involvement, which, for the majority of Diaspora Jews, is minimal.
So how do we reach these Jews, especially those from North America, and convince them to dedicate a few weeks at least once in a lifetime to spend in the ancestral homeland of the Jewish people? We need to think creatively and offer varied and innovative experiences for different populations - all subsidized, whereby costs are sufficiently reduced so that no Diaspora Jew can claim that finances prevented him or her from traveling to Israel.
*Â Trips for professionals - for Jewish lawyers, jurists, doctors, dentists, teachers, professors, scientists, high-tech specialists, politicians, businesspeople, media analysts, basketball/football/baseball players. In addition to visiting the usual tourist sites, there would be interaction with Israelis in their corresponding professions.
*Â Trips for interfaith and mixed-married couples - In North America, there is an ever increasing number of interfaith and mixed-married couples. Instead of bewailing this fact, we must accept the reality of an acculturated Diaspora Jewish world and reach out to blended families. These family units need to come to Israel where they can widen their faith-based definition of Judaism to include historical concepts of peoplehood, land, state, language and culture.
*Â Social action tours - Many North American Jews are socially conscious. While Israel sponsors programs that bring visitors to volunteer in soup kitchens and immigrant absorption centers, the type of social action tour that might attract many liberal Jews would be one of a political nature that deals with hard-core social issues - poverty, treatment of Israeli Arabs, Palestinian human rights, integration of Ethiopians - to name but a few. For social activists to interact with the plethora of Israeli human rights and civil liberties organizations would enfranchise them and engender considerable pride.
*Â Backpacking tours - Israel's topography is so varied that only a half-hour separates the Judean Forest from the Judean Desert. The stark contrast of the Mitzpe Ramon craters with the fertile Hula Valley and mountainous terrain of the Arbel, along with Israel's well-developed archeological sites, which invite both an exhilarating climb to the top of Masada and an adventurous crawl through the Bar Kochba caves - all provide veritable wonderlands of trekking possibilities.
*Â Alternative-living tours - Jewish singles, widows and widowers, divorcees, single-parent families, gays and lesbians, the physically handicapped should be part of our tourist agenda.
*Â Elder hostels and study tours - where a Diaspora Jew visits Tzipori, learning how Jews who codified the Mishna there at the turn of the common era set guidelines for Jewish living that preserves one's Judaism even as one adjusts to a majority non-Jewish culture.
The more North American Jews we can entice to come to Israel, the more we will strengthen their Jewish identity; and strongly identified and committed Jews will redound well not only for the Diaspora Jewish community, but also for Israel, which, in a world of growing hostility to the Jewish state, greatly needs their support.