Most tours give participants a glimpse into historic and venerated sites with knowledgeable guides who share their expertise with the group in the way of a lecture – not unlike walking through a museum. Breaking Bread Journeys aims to offer something entirely different and deeper that crosses divides and borders.
Begun in 2013 by co-founders Christina Samara, a Palestinian Christian, and Elisa Moed, an Israeli Jew, the tourism project represents a joint initiative that offers travelers an insiders’ journey through both Israel and the Palestinian territories, where participants are able to venture inside locals’ homes and eat and interact with them.
Moed, originally from Michigan, made aliya 12 years ago. Brought up in a Conservative Zionist family with a father who was the head of the Detroit Zionist Federation, Moed was brought up with an understanding of and respect for others. She attended public school and was always very comfortable with people from diverse backgrounds.
“My father worked as an immigration lawyer, so was also dealing with people from many different backgrounds,” Moed says. “As an American coming here to Israel, it might have been easier for me to get involved in something like Breaking Bread Journeys.”
Co-founders Moed and Samara each have their own travel companies, Travelujah and Samara Tourist & Travel respectively. Samara’s family has owned the company since the 1950s. An east Jerusalemite, Samara knows Israeli tourism and everything related to it well. She is a volunteer in east Jerusalem who promotes tourism in under-served areas. Samara is also co-founder of the incoming tour operators association for east Jerusalemites, called the Holy Land Incoming Operator Association. She eventually became the chairperson.
“Elisa and I discovered that we have a lot in common and that there was potential to do something in tourism that was not previously available,” Samara explains. “There are lots of tourists who were not coming here because they wanted to avoid the whole issue of politics; either with Palestinians or Israelis. We thought we could do a tour that includes both sides, that is balanced in its content and where the money flows to. These are people-to-people tours.”
Moed and Samara met in 2010 when both were asked to participate in a cooperative marketing panel. Samara was included because, at the time, she was the head of theHoly Land Incoming Operator Association. Moed was asked because of her innovation in founding Travelujah, a content site that covers places of interest to Christians. Travelujah was and remains one of, if not the only, Israel-based, travel content site for Christians that includes areas like Jericho, Nablus and Bethlehem. Out of eight panel members, Moed and Samara were the only women.
“Unfortunately, not a lot got done in this cooperative marketing panel because of anti-normalization, which kept us from doing a lot of joint marketing initiatives,” Moed recalls. “Tourism is one of the sectors that with some improvement could have a significant economic impact on the Palestinian territories. About 10% of tourism money in Israel goes to the territories. The idea for the committee was to see what they could do to increase that and foster more cooperation.”
Although the panel proved to be relatively ineffective, Moed and Samara quickly formed a friendship. They found that they had a shared vision of what could be accomplished if they worked together. The two came up with a concept, which they spent the subsequent two years vetting. Ultimately, they received a grant in 2013 for the first year that helped launch what became Breaking Bread Journeys.
Moed and Samara ran trial tours to garner a sense of what they wanted to do and how to best implement it. Breaking Bread was officially launched that same year. Initially, there were five different tour themes on offer that Moed and Samara felt would leverage the unique assets of both Israel and the Palestinian territories. It was important for them to showcase places that other programs did not, while still affording the traveler a high-quality, memorable experience. For instance, Moed and Samara were able to create an impactful day, centering in Nablus, with engrossing content that produces a unique experience, where participants still get to visit classic sites like Jacob’s Well.
“We did the same thing in Bethlehem,” Moed explains. “We took what was ordinarily a couple of hours at the Church of the Nativity and incorporated other components to make it a deeper, richer and more personal experience. That’s really the model – to focus on certain areas and topics and go in depth. We built a day around food and culture. We have one tour that focuses on sustainability. There are enormous assets in Israel on that topic. We try to bring out and build programs based on particular themes. We have a Herodian theme. Herod was a builder for 40 years in the Holy Land. So we weaved together a program around that, which joins the Israeli and Palestinian territories.”
Current Breaking Bread Journeys’ tours include themes such as Food & Culture, Herod the Great, Pilgrimage, Sustainability and Political. The average tour duration is one week, with groups visiting and eating in local homes at least a few times throughout. The eight-day Pilgrimage tour promises to take tourists in the footsteps of Jesus, beginning in the Jordan Valley and ending in Jerusalem. The 11-day Political tour – Through Two Eyes – includes sites holy to Christians, such as the Church of the First Miracle in Kafr Kana, along with visits to living examples of coexistence, such as Acre, a mixed Arab/Jewish city, and Neveh Shalom, a pluralistic Arab/Jewish community. In each of the diverse, varied and detailed tour offerings there is an emphasis on balance.
“We bring a balance because we each have to sign off on the other’s ideas,” Moed says.
“We always want to make sure that the tours are balanced. We’re driven by ensuring that revenues are flowing to more peripheral areas: women and people who are not normally receiving the benefits of tourist dollars. Most groups go to the big stores. Our tours are very authentic. At the end of the day, you’re going into somebody’s home. You can’t take a big group. It’s not just a one-off that happens on one day. You’re getting many different types of people and experiencing the diversity of the region that you’re in. It’s a very powerful, engaging and personal way to view Israel.”
The number of tours per month that Breaking Bread hosts varies, as tourism is cyclical. They receive many requests for private tours of up to six people, and at times larger groups. The average tour group size is 15 to 25. In terms of vetting local hosts, Moed and Samara meet with all of them; hear whether they speak English well and why they want to be involved with Breaking Bread; checking politics at the door is of paramount importance to both women. They also visit the homes to ascertain whether they are well enough equipped to handle a tour group. Moed and Samara look for people who give off strong messages of peace.
They now have a trusted contingency of families, women’s groups and associations with whom they enjoy working. By now they know what fits and what doesn’t. The experiential nature of Breaking Bread tours always highlights divergent cultures and respect for different religions and ethnicities, including minority groups like Ethiopians and Druse. In terms of local hospitality, tour participants can join Shabbat dinners, Ramadan feasts and festive Christmas meals.
“We really believe that tourism can be a path to peace,” Moed states.
“Certainly by showing cooperative tours and helping to encourage that, Breaking Bread is building bridges. The borders don’t go away, but when you can crisscross them, visit different places and travel more freely, you are not as afraid to visit a certain destination. We demonstrate that with each tour.”
“We always come out feeling that we were successful in what we came to do whenever we join the tours from the reactions of people and how they say thank you,” Samara shares.
“I like joining the Shabbat dinners. During them, we ask what the highlight of the tour was for everyone. People get very emotional and really talk about what they experienced. They all say that they appreciate what we have offered them because they know that they would not have gotten it anywhere else. We really look for these experiences; we know it’s a wow effect. When I see the tears as they hug us goodbye, I know that we got there. It goes much deeper than just a tour. We put ourselves into this.”