The world as we know it has changed. The results of the governmentally enforced shutdowns of much of the world’s economies - and the ongoing and long-term effects that it will undoubtedly have – are only starting to become clearer. However, there are many whose livelihoods need help now.
For Israelis working in the tourism industry, the onset of the coronavirus came at a bad time. The months of March and April, when the cold and wet winter months begin to change into the warmer and greener spring signal the beginning of the high season. In the Western Galilee, tourism alone accounts for 40 percent of the local economy. While the enforced shutdown has affected everyone, it has really hit tour guides, tour operators, small businesses, and hoteliers who have had months’ worth of advanced bookings cancelled in the blink of an eye.
To help mitigate the worst economic effects, Jewish National Fund-USA and its partner Western Galilee Now (WGN), a grassroots tourist association headquartered at Jewish National Fund-USA’s Akko Tourist Information Center, swept into action, and launched the Online Mitzvah Marketplace. Just like a home shopping network, the initiative showcases local artisans, winemakers, chefs, and other members of WGN who pitch their products to US consumers. “We invited different vendors to our headquarters and made a small studio and filmed a number of shows before Israel went into lockdown,” said WGN Director Michal Shiloah Ganoor. “We carried on for as long as we could, however, we still want to be able to support our vendors and provide a platform where people from outside Israel can enjoy these wonderful products - even if they can’t come and sample or collect them personally.” A distinct membership benefit for businesses involved with WGN is the access to Jewish National Fund-USA’s extensive network that helps support their ongoing operations.
Perhaps most impressively, within a three-day period, WGN launched an online store with Jewish National Fund-USA’s input, to create special Passover gift packages. They sold hundreds of them within that time, proving that although people may be physically distanced, they still want to purchase products from Israeli small businesses.
A key element of the effort and signs of success is the personal friendships that have developed between the WGN’s members. There is a distinctly familial feel to the association - with a deep sense that if one member is in trouble then the whole membership suffers. That feeling is magnified considerably in the time of coronavirus.
Paul Nirens, an Australian oleh (immigrant to Israel), who has spent more than half his life in the Western Galilee describes himself as an “Ish Ha’Galil” (a Galilean man) and is a trained chef. Nirens also runs GalilEAT culinary tours and workshops.
Based on authentic culinary experiences - predominantly in the Arabic-speaking sector comprised of Druze, Christians, Muslims and Bedouins - Nirens’ company takes groups of people (2-15) to local homes for cooking workshops and home hospitality. “I see food as a way to foster cross-cultural experiences,” he explained. “It’s been a pretty successful business until now. I had 75 groups booked for March alone. I started the business from scratch and today, I have a secretary, 10 staff members and 10 host families. My partnership with some of the hosts has enabled them - generally housewives who have barely finished high school - to earn thousands of shekels a month during the high season. They would probably not have that same opportunity without this and the pause in tourism has hit us hard.”
However, Nirens, along with jewelry designer Hedva Klein and WGN Chairman Jonathan Koren, understood that the enforced break was also something of an opportunity. “I’m finally taking the time to do some research and development,” Nirens maintained. “Usually, I’m too busy with running the business to do this, but now I’m spending several hours a day doing development for where the business can go in the future.”
Jewelry designer Hedva Klein remarked that this time period has allowed her to work on new designs “and think on what I have to prepare and what I have to correct.” In addition, Klein has taken advantage of courses that instructed her on how to manage her website and business.
Koren argued that the situation has necessitated that these small companies take on their PR needs for themselves and that a complete cessation of work is not an option. “People need to understand that things have to keep working; it would be just too difficult to try and restart something that has entirely stopped.”
Nirens, Klein and Koren all spoke glowingly of WGN and Jewish National Fund-USA’s efforts. They highlighted that the attention to detail and care for individual artisans and producers struggling in the current climate starts with Jewish National Fund-USA’s President, Dr. Sol Lizerbram, and percolates down.
The association’s members also praised WGN’s staff’s efforts, explaining that without their drive, ingenuity, and adaptability things may have become even more stressful.
It is important to note that Jewish National Fund-USA and WGN have already been working in the region for several years and the action they are taking now to help the tourist association’s members is born out of a deep understanding of their needs. As Nirens pointed out, “as far as Jewish National Fund-USA is concerned, their support for us goes beyond the financial realm. For them, it’s all about effort and energy.”
Despite being backed by one of the largest philanthropic organizations in the Jewish world, the tourist association remains a truly grassroots organization, similar to a cooperative, whose lifeblood is its members. It seems that it is clearly more than the sum of its parts, with people working together - in good times and bad - to help each other out. “It’s more like a family,” Nirens maintained.
There can be no doubt that these are very unusual times. It has highlighted very clearly, however, that in a period of both national and global crisis, the power of together, of resting on the crutch of strong community bonds - of true friendship and family - is the only correct course to help us navigate these stormy seas.