Jewish entrepreneurs are targeting Christians abroad for Holy Land tourism.
By CARL HOFFMANPublished: JUNE 10, 2009 14:12Advertisement
Elisa Moed, 46, claims that she has always been "a connecter," the kind of person who forges links between different kinds of people. "When I was a kid, we were the only Jewish family on our street," recalls the soft-spoken Detroit area native. That experience, she says, was her first lesson in how to serve as a bridge between the Christian and Jewish worlds. Today, married, the mother of four children aged 16, 13, 12 and 8, and comfortably settled in Israel for almost four years, Moed is doing just that with Travelujah.com, an online travel and information-sharing network for Christians around the world, featuring Israel as the Christian Holy Land.
The company Web site invites its clients to "journey into the Land of the Bible with Travelujah, a vibrant Christian social community where you can learn from experts, share experiences, upload your pictures, 'Search the Bible,' and book that unforgettable journey of a lifetime to the Holy Land."
The site is heavy with articles by experts on everything from archeological sites to local wines, history to hotels, as well as a patent-pending online Bible search engine designed by Travelujah. There are also posts from recent tourists, travelers' tips and recommendations, pictures and news briefs - all by and for Christians attracted to the land of the Christian Bible.
What's a nice Jewish girl doing running a site like this? One might say that Moed's life has pointed her to it, in more or less a straight line. Although her professional involvement with Christianity is a somewhat recent development, Moed's identification with both Israel and the travel industry is longstanding and deep. While an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, Moed spent her junior year abroad in Israel. She returned to Israel after graduation and spent two years in Hod Hasharon, working for a program called High School Israel. Already determined to settle here permanently, Moed was equally set on a career in tourism. She returned to the US and obtained both a graduate degree in Hotel and Food Services Management and a husband at Florida International University. While the newlyweds sojourned in Florida and began to raise a family, Moed went to work for a hotel consulting firm. Her job, which took her as far afield as Hong Kong, introduced her to virtually all aspects of the tourism industry. Moed opened her own firm in 1997 and several years later finally realized her dream of making aliya as she and her family moved from Boca Raton to Ra'anana in 2005. Moed continued her largely US-centered consultancy business from her new home in Israel.
Travelujah.com was born almost inadvertently. "I got a phone call one day from a gentleman in the Holy See," she recalls. "They were interested in developing a Christian resort in the Galilee. They needed me to help them determine the appropriate concept, to go in there and tell them what they needed to build there from the standpoints of concept, design, size, positioning within the market, market potential, and generally the best way to go about it in order to reach the people they were going after. And they were going after all Christian denominations."
The Galilee, loaded with Christian holy sites and underserved by Christian tourist facilities, seemed like the perfect place. Moed threw herself into the project, launching a one-woman whirlwind of market research. One major surprise, she says, was her discovery of a large number of Christian guest houses scattered all over Israel. "I never knew they even existed, and I'm a hotelee!" she exclaims, introducing an apparently new word to designate someone who works with hotels. Usually located at or near to Christian holy sites, these seemingly ubiquitous guesthouses offered a variety of types of accommodation and services. Moed concluded that Christian tourism was a promising emerging market. "I could see that not only was there a demand for the kind of place they wanted to build, but that there was an even greater demand for a completely different type of service that would meet the needs of this growing market." After another year and a half of extensive market research, the Travelujah.com web site was up and running. Aside from herself, the company is presently staffed, according to Moed, by "two people on the payroll, and several outside contractors."
"Travelujah is an opportunity for Christians around the world to share their stories, connect with other people, write blogs, and hopefully one day travel here," Moed says. "This is the cradle of faith. There's only one Holy Land. And Travelujah is a Christian social network that offers ways for people to experience the Holy Land, either virtually or physically.
For physical experiences, Travelujah.com provides its users with an "online booking engine" to book hotel rooms and make other reservations. The pride of the site, however, is something called "Search the Bible," which Moed describes as "our own patent-pending functionality that provides Bible search results on anything someone might look for, along with all the travel-related content that has been uploaded onto the site by users, by experts, or by us. This provides users with the opportunity to plan their trips more intensively and more centered around the Bible." These features, along with the opportunity to network, share experiences and access all of the information provided on the web site before embarking on a trip, make Travelujah a pioneering and unique "one-stop shop" for Christians interested in the Holy Land. "Having this kind of tool providing all the information you need makes travel planning so much easier," Moed says.
Much of what makes Travelujah distinctive is the degree of interaction offered to the site's users, providing them not only with the ability to share experiences but also to be their own tour organizers. Says Moed: "People can use Travelujah to form their own travel groups. You could form a group interested in, say, biblical archeology, work through an expert on the web site, and ultimately form your own tour group of people interested in biblical archeology, coming together in Israel from all over the world."
After pausing for a moment to allow that idea to sink in, Moed continues, "The important thing is that we want to encourage interest in Christians around the world to eventually come here to visit. The more, the better. They bless Israel. It's good for the country. It's good for the region. It can provide enormous economic development opportunities. It certainly could promote cooperation between Israel and the Palestinian territories."
Despite the worldwide recession and resultant downturn in the travel industry worldwide, Moed does not seem to be overly concerned. She seems, if anything, optimistic, saying, "There is an up-tick in faith-based tourism going on at the moment. People are still traveling, but they're traveling less. So they're saying to themselves, 'Hey, if we're only going to travel once this year, that travel should be especially meaningful and worthwhile.' This is a special niche market." Travelujah.com, squarely in the middle of this market, is doing brisk business. Is Moed afraid of potential competition?"Success always breeds competition," she says, calmly. "As it should."
IF IT can be said that Travelujah.com provides edification, enlightenment and succor to the soul while its Christian customers are alive, another somewhat unusual company offers an eternal resting place for the body after its Christian clients have died.
JudeanDelivery.com offers Christians the opportunity to have a portion of their cremated ashes scattered at, over, on, or into the New Testament biblical site of their choice. As the company's Web site explains, "The Holy Land is the birthplace of our Lord Jesus Christ, our faith and our hope. Judean Delivery brings the wonder of the miracles of this special land into your home and the homes of your loved ones. With honor and reverence, we hand deliver your prayers and the cremated remains of your loved ones to this land, connecting you to the Holy Land where Jesus Christ lived and died. Honoring a loved one by having their cremated remains spread in the Holy Land is an act of great love and honor for a life well lived."
For a fee of $400, JudeanDelivery.com will "hand deliver" a portion of the customer's remains to Bethlehem, Nazareth, the Jordan River, the Sea of Galilee, the Judean Desert, outside the Old City Wall in Jerusalem, the Mount of Olives, the Garden of Gethsemane, or the Via Dolorosa. After the ashes have been duly scattered at the chosen site, the client's family receives, in the words of the site, "a certificate suitable for framing mailed directly from Jerusalem, Israel. The certificate will name the sender, recipient, location, date and GPS coordinates. This also includes a small keepsake of earth from the holy site laminated in clear plastic." In addition, JudeanDelivery.com provides a page or two of information about the biblical significance of the cremation scattering site.
The face behind JudeanDelivery.com is Jonathan Berman, a 23 year-old American immigrant from Danvers, Massachusetts. Like Elisa Moed, Travelujah.com's CEO, Berman is a relatively recent arrival. Despite the somewhat unusual nature of his new but growing business, he presents quite a normal appearance to the world: neatly dressed, well-groomed, a face that smiles easily and a set of mannerisms common to Americans his age - like making almost all of his statements sound like questions. "I'm a pretty boring guy. I like to read the newspaper and go to bed early," he declares, smiling broadly.
Berman first arrived in Israel two years ago with Birthright - mostly, he says, to visit friends he had met while traveling through Southeast Asia during a year off from college. It was during his initial travels through Israel that the idea for JudeanDelivery.com was born. He recalls, "When I came here two years ago, I noticed how passionate Christian tourists were when they went to all the holy sites. I mean, there were people crying - 60 year-old tough guys with anchors tattooed on their arms, just crying and weeping. I said, like, wow! This is amazing! So that kind of planted the seed in my mind - Christians really like this place. And then I read an article on cremation, about a guy scattering people's remains off the coast of California. So, the idea just clicked. So I went back to the States for a while, putting the business together for about a year, building the website. And, now I'm here! And I've been here since last June."
Even without the business, Berman seems to be sufficiently drawn to Israel to make it his permanent home. Describing himself as a "secular Zionist," he declares that Israel is "the best [country] in the world."
Where did Berman's business sense come from? "I've always been an entrepreneur," he says. "The first entrepreneurial venture I ever took on was selling laser pointers in middle school. I was 11, 12 years old, and I single-handedly got them outlawed in the town of Danvers. I was a business major in college, the University of Hartford, but college really didn't have anything to do with it. My dad fostered it. He didn't raise me to be a businessman, but he saw this in me and encouraged it. We're a lot alike. We're very close."
The two are so close and alike, in fact, that they are the joint owners of JudeanDelivery.com and - along with one employee who processes orders - the company's only staff. "My Dad is my partner. It's kind of like Sanford and Son, except we're Jewish." Berman's father, still firmly ensconced in Massachusetts, also owns a bottling business that packages other companies' personal care products.
JudeanDelivery.com's clients, Berman says, come from all over the world, but mostly from North America. The company markets its services chiefly to funeral homes - both through the Web site and by cold calling - who then offer the services to consumers. Following cremation at the funeral home, the ashes - or a portion thereof - are Fed-Ex'd to Berman in an envelope, directly to his Jerusalem apartment. Berman himself then scatters the remains at the chosen cremation site.
"This is not just a business, we really get to help people in their time of need," he says. Berman prices the service at a reasonable fee of $400 in the same spirit.
"We want to make this available for everybody. This is for Everyman."
Why, indeed, would "Everyman" feel drawn to such a service? "Cremations are getting very popular in the US," Berman explains. "The economy is tough, and getting tougher for a lot of people. Burial is very expensive. Cremation is not. There's at least $1,000 difference between burial and cremation. Also, there's the whole Baby Boomer thing."
As the face of this reporter - born at the height of the post-WWII baby boom - began to turn the proverbial whiter shade of pale, Berman hastened to explain that just as we were the generation that was famously creative about our weddings and other life events, we are now thinking of creative ways to dispose of our parents and, someday, ourselves.
Berman acknowledges that JudeanDelivery.com is not the only company that scatters cremation ashes in Israel. He believes, however, that his "extras" - in the form of certificates and site information, as well as his low price - make his company unique. And if all that is not enough, JudeanDelivery.com also offers its Prayer Delivery Service. For a fee of $120, Berman will personally hand deliver a customer's prayer to any of his company's usual cremation scattering sites, as well as to the Western Wall. Like the cremation scattering, this service is also marketed wholesale to funeral homes, which retail it directly to the consumer. And, as with the cremation scattering, the prayer delivery customer also receives a commemorative certificate, suitable for framing.
Both Moed and Berman display almost a sense of "mission" in describing what their companies do - one bringing different communities of people together in the Holy Land, the other providing special comfort and closure to the bereaved. As for the "business" part of their efforts, the faces of both CEOs express evident satisfaction about their companies' fiscal progress to date, as well as a clear sense that both are enjoying the ride.
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