Israel abandoned its “red list” of countries last week—those destinations with high COVID-19 infection rates, from which foreign travelers were banned from entering Israel. It’s welcome news to pro-Israel groups whose bread and butter is organizing trips to Israel. They say the travel bans have complicated their mission to connect people to the Jewish state, and no amount of speaker series and digital events can compare to “putting two feet on Israeli soil.”

Izzy Tapoohi, president and CEO of the Birthright Israel Foundation, told JNS that COVID and the resultant travel bans have had a “disastrous” effect on the ability of young Jews to defend both Judaism and Israel from the onslaught of anti-Semitism, especially on social media.

“There’s no way that they’re going to be able to learn about Israel on social media. It’s all anti,” he said. “The way that they’re going to be able to understand and appreciate what it’s all about is to come to Israel.”

He estimates that in the last two years, 85,000 young adults were unable to make the 10-day Birthright trip due to the ongoing pandemic. The number impacted is actually larger, he said, as Birthright relies on returning participants to tell family and friends about the trip. “The way we recruit is by word-of-mouth … half of our registration success is based on the fact that a young adult who comes back from Israel is the best marketing tool we have,” explained Tapoohi.

Pamela Fertel Weinstein, Birthright’s vice president of marketing and public relations, agreed: “They’re not going to provide what we call the ‘Birthright bounce’—that all of a sudden people around them start to go to Israel because they’re seeing firsthand from their child, their grandchild, their sister, their cousin, how great it is, and they want to be part of that.”

“These are generations—years of participants—that are missing out, and the Jewish community and Israel is missing out if they don’t get to go,” she said.

She told JNS that the young adult demographic enjoys “a million opportunities.” She fears that if pandemic restrictions continue, “we’ll lose these young Jews—that they’re going to age out or going to graduate college, and start a job and not be able to take the time to go, and that connection that we know is forged will not happen,” she said.

Tapoohi added that “we feel very upset about it because all of us here are very passionate about the importance of Birthright and what it does for the continuation of the Jewish people, especially in the United States.”

David Brog, executive director of the Maccabee Task Force, is also worried about the effects ongoing travel restrictions will have on his organization’s mission. The group, founded in 2015, fights anti-Semitism, anti-Jewish bias and the BDS movement on college campuses.

Taking campus leaders to Israel “is the centerpiece of our strategy,” he told JNS. “Unlike other trips to Israel, it’s not for Jewish students primarily. It’s for the people who really influence the direction of the political debate on campus.”

The group has found that the narrative on campus is so anti-Israel “that even a bad trip to Israel does amazing good in shattering anti-Israel myths that are prevalent on the far-left,” he said.

Students in Jerusalem during a Maccabee Task Force trip to Israel. Credit: Maccabee Task Force.

“What we’re seeing is that, basically, you can survive off the fumes of past trips for a year or so, but by the time you get to two years without a trip—and we’re hitting that point now on most of our campuses—the network you were able to build through the trip really begins to fall apart,” he said.

As evidence of the real-world, negative impact that COVID-19 restrictions have had on the group’s work, Brog points to the fact that during Israel’s 11-day Gaza conflict last May, anti-Israel resolutions were brought on 10 campuses where Maccabee Task Force has a presence.

At universities where students who had gone on trips were still active, the anti-Israel resolutions were defeated, “and in every case where we lost, we saw that the people we had brought to Israel had since moved on, had graduated and were no longer in leadership positions,” Brog said.

‘Renewed sense of faith and pride and connection’

Passages, a group that brings young Christian students to Israel, was established in response to surveys showing that “young evangelical support for Israel was waning, and young people were just not coming to Israel like the older generation of Christians were,” Scott Phillips, executive director of Passages, told JNS.

The organization, which has already brought 8,000 young people to Israel since its founding in 2016, was forced to cancel trips for thousands of participants since COVID hit.

“It definitely has affected us. We had 200 students on the ground in Israel in March of 2020, and we had to bring them all home three days early because the borders were closing,” Phillips told JNS. “We had 400 students slated for this winter. They were going to be there right now. And we had to, of course, cancel those.”

Phillips said the pandemic “has made us realize how significant the trips are.”

The group continues to hold digital (and some live) events to keep alumni engaged, but “the challenge is we want a new infusion of alumni who are going on these trips. It’s a fresh experience for them. We can engage them right away. The momentum has been what’s challenging because of the lack of ability to get in the country.”

A group of Christian American students in Israel with Passages program, June 2021. Credit: Cade Chudy.

Phillips, however, remains optimistic and sees the pandemic as “a temporary setback,” noting that it hasn’t been hard to recruit students for future trips. “The thing about Christian support for Israel is that it truly is, in many cases … unconditional because it comes from a place of faith,” he said.

Birthright’s Tapoohi and Fertel Weinstein are also optimistic. Weinstein said she had accompanied trips that Birthright managed to squeeze into Israel in August before the borders tightened up again and saw that the participants were even more grateful and appreciative than usual.

“It was a heightened sense of ‘now more than ever, I am so glad to be here.’ I am so glad to feel part of a community, and coming here now is giving me this renewed sense of faith and pride and connection and hope for the world,” she said.

With Israel’s decision to scrap its “red list,” Birthright has already announced a winter round of trips and aims to bring 30 groups in February.

JNS

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