What do Birthright Israel, Christian group Passages, Young Judaea, Chabad on Campus and 86 or so other organizations have in common? All are combating changes in logistics and the Israeli economy that are challenging the educational travel industry.
Tal Gozani, executive director of the Israel Educational Travel Alliance (IETA) at Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), said the problems began with the travel limitations during the COVID epidemic. Some 12,000 jobs were cut from the Israeli hospitality and tourism industries between 2019 and 2020, leaving hotels and tour operators short-staffed.
Then costs rose dramatically, with ground costs up 22% between 2019 and what is projected for 2023 for Israel educational trips, according to a recent survey of IETA partner organizations.
During the pandemic, tour guides were forced to pivot and seek new employment. Many found new careers. “The tour guide shortage has directly affected us,” explained Gozani.
According to JFNA, in 2019 the organizations now in IETA served an estimated 80,000 participants through their programs, roughly 8% of all North American tourists to Israel based on OECD numbers. In 2022, IETA was able to bring only 60-75% of the pre-pandemic numbers of participants to Israel.
Ben Pery, CEO of Momentum Unlimited, a not-for-profit organization with a mission to empower women to transform themselves, their families and their communities through Jewish values, hosts groups of women through partner organizations. The women study together, bond and tour Israel.
With more than 300 partner organizations in 34 countries, Momentum Unlimited, formerly called the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project (JWRP), creates a year-long journey for the participants that culminates in an eight-day trip to Israel.
Partners bring groups of moms ranging in number from 10 to 100 from every segment of Jewry to study and experience Jewish values. The outreach organization, founded by former Aish HaTorah powerhouse Lori Palatnik, mixes diverse groups of unaffiliated Jewish women from Reform to Federation to Chabad to Hadassah backgrounds, all mothers of children under age 18.
This leads one to ask how mothers are able to take an eight-day hiatus from their minor children. According to Pery, many say they came because of their children.
He said the women on the trips transcend their philosophical differences and create remarkable, cohesive bonds.
In December, Momentum hosted a group of 230 Russian speakers from Russia and Ukraine. Russian mothers along with Ukrainians. At first it was hard to get them onto the bus together, recalled Pery.
“‘Our husbands fight each other,’ the women were adamant. But by the end of the first evening they were crying on each other’s shoulders, understanding we are all the same. We are all Jews.
“Our organization focuses on what unites us and not on what divides us. And we offer strong educators giving over our content and Jewish values. It’s so important to connect women—moms—with Jewish traditions,” he said.
“Young parents are the most underserved segment in the Jewish community,” said Pery. “And yet the child-rearing years are the most important period of time to affect cultural values and implement changes in the home.”
It was COVID that spawned IETA, according to Pery, who co-founded the group. In March 2020, Momentum Unlimited was one of the first educational travel organizations to shut down as the coronavirus swept the globe. They could not risk a single mother getting stuck in a foreign country.
That’s when Pery started receiving calls from other organizations, some trying to understand the decision to shut the trips down. After discussions, the CEOs of the organizations realized they needed to cooperate. It began with calls, and later a WhatsApp group. They met each week on Zoom to share pain, thoughts, ideas on how to communicate with boards, funders, partners and more.
In the same boat
The Israel Educational Travel Alliance includes itrek, an organization that brings Ivy League students to Israel; Birthright Israel; Honeymoon Israel; and other large organizations. As the alliance picked up speed, it approached JFNA and the coalition of about 30 organizations continued to meet regularly. They then hired Gozani as executive director.
“COVID gave us a hidden blessing,” said Pery. “It was God saying we are all in the same boat. Organizations generally don’t partner well, but people partner well and since we are all CEOs and we love what we do, our group of like-minded individuals forced to work together because of COVID started asking what else we can do together: create synergy, share information of best practices, communicate and more. We realized we were not competing with each other.”
The alliance now encompasses more than 90 organizations from diverse walks of life, not exclusively Jewish, and is excited about working together in their shared goals of bringing advocacy, policies and best practices, education, enhanced communication, and marketing to their educational programming.
A leadership summit that kicked off in Jerusalem on Sunday evening and runs through Wednesday, hosted by IETA and chaired by Pery, is addressing the challenges with some of the key organizations. IETA hopes that through collaboration, they will find solutions to bring even more educational groups back to Israel. The Israeli summit will be followed by stateside events to develop the initiatives.
“Our focus is three-fold,” said Gozani. “Firstly, we discuss advocating and creating awareness for Israel educational travel. We will meet with government members and ministries to pitch potential partnerships. Secondly, the forum will be used to build community for collaboration purposes. Thirdly, we will discuss our shared goals in the field and conduct strategic planning.”
Pery was particularly excited about the summit and the visit to the Knesset.
“It was great that we are meeting on Zoom but what we all have in common is that we run programs for an immersive experience in Israel. It just made sense that we all came for our own immersive experience.
“Together we bring over 100,000 people to Israel,” he said. “Meeting with Knesset Speaker Amir Ohana, Diaspora Affairs Minister Amichai Chikli, representatives of the foreign ministry and the ministry of tourism has real relevance for us as we are working together. If we maintain an open line of communication, we can provide fresh perspectives on hasbara [public diplomacy].”
There are opportunities for everyone to share in problem-solving. The alliance members will engage in breakout conversations about insurance, airfare and tour operators.
“Normalizing travel to Israel is really, really important for everyone,” said Gozani. “Birthright is bringing Jewish students. Passages is bringing non-Jewish students. And all the programs strengthen the connections people have to Israel.”
For JFNA, the stakes are high. With American Jews increasingly on the political fence about Israel, it is important to maintain the quality of travel in Israel, to make these transformative educational experiences possible.
“Any educational experience in Israel is proven to strengthen Jewish identity,” JFNA spokesperson Alisa Bodner explained. “This is why we have such an interest and stake in this.”