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This Year, a New Holiday Pledge Card: Become a Tourist to the Jewish State

A pledge card slated to land on hundreds of thousands of pews this Rosh Hashanah represents an epiphany for Israel’s tourism ministry: The best hope for one of Israel’s core industries lies in Jewish solidarity.

The grass-roots campaign, asking for pledges from Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and Reconstructionist congregants to visit Israel in 5764, turns years of conventional wisdom on its head.

Not long ago, Israeli tourism campaigns were aimed at sun seekers and Christian evangelists, while Jewish tourism was thought to have reached capacity levels.

A dramatic rise in Jewish tourism this year is behind a bounce back from the severe drop after the Palestinian intifada was launched in September 2000.

“Those Jews saved the tourism industry of Israel, its hotels, from bankruptcy,” Israeli Tourism Minister Benny Elon told JTA in a telephone interview.

The figure of 2.6 million tourists who once visited Israel annually dropped by 80 percent immediately after the intifada began, according to Geoffrey Weill, a New York travel industry marketer whom the Tourism Ministry hired to design the campaign.

This year, the number of tourists to Israel likely will reach 1.3 million — 50 percent of the old number — thanks mostly to the rise in Jewish tourism, particularly from the United States, Weill said.

Before the intifada, 60 percent of tourists to Israel were non-Jewish and just 40 percent were Jews; today the percentages are reversed, according to market research at airports.

“The one market it became clear was going to keep going and could be persuaded to send even more was Jewish tourism,” Weill said. “It used to be, 10 years ago, Jews would cancel first when things were bad.”

The pledge card campaign, run in coordination with the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and all the major denominational streams, aims to consolidate the trend through direct marketing.

Congregants can fold down one of four flaps, pledging a visit within three, six, nine or 12 months.

Respondents then will receive material promoting various tours and assuaging fears about travel to Israel. A few synagogues affiliated with the Orthodox Union handed out the cards at Slichot penitential services Saturday night to get an early start on the campaign.

Already, there has been some response to an advertisement featuring an airplane seat with the words, “This Rosh Hashana, your synagogue seat will look something like this.”

Pledge forms are available at the campaign’s Web site, www.ibelieveinisrael.com.

Organizers are hopeful — they say hundreds of pledges have been received — but admit the program is untried and unconventional.

“This is not the classical marketing system where you create a system through ads and the hard sell,” Elon said.

Some marketing experts predict success, saying that self-selected direct marketing is a proven strategy.

The Tourism Ministry is “getting a beautiful list. This kind of a list is worth its weight in gold,” said Betty Parker, a professor of marketing at Western Michigan University. “They know the people are alive, they know they have the correct address — I would give the Tourism Ministry an A-plus.”

But others who have marketed tourism for Israel in the past wonder if it will work.

Leo Kramer, a Washington businessman who has cultivated tourism markets for Israel as well as major European, Asian and African destinations, said the campaign emphasizes just what makes Israel a troubling destination: violence and instability.

“There is very little to be gained in spending time and money on reassurance campaigns, which only draw attention to the problems keeping people away,” Kramer said.

Elon counters that there is no longer any point ignoring the violence, and that addressing it — through reassurances about security and appeals for solidarity — is now the best strategy.

“You can’t misguide anyone, they open the TV, they see the problems,” Elon said. “Once upon a time, you could ignore the reality, if it happened now and then, but not for three years.”

Appeals to hedonism and escapism largely have failed, and the surge in Jewish tourism in recent years shows that the pledge appeal is the right path, said Rami Levi, the top Israeli tourism official in North America. “Sun and fun is great; we can’t forget it, but it’s not the main motivation,” Levi said.

Israel has come to appreciate that its tourist reservoir among Diaspora Jews is unique, said Levi, who consulted with a dozen other Western nations running tourism bureaus in the United States.

“No other country has the support of communities as we do,” Levi said. “We’ve found our strong point.”

Another factor that makes the pledge campaign appealing is its low cost: $120,000 out of the ministry’s $1 million U.S. budget, according to Levi.

Unusually, the organizers have no concrete plans to track whether those who make the pledge actually follow up, a traditional element of any marketing campaign.

“It’s not an exact science,” Weill said. “If tourism rises 25 percent, it’s clear the pledge has something to do with it.”

Hard numbers were less the issue than raising Jewish consciousness about Israel, according to representatives of the various denominations. The surge in Jewish concern for an Israel under siege presents an opportunity to perpetuate a sense of solidarity with the Jewish state, a sense once thought to be declining.

“It’s not a pledge that someone can take to the bank,” said Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the Conservative movement’s United Synagogue. “But it may be more important in that once someone makes that emotional tie, we can work on that.”

For the Reform movement, participation helps reverse bad publicity from the cancellation of Israel tours at the outset of the intifada.

“We felt strongly enough about this effort to encourage people to think about going to Israel,” said Rabbi Amiel Hirsch, who heads ARZA, the Reform Zionist movement, and whose name appears on pledge cards appearing in synagogues affiliated with the movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations. “Congregants will think about the future of their relationship to Israel.”

Getting American Jews to think a little harder about Israel will make the program a success, predicted Malcolm Hoenlein, the Conference of President’s executive vice chairman.

“Everybody finds excuses not to travel, to put it off,” he said. “We hope this will have some suasion.”

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