Repelling down Judean Desert mountain faces, bumping along dirt roads by jeep and tucking notes into the Western Wall in Jerusalem, tourists have returned to Israel for winter vacation in the largest numbers since the Palestinian intifada began more than four years ago. The perception that Israel is safer than it was a year ago, and renewed hopes for peace in the wake of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat’s death, are playing their part in luring tourists back, tourism officials and trip organizers said.
“During the intifada you literally begged people to come, and now people are begging you to get on the trip,” said Marlene Post, president of Hadassah International and chairwoman of birthright israel in North America. She currently is in Israel helping oversee three Hadassah missions that have come for winter break.
Across the board, more tourists are coming — Jewish and Christian, students and families, part of an overall surge in tourism in 2004. Some 1.4 million tourists are expected to come to Israel by the end of 2004, a 44 percent increase over last year.
“The increase in tourism this year and the optimistic outlook for 2005 can be attributed to an increasingly positive atmosphere in the region, an improvement in the security situation and the renewal of intensive marketing efforts around the world,” Tourism Ministry spokesman Golan Yossifon said.
Among the visitors were a group of 127 from New York City’s Park Avenue Synagogue, one of the largest synagogue missions to come to Israel since the intifada began.
Throughout the year the synagogue focused its congregation on Israel — revamping its religious school curriculum to put Israel at center stage, hosting festivals of Israeli art and film and hosting lectures.
The climax was climbing on a plane and exploring “the complexities of Israel for eight days,” said Corwin Paul, a synagogue member and lawyer who organized the trip. Their first stop was cheering in the stands at a professional basket ball game in Tel Aviv, while their last was a tour of the hall where David Ben-Gurion declared Israel’s independence in 1948.
For Amy A.B. Bressman, chairman of the synagogue’s board, the most moving moment was watching 10 of their Bar Mitzvah-age children help a group of special needs Israeli children hold a Bar Mitzvah ceremony in a Conservative synagogue in Jerusalem.
Cloaked in white talits, the 13-year-olds from New York City helped wind leather teflillin straps around the arms of the Israelis and read aloud from the Torah. The Israeli teenagers led the service in prayers.
Later, members of the Park Avenue Synagogue and the Israeli families hoisted the special needs children into chairs amid a chorus of singing and cheering.
“The faces of those children in those chairs is a memory I will always have,” Bressman said.
The event was part of a Bar/Bat Mitzvah for Special Children Program operated by the Masorti movement, as the Conservative movement is known in Israel.
“We were very moved,” said Orna Schwartz, an Israeli woman whose daughter participated in the ceremony.
Exposing congregants to the ordinary and the extraordinary is what the trip was about, Paul said.
“You don’t get people to just go to Israel, you get them to engage in Israel,” he said, adding that other synagogues have begun to turn to them for advice on building congregants’ interest in Israel.
Birthright israel, the free trip to the Jewish state for Diaspora youth who have never visited on a peer trip, also saw high numbers, bringing about 8,500 youth to Israel this winter.
The Jewish Agency for Israel saw a dramatic rise in the number of high school and college students that it brings to Israel from around the world. Some 4,600 students from countries as diverse as South Africa, France and Australia came for their December vacation as part of JAFI’s “Israel Experience” program.
JAFI also led programming of trips for some 2,400 of the birthright participants.
Hillel also is seeing the highest number of American college students coming to Israel since the start of the intifada.
“We are at maximum capacity,” said Wayne Firestone, executive director of the Israel on Campus Coalition, an umbrella group for 30 national Jewish organizations founded by Hillel International and the Schusterman Foundation.
He said the easing of the security situation has made it easier for people to come to Israel and also has facilitated travel within Israel.
“Parents seem more comfortable and have made less problems about sending their kids,” he said.
Surveying the Hadassah trips to Israel, which include two family missions and a singles group, Post said she was struck by the increase in both people traveling with their children and in first-time visitors, something not much seen in recent years.
“I think there is this window of opportunity and people see it and are positive about it,” Post said.
During the previous intifada years, the majority of Jews coming to Israel were devoted Zionists.
“Now you have people on the fringes who are not necessarily as identifiable as passionate Zionists but came because they feel safer and see stability in Israel’s government and America’s government,” she said.
For Bill, a New York businessman on the Park Avenue Synagogue tour, coming to Israel for the first time this December was a powerful experience. He and his family had planned to come four years ago, but cancelled after the intifada broke out.
“I’m not a religious Jew,” Bill said, but coming here “cut me deep to my core and made me aware of my Jewish consciousness. If anyone cares anything about their Jewish identity then they should come visit here, because this is like nothing I’ve experienced before. This is the Jewish homeland.”