Among many congregations and Jewish groups, virtual Israel trips are popular.
Every night for a week, more than 200 “travelers” from 11 states — including a group from Congregation Beth Ahm in West Bloomfield — experienced Israel like never before. An Israeli guide led them through an “off-the-beaten-path” tour from the Negev to Masada, the Golan to West Galilee, and to Leket, Israel’s national food bank, with many stops in between.
Even more unusual than the sights, sounds and people they met, was their mode of transportation. The Jan. 3-7 trip was virtual, and all of the participants joined by logging in via Zoom from their computers.
“The trip was incredibly successful. It brought us together as a community to experience our Jewish home in a new way,” said David Goodman, executive director of Beth Ahm. “It also brought us together as individuals. At a time when so many were feeling isolated because of the weather and COVID-19 restrictions, the trip provided an outlet for personal interaction. Albeit on the computer, seeing friends and family and meeting new ‘travelers’ to learn, laugh and share a common love of Israel provided human contact that has been missing.”
There was no cost to attend because the trip was sponsored by the Beth Ahm Sisterhood, but participants could give a tip to the guide at their discretion. To supplement each day’s adventure, kosher Israeli-style take-out was available from the congregation’s caterer, Dish Kosher Cuisine.
Nancy Goldberg and her husband, Ira, from Farmington Hills were among those on the weeklong journey.
“We had a June 2020 trip planned to Israel and had to cancel due to COVID. We planned to spend time in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv,” Goldberg said. “While I would have rather been in Israel, attending from home still allowed me to connect to Israel by seeing some familiar sights and some new ones.
“Our guide discussed everything from history to agriculture to technology and art. When we can go to Israel, I will definitely take this experience with me and appreciate being there so much more.”
Virtual travel has been booming since the COVID-19 pandemic forced the closure of borders around the world. While some travel restrictions have been lifted, there are still countless places people cannot go. But wildlife safaris, virtual reality tours of National Parks, scuba diving tours in Antarctica and Indonesia, museum tours, even views from the peaks of Switzerland’s St. Moritz are all available online. Among many congregations and Jewish groups, virtual Israel trips are popular.
“In 2019, Israel had a record-breaking year of tourism with more than 4 million visitors,” said Naomi Miller, director of Missions and Israel representative for the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit. “In 2020, tourism decreased by more than 80% and the ministry of tourism estimates more than $3.6 billion in lost revenue.”
Miller has helped to organize several virtual Israel trips like the one Jewish Federations of North America has planned for March. It’s called “Forward Focus,” a series that brings experts, religious leaders and change makers together to discuss topics, including the power balance between religion and state, the evolution of life-cycle events in Israel, the LGBTQ community and Judaism, and more.
Amy Cutler and her husband, Ezra, of West Bloomfield participated in Federation’s Virtual Mission to Israel in October, which included “live guided tours through Israeli cities and landmarks, enlightening looks at history and informative conversations with Israeli partners.”
“Although we have been to Israel several times, this was a whole new and different perspective,” she said. “What was interesting was our Federation’s involvement with our sister region in the Central Galilee area. This was not on the average visitor’s itinerary.”
Cutler said highlights of the trip included a walk through Mahane Yehuda Market in Jerusalem, often called the “shuk,” a recently excavated and newly opened underground walkway from the water tunnel to the Western Wall and fabulous graffiti artwork she saw along the way.
“We’ve been talking about another visit to Israel but with COVID that was out of the question,” she says. “This gave us the opportunity to relax and enjoy a ‘vacation’ that could otherwise not have happened. It was just such a fascinating experience. I can’t wait for another virtual vacation.”
To learn more about virtual Israel tours, visit: jnf.org/visit-israel/jnf-virtual-tours-to-israel.