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Summertime and the tours to Israel are shrinking

By Dea Hadar
August 5, 2002

Only two years ago, it took 50 buses to drive the kids from Young Judea around Israel's highways. This summer only four buses were hired to drive the 14 Americans and 150 Britons from the sister organization Federation of Zionist Youth (FZY).

"We have hit rock bottom, from here we can only go up," says Moshik Toledano, vice president of Young Judea in Israel, regarding this year's summer tours. The same sad picture is reflected in other movements that organize summer youth tours here. These tours, which have been taking place for decades, were so successful in the 1990s that they attained a 100 percent growth rate over that 10-year period. The findings of a survey that pointed to a rate of assimilation of more than 50 percent among American Jews shook up the community, and contributed to the growing stream of young people aged 15-18 who were sent to Israel during the summer months.

"The community understood that in another two generations only vestiges would be left," says Danny Mor, director of the Israel Experience, a subsidiary of the Jewish Agency, which provides educational tourism services to various organizations. "The heads of the community began to search for ways in which to reinforce Jewish identity, and to their surprise, they discovered that the strongest educational `agent' that causes young people to feel that they belong to the Jewish people is a visit to Israel. As a result, they began to encourage such trips."

Until 2000, the peak year for Jewish youth tourism, about 15,000 young people came to Israel annually, about 70 percent of them during the summer months. Half of the teenagers came from the United States. Most of the groups were organized by the pluralistic Young Judea movement, and the Reform and Conservative Movements, and were sponsored by the Jewish Agency. In addition, there were private companies who brought teens to Israel independently, and were responsible for another few thousand young visitors each summer.

"In many cases, the tours were marketed as `fun and sun,' so that people would register. When they finally got to Israel, the educational seeds were sown," explains Mor.

The young people sporting shorts and tanned legs, who each spent over $5,000 to participate in an Israeli tour, became an inseparable part of the summer landscape in Masada, in the Jerusalem pedestrian mall and on the Tel Aviv boardwalk. They generated business and income for hotels, transport companies, museums and sites of national interest. At its peak, this industry channeled about $45 million into Israel annually.

In October 2000, when the territories started to burn and Shimon Ohana took two bullets in his heart, the glossy brochures for summer 2001 were sent out, without taking the Al-Aqsa Intifada into consideration.

"Everyone put their plans on hold, they didn't know if they should register their children or not. They thought it was a temporary thing and that by summer, the situation would calm down," recalls Mor. The Reform Movement canceled its trips altogether, and was harshly criticized for doing so. Among the parents who registered their children, many canceled at the last moment, after the terrorist attack at the Dolphinarium discotheque in Tel Aviv, in June 2001. About 4,000 Jewish teens visited Israel last year, a drop of 50 percent from the previous year.

This year the picture is even worse. This summer, only a few hundred Jewish teenagers have arrived for local tours. The business is no longer profitable, the private firms have folded, but the Zionist movements are determined to continue the tradition and to preserve the infrastructure, even if it means absorbing losses and investing in rigid security arrangements.

"This year it's no longer profitable, but we are ideologically committed to this thing," says Toledano. "It strengthens the Jewish identity of these young people. Some of them go all the way with it, and come on aliyah; others live in the United States and support Israel. We have raised entire generations, and Hadassah supports the Jews in Israel without regard to what is happening at the moment. That's what's called unconditional love."