As Israel hosted more than 3.5 million tourists in 2013 — a record-breaking benchmark that included over 600,000 Americans — program operators and attendees have noticed a new niche demographic gaining interest in seeing the Holy Land.
Call them “baby boomerangers,” Jews in roughly the 50-to 65-year-old age bracket who are parents of youth who have taken part in work and study programs in Israel, or who were themselves once there, and want to find a more experiential and even spiritual sojourn.
“We’ve had questions from [program members] or parents, saying, ‘You know, you should be doing a parents’ program,’ ” said Meir Paltiel of the Safed-based Livnot U’Lehibanot (“To Build and to Be Built”) program, which combines social assistance volunteering with hiking and Jewish study.
The older generation “wanted a kind of experience similar to the one their kids had,” Paltiel said, noting the results of an internal survey conducted among alumni and their parents. “We’re actually going to run one in May of next year.”
Fostering traditional Jewish values, knowledge and lore to relatively non-observant 20-somethings is a less complex task than imparting similar material to a more mature age group, Paltiel said. But, he added, many Jewish boomerangers have their own motivations for a spiritual trek.
“[Even though] you settle down and create your own community, norms and habits, there’s a certain age when the kids are moving off and you’re reanalyzing your life and you tend to go over that again,” Paltiel said.
He believes that while empty-nester moms and dads may have more set opinions and be less familiar with Israeli mores — both on the hiking trail and in the synagogue — they are willing to get out of their comfort zone.
“We have a lot of people who say, ‘I know a lot of things, but there’s a lot I don’t know, and I’m interested in exploring.’ ”
While attending a yeshiva might be too abrupt and comprehensive a change for boomers, Paltiel suggested that a multiweek program at Livnot might better fit the needs, abilities and interests of older demographic groups.
Pamela Lazarus, program coordinator of Sar-El, a national project for volunteers for Israel, told the Journal that more than 60 percent of the 3,500 to 4,000 members it hosts annually for its three-week program are older returnees who have come back for the second or third time — and some, even more.
The program by design isn’t ritzy, say alumni, who see it as a way to experience Israel far behind the headlines, hotel and tour-bus windows, and media spin.
“Being able to come from abroad and be a part of a program like this is a tremendous opportunity for people, and it’s very fulfilling, said Modi’in resident Howie Mischel, 62, who made aliyah from Teaneck, N.J., several years ago. “It’s a really meaningful way to help out.”
Members serve in Israel Defense Forces (IDF) depots and related medical facilities, bunk in the same barracks as the soldiers (by gender), eat with the troops in the mess hall and help out with numerous — and sometimes onerous — on-base chores.
In addition to working as an adviser for the aliyah organization Nefesh B’Nefesh, Mischel runs a chug (parlor group) for Sar-El alumni, most of whom are over 50. Mischel helps incoming older olim on the program, as a form of weeklong volunteer reserve duty.
“There are people who want to come, make a contribution; they still see themselves, and still definitely are, viable contributors in many ways and have a lot to offer,” he said.
New Jersey residents Diana and Sheldon Horowitz certainly fit that demographic; the two retirees are on their second three-week stint with Sar-El.
“Israel does this very well,” Diana Horowitz said of their latest stint in green, working in a hospital near Tel Aviv. (The members are informally outfitted in khaki green IDF uniforms.)
“We’ve made some lasting relationships, and it’s not just Jews on the program.
There were people from all over the world, and the facilitators discourage talking about politics,” she said. “Not only are you doing the volunteer work — you’re really having fun.”
Just not the kind of “tourist” recreation you might expect.
Members view their “scut work” duties, Spartan living conditions, group Shabbats, hikes and field trips as a sort of low-impact but mission-rich Outward Bound.
“There’s no ‘evening activity,’ as in, ‘Here’s the movie, here’s the TV,’ ” Diana Horowitz noted. “You’re on an army base! But we would sit out and talk for hours on end; somebody would bring a guitar. ... It was just a very, very positive experience, and they make it that way.”
She dismissed a query about whether the program could be construed by outsiders abroad as aiding the military of a foreign country, one enmeshed in a controversial conflict with terrorists and hostile neighbors.
“It’s not paramilitary; it’s humanitarian,” she stressed.
“[Israel] sent aid to Haiti, to the Philippines — this is what I was doing. It may have been associated with the army, but this is what I was doing: sorting medical supplies. Why, they sent aid when [Hurricane] Sandy came,” Horowitz pointed out. “That’s us!”
Her husband chimed in, too: “They sent aid when those tornadoes touched down in Missouri” in 2011.
He recounted how they prepared pallets of medical supplies, as U.S. cable TV reports described the catastrophic damage and loss of life. “The next thing, a day or two later, I’m packing up skids of this stuff,” he said, surmising that it was meant for those hammered by the tornadoes’ wrath.
Long after they’ve outgrown Birthright, boomers like the Horowitzes are finding their own ways back to Israel — to give, but also to receive. As Diana Horowitz concluded: “The best part of it was the camaraderie, and you knew you were helping the country.”