March 18, 2004
This Year in Jerusalem
For the past decade, members of Shaare Shalom, a Persian synagogue in Great Neck, N.Y., have traveled en masse to Miami each Passover.
This year, however, many synagogue members are passing up the Fontainebleau Hilton for the Jewish state -- where they'll combine the springtime holiday with bar mitzvah celebrations at the Western Wall in Jerusalem for children in the community.
"It's like a solidarity trip," said Robert Hakimi, a jeweler in Manhattan's diamond district whose son, Kevin, is among those having a bar mitzvah.
The group hopes to make Passover in Israel a new tradition. Already, 200 of them have made reservations for the holiday at an Eilat resort, Hakimi said.
The Persian posse may be a dramatic example of a tourism revival in Israel this Passover, but they're not alone.
Two years after what is known as the "Passover massacre" -- when a suicide bomber killed 30 people at a seder at a Netanya hotel and changed the course of the intifada by prompting the return of Israel's military to the West Bank -- tourism officials report a serious upswing in travel to Israel for Passover.
In any case, Passover is considered among the "high seasons" of Israel travel, but officials say the holiday demand this year reflects a general trend of U.S. Jews returning to Israel in an act of solidarity.
"Tourism to Israel is up in a tremendous way," said Rami Levy, Israel's tourism ambassador to North and South America.
In fact, 2003 broke an all-time record in American Jewish tourism to Israel, Levy said. Some 221,000 American Jews visited Israel last year, he said.
General tourism to Israel is down, however. Slightly more than 1 million people visited Israel in 2003. That's up at least 25 percent from 2002 but down from its peak in 1999, when 2.7 million visited the Jewish state, Israel's Tourism Ministry said.
The increase in U.S. Jewish travel comes from close coordination between Israel's Tourism Ministry and American Jewish synagogues and groups, Levy said.
For example, the North American Jewish federation system held its annual General Assembly in Israel last year, drawing 4,300 North Americans. Synagogues also have distributed pledge cards and rabbis have delivered sermons encouraging Israel travel.
To sustain the trend, Israel's Tourism Ministry has appointed a coordinator for 475 tourism committees within American synagogues.
The effort seems to be working.
Susan Blum, manager of the Israel Department of Gil Travel, a Philadelphia-based travel agency that specializes in Israel, partly attributes the increase to Israeli prodding.
"One of the ads that the Israel Ministry of Tourism had last year was 'Make your pledge to go back to Israel next year for 2004,'" she said, referring to ads Israel placed in Jewish publications and synagogues across North America. "Well, it's 2004 now, and it looks like people are living up to their pledges."
"We're doing quotations left and right for synagogues," she said. "It's really, really rejuvenating."
While Israel's Tourism Ministry will not tally its records until the end of April, there are several signs that tourism this Passover will pass previous years. Continental Airlines has added seven flights to Israel each week in April, and El Al has added a host of new flights to accommodate demand, Levy said.
Blum figures that Passover travel will climb 30 percent to 40 percent this year but says those levels are still 30 percent below what they were before the intifada.
At TotallyJewishTravel.com, "What we have noticed is a major increase in people inquiring about Pesach in Israel, compared to last year," CEO Raphi Bloom said. "Hotels in Israel who advertise with us are selling out five to six weeks before Pesach, and even if a hotel has room left, flights are increasingly hard to find."
Bloom noted that 70 percent of his site's users are North American.
Bloom ascribes the increased interest to a calmer security situation in Israel coupled with the end of major hostilities in Iraq. Others say people simply are getting used to the ongoing intifada or feel inspired to show solidarity with a Jewish state still under siege.
"More people want to get more involved in showing solidarity with Israel, and Passover's a great time to come," said Rabbi Isroel Chanin, head of hospitality services for Chabad-Lubavitch in Jerusalem.
The number of e-mails and phone calls he receives inquiring about arrangements for Passover has doubled, Chanin said. This April, he has booked 15 bar mitzvahs at the Western Wall, triple his usual bookings for this time of year.
Hakimi and his Persian group are taking their cues from Israel.
The Israel consulate is "sending us signals," he said. "They're telling us to go to Israel and visit."