As Israeli tourism officials focus on their main demographic with seven new tourism DVDs targeting Christian churches, 233 people will travel to Israel on Dec. 20 for the Los Angeles Jewish community's 10-day, post-Chanukah Mega-Mission. The number falls short of the 400 Jewish tourists who were expected to go, with the drop-off partly due to the Orthodox Union's (OU) convention last month in Israel.
"There were many conflicts that ran into it; the OU conference certainly was one of them," said Young Israel of Century City Rabbi Elazar Muskin, a Mega-Mission co-chair. "Nobody's blaming anybody as long as they're going to Israel."
The Mega-Mission is part of an up tick; tourism ministry statistics show that the 2003-2004 level of Jews visiting Israel did increase after several years of stagnant or decreasing Jewish tourism due to terrorism and the ongoing intifada. But a bulwark of Israeli tourism remains visits and pilgrimages by Christians.
Synagogues participating in the Mega-Mission include Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills, Muskin's Orthodox Young Israel congregation, the Conservative Temple Ramat Zion in Northridge, Temple Beth El of South Orange County, Mission Viejo's Temple Elat, Arcadia's Congregation Shaarei Torah, Congregation Ha-Makom in Northern California and Adat Shalom and Temple Beth Am, both in West Los Angeles. The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and the Southern California Board of Rabbis endorsed the mission, which was coordinated by Israel Tour Connection..
The Mega-Mission will have Jewish Angelenos meeting with Israel's tourism minister plus opening and closing trip dinners.
"From the first stage I believed in this project," said Noam Matas, the tourism ministry's departing Western U.S. director, who noted that the average tourist spends about $1,000-$1,500 per day in Israel. "People want to go to Israel; the only thing that they were lacking was the leadership to take them."
Individual synagogues running their own tour groups to Israel this year cut interest in the $2,300-person Mega-Mission. Reform congregation Temple Israel of Hollywood ran a 10-day study mission in mid-October, including a visit to help its sister shul near Jerusalem. Muskin's own synagogue saw 65 of its members travel to Israel over Thanksgiving weekend for a bar mitzvah.
"So they turned it into a mission, which is great, but they're not going with me in December," the rabbi said. "Did as many rabbis and synagogues get behind it they should have? No. This is a big Jewish community; there is a sense of community but it's not as strong as it should be because of its size. There's nothing to criticize when you get 200-plus going to Israel; it's fine, it's a wonderful opportunity for the L.A. community to promote tourism."
Matas also is working with Rabbi David Wolpe of Westwood's Conservative Sinai Temple for plans to lead 100-200 Jewish tourists to Israel next May, plus a different trip for all the Chabads of Southern California. From Dec. 30-Jan. 6, Seattle-based Jewish talk show host Michael Medved plans a West Coast interfaith trip.
With Tourism Ministry budget cuts creating a leaner U.S. marketing staff, Matas has been leading the outreach to evangelical and fundamentalist Christian churches. After a three-year tour working from his base at the Israeli consulate in Los Angeles, Matas left his director's post on Dec. 7 as part of his normal ministry rotation. His successor has not been named, and Matas will remain in Los Angeles for the next few months working on ministry projects, including a stronger push into Latin America.
In 2005, evangelical Christian churches will start receiving customized tourism ministry DVDs, hosted by prominent Christian pastors, including the Rev. Jack Hayford of the Church on the Way in Van Nuys. The ministry's Hayford-hosted "Destiny & Desire" DVD has been sent to about 38,500 pastors.
The other DVDs in the seven-DVD set will target Latino tourists with Spanish-speaking pastors, plus individual English-language DVDs for Calvary Chapel, Southern Baptist, Assembly of God and Nazarene congregations. Ministers from each of those faiths will talk to their own congregations about Israel.
"The message is different from DVD to DVD," Matas said. "And the whole thing comes together as an online DVD library."
The Tourism Ministry also is producing a tourism DVD for Christian women, showcasing sites relevant to the stories of biblical figures such as Rachel and Esther. While all the DVDs are hosted by prominent Christians, the final productions are edited by Israeli tourism officials.
Distribution of the 2,500 copies of the Christian women's DVD will begin in January, when about 600 DVDs will be given to ministers' wives at a Christian convention in Palm Beach, Fla. Separately, the leadership of the 16 million-member Southern Baptist Convention has given Matas a pledge to put the Baptist-specific tourism DVD into all Southern Baptist churches nationwide.