A 10-day Los Angeles Jewish community trip to Israel in December caps off what is expected to be a stronger tourist year for the Jewish state.
The "Mega Mission" trip was originally planned last December as an Aug. 1-10 journey incorporating all denominations, with support from Orthodox, Conservative and Reform rabbis. But the August date conflicted with too many families' summer camp and vacation plans, according to feedback from synagogue staffers.
"They felt that they couldn't round up the people," said Rabbi Elazar Muskin of Young Israel of Century City. "That [December date] is a universal time for vacation vs. summer, when everybody's everywhere."
"I did six missions over 20 months with Young Israel of Century City," said Muskin, the trip's co-chair. "We're now saying, 'Let's promote this as a community. There's a value to this.' That's why I'm promoting this vs. another Young Israel of Century City mission. What we're trying to accomplish is the sense that we're a united community supporting Israel; that doesn't occur by running private synagogue trips. The idea is, let's go as community."
The 10-day, Dec. 19-29 trip, runs after Chanukah, during Christmas week and before New Year's Eve. The package price is about $2,300 per person.
"We can attract a lot of students and families to go together," said Noam Matas, the Israel Ministry of Tourism's Western U.S. director.
Travel agent Rina Silverman, of World Express Travel in Tarzana, said that roundtrip tickets to Israel are selling well for late June, when school gets out, with flights for some days already sold out.
"The summer looks very hot this year, it's already packed," she said.
The December trip is expected to attract about 300 people. Last December, Denver's Jewish community attracted 120 people to a 10-day, merged Jewish-Christian trip to Israel; the upcoming L.A. community trip is Jewish-specific and has support from The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and Jewish leaders.
Israel's L.A. tourism ministry office will be talking up the December trip at Aish HaTorah's June 8 Beverly Hilton Hotel gala, though Aish Hatorah has its own Israel trip planned this year. Similarly, Baker pointed to Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles, which this week has some congregants on a Conservative movement trip in Israel.
"How many synagogues are on their own independent mission?" Baker said.
The ministry also is working with KABC-AM radio talk show host Al Rantel and 200 of his fans in planning their June 25-July 10 trip, with Rantel broadcasting his daily show from Israel. Separately, the Israel advocacy group, StandWithUs, is planning its own, $3,000-per-person Aug. 8-18 trip.
As support grows for the Jewish community-wide trip, Israeli tourism officials also are continuing the ministry's outreach to evangelical Christian tourists imbued with Christian Zionism.
On May 20, Matas spoke at the annual Southern California pastors' luncheon put on by KKLA-FM, the region's most powerful Christian station. Similar tourism pitches are planned for upcoming pastor lunches and Christian Zionist gatherings in San Diego, Bakersfield, Phoenix, Portland and Seattle.
The tourism ministry also has made marketing deals for branded Israel trips with the Spanish-language evangelical Christian TV network, Almavision, which has 12 stations in major U.S. Latino markets. The network's planned November trip should attract about 200 Latinos, Matas said, "and then it's going to be a tradition [with Almavision]."
On May 30, tourism officials will be at a national Christian ministers conference in San Francisco to debut a two-hour tourism DVD hosted by the Rev. Jack Hayford, pastor of The Church on the Way in Van Nuys and a prominent U.S. evangelical leader. About 100,000 copies will be distributed to pastors, Matas said.
The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles will show an Israel travel video at Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral on June 30 during an interfaith program with The Federation and the tourism ministry.
Rinat Gremberg, a World Express Travel agent specializing in Christian tourists, said the Christian market has seen a slight increase over last year and that the demographic remains unusually strong and largely unfazed by terrorism.
Matas, Gremberg and others familiar with evangelical tourists said they have heard nothing from Christians about wanting to go to Israel specifically because they were inspired to after seeing filmmaker Mel Gibson's controversial movie, "The Passion of the Christ."
"Nobody has mentioned it to us," Gremberg said.
For more information on the December trip, call the Israel Ministry of Tourism at (323) 658-7463, ext. 1 or 3.; Aish HaTorah Los Angeles at (310) 278-8672 ext. 303; or StandWithUs at (310) 836-6140.