This Rosh Hashanah, Israel sends a different message

washington | A pledge card slated to land on hundreds of thousands of pews this Rosh Hashanah represents an epiphany for Israel’s tourism ministry: The best hope for one of Israel’s core industries lies in Jewish solidarity.

The grassroots campaign, asking for pledged from Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and Reconstructionist congregants to visit Israel in 5764, turns years of conventional wisdom on its head.

Not long ago, Israeli tourism campaigns were aimed at sun seekers and Christian evangelists, while Jewish tourism was thought to have reached capacity levels.

A dramatic rise in Jewish tourism this year is behind a bounce back from the severe drop after the Palestinian intifada was launched in September 2000.

“Those Jews saved the tourism industry of Israel, its hotels, from bankruptcy,” Israeli Tourism Minister Benny Elon said in a telephone interview.

The figure of 2.6 million tourists who once visited Israel annually dropped by 80 percent immediately after the intifada began, according to Geoffrey Weill, a New York travel industry marketer whom the Tourism Ministry hired to design the campaign.

This year, the number of tourists to Israel likely will reach 1.3 million — 50 percent of the old number — thanks mostly to the rise in Jewish tourism, particularly from the United States, Weill said.

Before the intifada, 60 percent of tourists to Israel were non-Jewish and just 40 percent were Jews; today the percentages are reversed, according to market research at airports.

“The one market it became clear was going to keep going and could be persuaded to send even more was Jewish tourism,” Weill said. “It used to be, 10 years ago, Jews would cancel first when things were bad.”

The pledge card campaign, run in coordination with the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and all the major denominational streams, aims to consolidate the trend through direct marketing.

Congregants can fold down one of four flaps, pledging a visit within three, six, nine or 12 months.

Respondents then will receive material promoting various tours and assuaging fears about travel to Israel. A few synagogues affiliated with the Orthodox Union handed out the cards at Slichot penitential services Saturday night to get an early start on the campaign.

Already, there has been some response to an advertisement featuring an airplane seat with the words, “This Rosh Hashanah, your synagogue seat will look something like this.”

Pledge forms are available at the campaign’s Web site,

Ron Kampeas

JTA D.C. bureau chief