JFNA gathers Israel trip providers to discuss what visits to the Jewish state look like post-Oct. 7

The Israel Educational Travel Alliance holds its inaugural convening in D.C., considering safety concerns and logistical challenges; ‘there was such a need to come together and talk about these issues,’ its director says 

When the Israel Educational Travel Alliance was formed during the COVID-19 pandemic, it served as a way to build and grow Israel educational travel during lockdowns. Some four years later, the group is now navigating an entirely different crisis.

The group held its inaugural convening Feb. 28-March 1 in Washington, D.C. to discuss the future of Israel educational travel following the Oct. 7 attacks — at a moment when “majority of organizations have not been able to bring participants to Israel,” according to Tal Gozani, executive director of IETA, which is housed within the Jewish Federations of North America. 

The convening, which drew more than 100 organizations involved in the Israel travel sector to the Marriot Marquis, came as several questions around tourism to Israel loom — such as whether it is appropriate to visit the homes where Hamas committed atrocities, and — for many parents —  whether their children will be safe studying, touring or volunteering in the country, which is still at war in Gaza and is facing another potential full-scale conflict with Hezbollah in Lebanon.  

“There was an intensity of presence at the conference, which people really noticed because there was such a need to come together and talk about these issues,” Gozani told eJewishPhilanthropy following the event. 

Since Oct. 7, JFNA and individual federations have run at least 60 solidarity missions to Israel, bringing some 1,000 community leaders on short visits. But at least 60% of the 170 attendees at the convening had not been to Israel since Oct. 7, according to Gozani. “So it was important for us, as we’re having conversations about what an Israel educational travel experience looks like post Oct. 7., to provide context and speakers that could help people understand what that change is like and the vibe that is so palpable when you’re there.” 

Speakers included representatives from a wide range of organizations involved in tourism to Israel: Shana Bloom, the chief program officer at Repair the World; Mustafa Alsana, the coordinator for informal education at the Desert Stars High School for Bedouin students; Birthright Israel’s vice president of education, Gia Arnstein; and the group’s international vice president of educational strategy, Dr. Zohar Raviv.

“We are not here only to extinguish fires, but to plant seeds,” Raviv told participants, a nod to Birthright’s newly launched ten-week Onward Volunteer Program, which has invited alumni to return to Israel to harvest crops as the country faces a labor shortage post Oct. 7. 

Panels covered various types of Israel tourism, including trips for federation professionals,  non-Jewish participant trips, philanthropic community visits, teen tours, university-based trips and trips for young adults. “It’s important to highlight that there have been trips happening… there’s an outpouring of opportunity for volunteer programs,” Gozani said, noting that teen trips have taken the biggest hit. 

“For understandable reasons, parents are concerned about sending their teens to Israel, but that being said, a lot of teens are still going on gap-year or semester programs,” she said. 

Another limiting factor is capacity in Israel. “Many of the hotels are still largely occupied by evacuees… lodging is a challenge,” Gozani said. 

Also addressed at the conference was tourism designed specifically to bear witness at the sites of Hamas’ massacres — a concept that some say invades the privacy of victims. “The question mark around trauma tourism looms,” Gozani told eJP. “People are being thoughtful and sensitive about the topic… There’s a strong need to try to be supportive and understand what happened and with that comes all the concern about the tourism aspect of it… There’s talk about how that gets integrated into an Israel experience.” 

Addressing the conference attendees, JFNA President and CEO Eric Fingerhut reflected on the impact educational Israel trips that he went on as a child had on him. 

“For all the pretty darn determined Jewish moms out there who understand in their kishkes that their children need a connection to Israel, but don’t know how to fight against the wave of anti-Israel venom that their kids are exposed to every day, or when and how they should encourage their kids to go to Israel in the aftermath of the worst terrorist attack in Israel’s history… Each of you in this Israel Educational Travel Alliance must urgently meet and respond,” he said.  

Overall, Gozani said, travel groups are “cautiously optimistic” that trips will be running by late spring or early summer. “It’s hard to plan,” she continued, “at the same time we understand how important it is to get people to Israel.”