By Jen Lovy
All photos by Jen Lovy
In 1978, Carol Moss wrote to her daughter Marsha Moss Linehan right after a visit to the Western Wall in Jerusalem. She described the beauty of the land, the strength of the Israeli people and the powerful connection she felt to the country. She concluded the note with: “My dream is for you to one day see the land of Israel.”
Linehan, who lives in San Diego, speculated that her mother knew she was dying when she penned the note. She passed away the following year. Linehan held on to the letter and clung to her mother’s dream for 35 years. Then, for her 60th birthday, she planned a trip to Israel.
“I was able to fulfill the dream on the most meaningful trip I’ve ever taken,” said Linehan. In 2013, she and her husband, Bob, went on a highly subsidized trip for travelers 55 and older who had never been to Israel. Like many older adults, Linehan had several reasons she’d never gone. Safety, distance and expense topped that list.
Last year, in its annual survey of American Jewish opinion, the American Jewish Committee found that 51 percent of U.S. adults ages 30 to 49 had never been to Israel. The statistics were the same for those 65 and older. Fifty-seven percent of adults 50 to 64 said they had never been there. For those in the 18 to 29 age range, 48 percent reported not visiting Israel.
Yet, trip organizers hear from many who would like to go. This seems to be especially true among those with children who have been to Israel with organizations like Birthright Israel. Since 1999, Birthright has brought more than 500,000 travelers the ages 18 to 26 to Israel—at no cost to the participant.
While Birthright is the largest organization of its kind, there are other free or heavily subsidized travel opportunities for those in their late teens, 20s and even for travelers in their early 30s. For those in their mid-30s and beyond, opportunities are scarce. Yet, in recent years, organizations have emerged with the resources and desire to take a wider age range of adults on subsidized trips.
Funding for these subsidized trips comes from individual donors and foundations that see value in sending older adults to Israel.
After the Honeymoon
“It’s a very significant investment, and donors may be less willing to invest in older people, where the return on investment might be over a shorter time span,” said Michael Wise, co-founder of Honeymoon Israel, a relatively new organization that brings couples to Israel.
“Maybe there is the feeling that it’s too late for adults and that our young adults are the ones making major choices,” said Lori Palatnik, founding director of the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project (JWRP), an organization that has brought more than 10,000 mothers to Israel since 2009. “I think they have forgotten that older people are still making choices about where we put our time and resources. Don’t write us off. We still hold the purse strings and influence choices.”
Palatnik feels that her organization “hit the bull’s eye” by targeting mothers of children 18 and younger. “If you can inspire the mother, she will inspire the whole family and that’s a tremendous investment in the Jewish family and the Jewish community.”
Naomi Derner, a divorced mother of two from Portland, said Judaism was clearly missing from her family. Aside from knowing they were Jewish, her children, ages 10 and 12, had almost no involvement with religion. When the last of her grandparents (all Holocaust survivors) died, she realized she needed to change that.
Shortly after embarking on her spiritual journey, Derner learned about JWRP and applied for the trip through Portland Kollel, the local sponsoring organization. Each participating city has at least one sponsoring organization that selects and brings members from its community as well as contributes 15 percent of the cost for each participant.
Since returning last December, Derner and her children make a point of having a Shabbat dinner, often with friends she met on the trip, and they have become more involved in the Portland Jewish community.
Derner said the subsidy—$3,000 per participant—was a factor in her decision to go. “A lot of us with school-age kids don’t have that kind of disposable cash, and what a trip like this would have cost could very easily be a vacation budget for an entire family,” she said.
“Taking away the financial burden gives a woman the incentive she needs to leave her children and take time off from work [for the eight-day trip]. We needed to take away any objection they’d have to going,” says Palatnik. “Financially, some of these women can afford the trip but they wouldn’t have otherwise prioritized going to Israel.”
Too Old for Birthright
The JWRP and Honeymoon Israel are the two largest organizations bringing visitors who are too old for Birthright (and programs like it) to Israel. While JWRP participants are responsible for airfare and a $99 registration fee, Honeymoon Israel costs a couple $1,800 and includes the flight.
A number of local Jewish Federations are taking groups to Israel by reaching out to young and emerging leaders, business professionals and, in some cases, intermarried couples. These trips generally target those typically in their late 20s and 30s who are beyond Birthright.
Israel Next Dor, another Federation program, is a young leadership program of Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley Federation, and Israel 360 is a program serving the Philadelphia community. Both offer intensive Israel experiences for those of 27 to 35 (although Philadelphia’s has taken individuals as old as 40). The trips cost participants approximately $360, includes airfare, and they must attend several pre- and post-trip meetings.
“As a Jewish community, we worry about our future and we need the commitment of professional volunteers. Visiting Israel helps inspire people to become more connected to the community,” said Aaron Gorodzinsky, director of outreach and community relations for the Lehigh Valley Federation. “In the post-Birthright world we live in, most people between the ages of 27 and 35 have been to Israel but are hungry and curious to go back again.”
“We’ve learned that Birthright is wonderful, amazing and can be a life-changing experience, but it’s not going to solve all our problems,” said Wise, who is based in Buffalo. He co-founded Honeymoon Israel as a way to welcome interfaith couples into Judaism by targeting those who haven’t necessarily discussed the role religion will play in their family.
Jennifer Shaeffer Fraiman, 35, isn’t Jewish. Her husband Joe, 38, is and has, what his wife describes as, a “pretty deep connection to Israel.” Fraiman said almost everything she knew about Israel came from him. When they returned from their Honeymoon Israel experience in February, Fraiman felt more informed about Israeli culture and politics and a deeper connection to Judaism. “Before, Israel was his,” she said. “Now it’s mine, too, and that has united us.”
In 2014, Honeymoon Israel got the financial push it needed when the Boston-based One8 Foundation (formerly the Jacobson Family Foundation) provided more than $1 million in seed money.
While JWRP is heavily funded by private donors and foundations, it has received support from the Israeli government. During its first year, the JWRP sent three groups of 100 women each to Israel and, with each passing year, increased its numbers. The Israeli Ministry of Diaspora Affairs noticed and offered to provide substantial funding if the JWRP could double its numbers and also bring groups from Eastern Europe. The JWRP met those goals, and $5.1 million (22 percent of its budget) now comes from the Israeli government.
Not all subsidized trips for older adults succeed. For example, Stacy Wasserman of Thousand Oaks, Calif., took $500,000 she inherited from her father and created L’Dor V’Dor (From Generation to Generation), a nonprofit organization designed to give those 55 and older their first Israel experience.
From 2011 and 2016, Wasserman took seven groups to Israel, with more than 300 participants. But her efforts to find support among individual donors and foundations proved unsuccessful. When funding ran out, she ended the program.
During its short existence, L’Dor V’Dor participants, including Marsha Moss Linehan, spent 12 days visiting popular sites, such as Masada, the Western Wall, the Dead Sea and the Knesset. Travelers were asked to cover the cost of their airfare. L’Dor V’Dor paid the rest.
“There is a whole generation of people out there who never had the opportunity, because there was no Birthright. Now they have children and grandchildren who have been there,” Wasserman added. “Giving them the opportunity to go allows them the chance to connect with the younger generations though Israel.”
While the trips’ goals can vary, their format and purpose are similar. Groups travel from the same city so they can participate in pre and post-trip meetings, develop cohesion and return inspired to become more involved in their communities and forge a stronger connection to Israel and Judaism.
Honeymoon Israel, for those ages 25 to 40, reaches out to couples with at least one Jewish partner trying to figure out what role religion is going to play in their lives, how they plan to raise a family and who they are as a family, according to Wise.
One of the goals of Honeymoon Israel is to change the Israeli perception on intermarriage. “We’re trying to show others that intermarriage isn’t the end of the Jewish people,” said Wise. “We have to stop defining intermarriage as a problem and face it as a reality of what America is about and say to the Jewish world intermarriage does not equal assimilation.”
The JWRP, on the other hand, targets women because of the strong effect mothers have on their families. Over half the women who travel to Israel with JWRP had never been there before. The other half, jokes Palatnik, went when they were 17 and talked about how “cute the soldiers were. When they go back as mothers, they have a whole different mindset.”
If the mothers envied their children’s opportunities in Israel, the husbands felt the same about their wives. Four years ago the JWRP sent its first men’s trip. Since then, more than 3,000 dads have had a JWRP Israel experience. Unlike the women, who get a $3,000 subsidy, the men receive $1,850. The trips also boost the Israeli economy.
Last year, the JWRP alone spent $8.3 million on expenses such as hotels, buses, food and tour operators. “That’s not counting the economic impact created by the families who go back to Israel with their children, those who celebrate a bar or bat mitzvah there or the 12 families who made aliyah after a JWRP experience,” said Palatnik.
“Any time you bring people to Israel there is going to be a positive economic impact,” said Jill Daly, director of the Midwest Region of the Israel Ministry of Tourism. “Travelers who are older generally have more disposable income than those in college or just out of school.”