American Jewish tour groups gearing up for return to Israel

NEW YORK – For Julia Friedman, the decision by the Israeli government to reopen the country to fully vaccinated tourists that started November 1 means she will soon reunite with her brother for the first time in nearly two years.

Friedman is slated to lead a Birthright trip next month through Ohio State University Hillel. After the 10-day trip, the first one OSU is running since the start of the pandemic, the 26-year-old plans to extend her long-awaited visit and spend time with her brother who lives in Jerusalem.

“The trip has been put off a lot,” Friedman told The Jerusalem Post. “All semester people have been begging for a Birthright trip. There was actually overflow and we decided to get a second bus. I think everyone is ready to get back to Israel. I know I am.”

Throughout Israel’s closure due to the coronavirus pandemic, it has for the most part allowed some foreigners in, including people making aliyah or those coming to work or study. In January, the country entirely shut down its airport in an unprecedented move.

Over the summer, there was talk about making the move again, as COVID-19 cases continued to surge.

But Friedman expressed confidence that her trip won’t be impacted by another closure.

“Even if things do shut down – at least from my perspective – it’s hopeful that Birthright will still be allowed to run,” she said.

The Jewish National Fund and local federations, including those in New York and Washington, are also anticipated to bring US tourists back to Israel in the coming weeks and months.

JNF is scheduled to run a mission trip in January 2022 with pre-mission options to Dubai and Morocco, dubbed “Celebrate your return to Israel with the in-person trip of a lifetime.”

“We have several trips planned to Israel, and the first one is scheduled to arrive on November 28,” UJA-Federation of New York CEO Eric Goldstein told the Post. “There is equal excitement on our part to plan the trips and from our community to be part of the first wave of UJA trips to Israel since the start of the pandemic. We are all very excited once again to be going on group trips to Israel.”

“We actually started planning our large May 2022 trip even before Israel announced it would lift restrictions on tourists visiting,” Federation of Greater Washington CEO Gil Preuss told the Post. He estimated that close to 70 community members have already registered.

He noted that the federation has run small mission groups throughout 2021, including most recently bringing over a dozen rabbis following the Israel-Gaza war in May. But with Israel’s decision to reopen to leisure travelers, Preuss said, upcoming trips will be largest since early 2020.

“People are very excited to travel to Israel. It’s been a long time, and the past year and a half has been very hard for people,” he continued. “The level of energy and interest we are seeing is tremendous and very gratifying.”

The reopening to tourists comes as Israel emerges from a fourth wave of coronavirus infections. Israel in July began an aggressive booster shot campaign, offering a third dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine to virtually anyone over the age of 16. That round of inoculation appears to have brought the outbreak under control.

The decision to reopen could give a boost to the struggling tourism industry, which has been hit hard by the lack of tourists. It comes just ahead of the busy Hanukkah and Christmas season when tens of thousands of foreigners visit Jerusalem’s holy sites.

Preuss noted that as the pandemic has shown, plans could be fluid.

“No one can predict the future,” he said. “Things were open and then the Delta variant came. Having said that, I’m feeling pretty confident that with the vaccines we will be able to go and finally bring people back to Israel.”

Source: Einnews

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