By Julie Wiener
NEW YORK, Nov. 28 (JTA) – Heeding a call from Israeli officials to visit the Jewish state, the Jewish federation system has launched its first of 10 "solidarity missions."
The first such mission left shortly after Thanksgiving with 80 people, the majority from San Francisco and Dallas.
Future ones are scheduled through January.
So far, 1,000 people are signed up, but organizers say they expect to recruit considerably more in the coming weeks.
The new effort comes in the wake of the recent General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities, at which Israeli government officials appealed to American Jews to show support for Israel amid its ongoing conflict with the Palestinians.
Prior to the G.A., as the recent convention is called, three other solidarity missions had gone to Israel, composed mainly of top leadership from federations and other Jewish organizations.
The five-day trips – which cost $850 to $900 for those departing from New York – include meetings with top Israeli government and military officials and visits with Israelis in Partnership 2000 regions, communities that have been paired with North American Jewish federations for people-to-people exchanges and joint projects.
The missions come as Israelis are reporting a sharp drop in tourism, particularly from the United States, where the State Department has issued an advisory warning against travel to Israel.
Several previously scheduled federation missions were canceled in October and November as a result of concerns about violence, and Israeli officials report that American Jews have canceled trips in far greater numbers than evangelical Christian groups.
In addition to expressing solidarity with Israelis and bolstering tourism, the solidarity missions aim to "show the situation as it is, not through the eyes of the media," said Nechemia Dagan, executive director of the UJC's overseas programs and missions.
The umbrella organization for North America's 189 federations, the UJC is subsidizing the trips – paying approximately $200 for each participant – and El Al and the other service providers are offering discounted rates, said Dagan.
Dagan, who spends two weeks of each month working in Israel and two weeks working in New York, said mission participants will "come back loaded with information," so that they can explain Israel's perspective to other Americans and the media.
Recruitment for the missions is being conducted both nationally and locally, and varies from community to community. Some communities are sending large enough groups to have their own tour buses, while others will be traveling with people from other communities.
One debate surrounding the solidarity missions is whether they should also include solicitations on behalf of the federation system.
Robert Schrayer, UJC's national chair of campaign and financial resource development, said most federations are making donation requests a component of the missions.
"We No. 1 encourage solicitations and No. 2 are available to help in solicitations, but at the end of the day it's up to the community itself to let us know whether they want it or not," said Schrayer.
The debate about soliciting stems from the lack of consensus right now as to whether the violence engulfing the region means Israel will need more money – and if so, how that money might best be spent.
"I think that people who go on solidarity missions at the end should be asked to make a commitment to the annual campaign," said Jeffrey Klein, executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Palm Beach County.
"It's not just a subsidized vacation or trip but an opportunity to stand up and be counted," he added. The Palm Beach federation plans to send a solidarity mission, but has not yet scheduled one, he said.
The Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago is requiring a $500 minimum campaign gift for participants on its 50-person solidarity mission – which is scheduled to depart Dec. 2.
The Chicago federation also sent people on the national missions before the G.A., and required $5,000 minimum gifts for those trips.
But some federations, such as the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit and Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston, have decided not to combine the missions with fund raising.
Robert Aronson, the Detroit federation's executive vice president, said the mission should not be about money, but "to express our concern and meet with people we know and care about."
Detroit's federation has 190 people signed up for its mission, which is scheduled for Jan. 14, and Aronson is hoping to recruit a total of 400.
Not all the participants are federation donors, he said, noting that local rabbis and other Jewish organizations are also mobilizing members for the trip.
Boston's federation is planning a smaller mission for January, building it around an already-scheduled meeting with activists in Haifa, Boston's sister city in the Partnership 2000 program.
The Boston mission also will avoid solicitations and is not requiring a minimum gift.
"These are our most committed people and they always do the right thing," said Barry Shrage, president of the Boston federation. "This mission is going because what we were told and what I firmly believe is that the Israelis need to see us."
Not all communities planning missions to Israel are doing them explicitly as solidarity missions.
The Jewish Federation of Greater Houston is instead continuing with previous plans for a 400-person mission in February.
So far, no one has canceled, although 90 percent of the participants have never before been to Israel, said Lee Wunsch, executive vice president of the federation.
"We told them it was safe to travel to Israel, and we're keeping that message going to them as often as we can," he said. "People are very excited about this trip."
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