Last month, 14 members of the Reform congregation Shir Shalom in Oviedo, Florida visited Israel, most of them for the first time. Davar spoke to the group to understand more about the American Jewish perspective on visiting Israel.

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Allison Zeints, 62, came up with the idea of the trip.

“I heard from a friend that she had a good time on a trip to Israel, and I thought, why don’t we take a bunch of synagogue members? I asked people if they want to come. I thought there would be two or three who would join,” said Zeints, who is a mother of two and a travel agent by profession.

Bonnie Bronoff (on right) and Allison Zeints. (Photo: Hadas Yom Tov)

The visit to Israel included the classic tourist destinations: the Dead Sea, Masada, Jerusalem, the archeologic reserves of Tel Hazor and Tel Dan, Tzfat, Tiberias and Tel Aviv.

“We were lucky that things had just opened up and that the trip wasn’t cancelled,” says Bonnie Bronoff, 60. “We had to do a lot of tests, but it was really worth it.” For Bronoff and her husband, who moved a few years ago to another city in Florida, the trip is also quality time with old friends

The old city of Tzfat, back in business

The city of Tzfat, in Northern Israel, has a history going back thousands of years and is associated with mysticism. Before the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, thousands of tourists would the narrow alleys of Tzfat’s old city each day. The city hasn’t returned yet to those numbers, but it’s on its way. The sound of wind whistling through empty alleys has been replaced with the sound of English and other languages spilling out of holy sites, restaurants, and souvenir shops.

An alley in the old city of Tzfat, nearly deserted in early morning hours. (Photo: Hadas Yom Tov)

Later in the day, the streets ring with the sounds of foreign languages. (Photo: Hadas Yom Tov)

The souvenir shop owners’ ears perk up when they hear the friends from Florida speaking English. They eagerly sell them jewelry, t-shirts, and Jewish ritual objects.

“We missed the tourists so much,” says store-owner Danny Halafah, 35. “We have a very special city, and the last two years have been very difficult here.”

Danny Halafah: “It’s going to take time, but I’m so glad I’m back at work.” (Photo: Hadas Yom Tov)

Halafah says that the return of tourists has been giving new life to the city.

“At first the government was supporting us,” he says. “The current government abandoned us and the whole industry. Many people in Tzfat work in tourism. It’s very difficult.”

“I’ve used all my savings, I’ve taken out lots of loans, I’ve got nothing left. It’s going to take time, but I’m so glad I’m back at work. We really hope flights continue to be allowed. There’s a lot of fear. We don’t know what will happen if there’s another variant and another closure,” Halafah says.

Kipot and mementos in Danny Halafah’s store. (Photo: Hadas Yom Tov)

The group’s next stop is the art gallery of David Friedman, 65, a self-proclaimed Kabbalah artist of more than forty years. Friedman himself is an American Jew, and he eagerly tells the tourists about Tzfat’s connection to Kaballah.

The past two years have been difficult for Friedman, financially as well as emotionally, and he’s excited for the return of tourists.

Tour guide Peter Gokhbat (right) with Kabbalah artist David Friedman in his gallery. (Photo: Hadas Yom Tov)

“Now it’s all happening, tourism is really coming back. In the summer I would guess there will be work every day. It feels great,” he says.

In the next alley, the scent of wax hangs in the air. Its source becomes clear when the group turns the corner into the family run Tzfat Candles shop. Inside, next to hundreds of handmade candles, are massive wax sculptures depicting scenes from bible stories, wax statues of famous figures from Judaism and Kabbalah, and huge havdalah candles used for the ceremony marking the end of Shabbat – one of which has 190 individual wicks.

The group is especially moved by their visit to the Ari Ashkenazi Synagogue and the Rabbi Yosef Caro Synagogue, both of which date back hundreds of years. Their guide, Peter Gokhbat, 39, explains that the Shulchan Aruch, one of the oldest and most consulted books of Jewish law, was written by Rabbi Yosef Caro in this building in the year 1563. The tourists are enthralled.

Gokhbat at the Rabbi Yosef Caro synagogue. (Photo: Hadas Yom Tov)

Susan Rechter, 55, a dental hygienist by trade, is particularly impressed by Tzfat.

“It’s just amazing how everything here is so ancient,” she says. “How many people touched, walked in, and cried in these places.”

She and her husband Brian, 55, who owns a hair products marketing business, were on their first visit to Israel.

Brian and Susan Rechter. (Photo: Hadas Yom Tov)

“After two years of not leaving the U.S., we wanted to go on vacation, and we thought about doing an organized trip,” says Brian. “Israel wasn’t necessarily at the top of the list of places we wanted to go. But that’s what they were offering at the time, and we signed up. We’re very happy that we ended up here.”

Brian is not Jewish, but he learned a great deal about Judaism during the trip and found himself feeling more connected to the religion.

“It makes me understand a lot more, and appreciate everything that’s been done here,” he says.

The tour guide’s perspective

The tour guide, Peter Gokhbat, uses the group’s free time as an opportunity to wander through the alleys on his own. He exchanges friendly greetings with the stall owners, who know him well and have missed his presence.

“I almost can’t believe I’m working now,” he says. “I haven’t been to Tzfat in almost three years. It’s fun to see people you haven’t seen in years. In this industry, we meet people all the time. It’s a kind of network of people – gallery workers, drivers, restaurant owners, souvenir sellers, attraction workers, and hotel workers – who all sustain each other, and the whole chain was very damaged during the coronavirus pandemic. But over the last month, the light has been returning to everyone’s eyes.”

Gokhbat with the members of the group. (Photo: Hadas Yom Tov)

Gokhbat has been a tour guide for ten and a half years. When work stopped during the pandemic, he served in the military reserves, travelled abroad, and worked the olive harvest to make a living.

At the beginning of the crisis, he and a group of tour guides held a hunger strike outside the Knesset to protest the government response to the pandemic that they felt was not adequately taking responsibility for out-of-work tour guides. When Gokhbat visited the Knesset plaza with the group from Florida, he debated whether to share with them his experiences at that same site only about a year and a half ago. He wavered, but ultimately decided not to tell them.

“They made us out to be freeloaders,” he says, reflecting on the experiencing of protesting. “They said we demanded irrational things. They wouldn’t let us live our lives, and they didn’t compensate us either. I burned through all my savings and then some. The state is still abandoning us. We haven’t gotten anything yet, and it’s a disgrace. I’ve learned not to trust anyone.”

But Gokhbat quickly snaps back to the present.

“In the past month, I’ve only had four days without work, including weekends,” he says. “It’s fun. Even if I would need to work 300 days straight, I’d do it. Why? First of all, I miss it. Second, my bank account needs it. Third, I miss it. Fourth, I miss it. And finally, it brings a smile to my face.”

Gokhbat still resents Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman for suggesting that he and his colleagues just find a new line of work in response to the coronavirus crisis. He sees the massive demand for tourism now that restrictions have lifted as proof that such a suggestion was misguided.

“[Lieberman’s] children, who are younger than me, will switch professions and retire before I leave the profession,” he says. “It’s a profession that you love to wake up for in the morning. And here, the truth eventually comes out – the tourism industry is a sure thing.”

Visiting Tel Aviv in the wake of terrorism

The group’s day trip to Tel Aviv comes at a difficult time: just three days after the shooting on Dizengoff Street that killed three Israelis. It’s their last day in Israel, and before returning home to Florida, they spend a day in Tel Aviv soaking up the sun and learning about the establishment of the state.

They start in Neve Tzedek, Tel Aviv’s first Jewish neighborhood. Gokhbat tells the group about the founders of Tel Aviv, the Zionist dream that led to its establishment, and the Hebrew language that distinguished the early city. From here, they continue towards Rothschild Boulevard and the Independence Trail, a pathway which connects important landmarks from the founding of the state.

Gokhbat leads a tour of Neve Tzedek, Tel Aviv. (Photo: Hadas Yom Tov)

On Independence Plaza on Rothschild Street in Tel Aviv. (Photo: Hadas Yom Tov)

In the afternoon, they have free time at Shuk HaCarmel market.

“Wow, the fruits here are amazing,” says Leslie Cullen, 62. “In the U.S., tomatoes and strawberries aren’t this red. They taste good too, not like water. The coffee here is much better, and even the coke. I bought my son some candy. He really likes Israeli candy since he’s been here.”

Leslie works with senior citizens at a university; her husband, Mike, 62, works in high tech. In honor of their 30th wedding anniversary, which took place two years ago, they had planned a trip to Europe.

“Of course, our plans were ruined,” says Leslie, “and then we heard that Alison was organizing a trip to Israel, and that the Rechters, who are my best friends, were going. Israel was always in my head, and going with friends seemed amazing to me.”

Leslie and Mike Cullen at Shuk HaCarmel market, Tel Aviv. (Photo: Hadas Yom Tov)

Two of her three children had spent time in Israel “and really enjoyed it,” she says. “Our son had a very spiritual experience here, and our daughter thought about going back to living here for a while, so they were very excited that we were coming to Israel.

Susan and Brian Rechter say they’ve already encouraged friends in the U.S. to visit Israel and told them how worthwhile it is to hire a tour guide.

“We loved everything,” says Susan. “The history is amazing, lots of culture, wonderful food.” But that doesn't mean they’ll come back here again.

“The trip was very emotional for me and it’s still hard for me to say what I’m taking away from it. But it was also very expensive,” Susan said.

“We’re definitely glad we made it,” said Brian. “This trip brought me much closer to Israel, made me understand much more about Judaism. It makes me appreciate this place a lot more. We’re having a great time, but there’s a whole world out there. We have lots more places to see.”

This article was translated from Hebrew by Leah Schwartz.