Last year a friend, Benji Lovitt, started a public conversation questioning why Birthright does not enable its participants to spend a significant period of time in Tel Aviv. That discussion seems to have had a positive impact and today some visitors who come via Birthright do spend additional time in Tel Aviv. Recently I realized that the discussion initiated by Benji was merely the first step in what needs to be a longer dialogue, and a necessary complete change of direction for those involved in bringing people to Israel – both for short-term and for longer periods of time.
The impetus for me to write this story occurred last week, when one of my daughter’s childhood friends stayed with us for nearly a week after extending her Birthright trip. When she arrived at our home she was full of praise for the wonderful trip she had been afforded by the Birthright program, filled with great people and interesting adventures. However, for this young woman, Birthright was ultimately another great traveling experience. By the last day of her stay with us in Tel Aviv she turned to us and said: “If I can find a job in Tel Aviv, I would like to move here. It is a marvelous city with an unbelievable culture, I cannot think of a better place to live as a single 20 something.”
Our family returned to Israel almost four years ago, after a nearly two decade absence. Previously we had lived in Jerusalem, and of course we had a natural inclination to return “home”. However, in the interim score, events took place that changed our path. My older daughter who had returned to Israel to fulfill her army service, had moved from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, and could not stop singing the praises of her new city. Suddenly when we visited, our normal trips – which had inevitably been centered in Jerusalem – now included an equal amount of time in Tel Aviv, a city I had not slept in since my regular army service, decades earlier. I discovered that I also loved the city. Any question of relocating anywhere but Tel Aviv was ended by my two younger children (one who was about to go into the army) who stated, unequivocally, they were only interested in moving to one place, and that place was Tel Aviv.
In four years of living in Tel Aviv our love for the city has only grown. I had the opportunity to get to know the city in a very unique way – street by street – as we developed our smartphone app “Journey Tel Aviv”, a project that gave me the chance to visit most of the restaurants and many of the other places in the city (but I will leave the details about that for a different post). There is simply no city like Tel Aviv anywhere in the world. Tel Aviv is a vigorously vibrant city, that boasts energized hi-tech start-ups, soothing flavorful cafes, a robust dynamic night life – and combines all this with a beach. Tel Aviv, the first Hebrew city, is a city that represents all that Herzl (and even Ahad Ha’am) dreamed of in the early days of modern Zionism.
I could go on and on singing the praises of the city I love. However, I want to return to my original point. When Benji first wrote his article on showcasing Tel Aviv, Israel program decision makers took notice, discussed and made minor changes to a few of their programs. Yet, now, it is unlikely we will see major changes in the itineraries of most Israel programs any time soon. Why? Because almost all of those running Israel programs today live and work in Jerusalem and its environs (some Israel program operators come from Kibbutzim, but that is another story).
Whether it is the Jewish Agency, private tour companies, or a myriads of Jewish organizations, they all have their offices – and usually their homes – in Jerusalem. Knowing many of these extremely well-meaning people, I can honestly say that they really do not understand Tel Aviv. It is extremely hard to understand the rhymes and rhythms and the sounds and scents of a city without living in it. Moreover it is nearly impossible to understand Tel Aviv’s pull towards young people unless you live in the city and have a connection to this impressionable age group – whether they are your children, or you yourself lived in Tel Aviv during those formative years.
For many of those who have spent their lives working in the fields of Jewish identity and traditional Judaism, it is Jerusalem with its implicit spirituality, inherent beauty, and numerous religious and historical sites that create the ties that bind. However, magnifying Jerusalem above all other cities misses the main point. Whatever the advantages of Jerusalem, the average largely secular young American Jew visits our historic capital and leaves saying – “This is a great place to visit, but I could never imagine living here.” On the other hand, if you take the average American Jewish youngster and let them spend a week in Tel Aviv, their reaction will mostly often be – “What a great city! I really could see myself living in a city like Tel Aviv.”
If we are truly interested in deepening Israel’s ties with Jews worldwide and enticing at least some percent of our visitors to join us here, then it is time to change our strategies – i.e. stop the hard sell of traditional Zionism; stop the focus primarily on holy spots, historic sites, and locations of importance for our security, and instead put our effort in showcasing the one place that might induce more of our visitors to join us (or at least visit with greater regularity). Let’s give them a taste of life in Israel’s financial and tech capital — not to mention, our center of fun -Tel Aviv. Let’s stop only selling ‘Zion’ism’ and start selling ‘Tel Aviv’ism’.