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Elianna Mintz Perez
Former CBS News Producer Turned Travel Producer

When volunteering helps more than just the organization

Photo taken by Asher Perez while we were in Zambia
Photo taken by Asher Perez while we were in Zambia

My husband Asher and I spent the past year and a half traveling the world. We got married in September of 2020 and took off a month later, leaving our surplus of wedding gifts behind at my in-laws’ house. It was the middle of a once-in-a-lifetime global pandemic, but it was also a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for us; we were newly married, financially secure, untethered by community, and not yet responsible for any children. We were determined to make the most of the opportunity, and so we boarded a one-way flight, without looking back.

The Joy of Traveling During a Pandemic

We traveled to popular tourist spots with little to no crowds and went on safaris that were essentially private since there were no other travelers. We walked through the empty streets of Jerusalem with shuttered storefronts and prayed at an eerily uncrowded Kotel. We celebrated Timket with locals in the streets of Lalibela, Ethiopia and visited the Valley of the Kings in Egypt where we saw maybe eight other tourists when there are typically more than 20,000 per day. 

We visited souks in Dubai where the merchants told us they hadn’t seen tourists in more than six months and learned just how difficult (and expensive!) it was to get COVID tests outside of the U.S. We toured the spice farms of Zanzibar and learned to salsa dance in Costa Rica. We got entire beaches to ourselves in Seychelles and road tripped through the South African countryside and the mountainous region of Northern Italy. We scaled mountains and took in stunning views with no other humans in sight. We did leisurely hikes as well as more arduous ones, including a 20.7-kilometer technical hike that we completed in less than eight hours. 

We went bungee jumping, ziplining, gorge swinging, white water rafting, and waterfall rappelling. We visited factories in South America and tens of museums in Europe. We went to concerts, operas, plays, ballets, orchestras, and sporting events. We milked cows, made our own cheese and ate farm-fresh vegetables and eggs. We tasted unique and delicious food and endured bouts of food poisoning…twice. We saw true poverty in underdeveloped countries and encountered grateful locals who were left powerless when tourism completely stopped and they lost their income. 

We made new friends and met up with old ones. We saw family, met two new nephews, and one baby cousin. We celebrated birthdays, engagements, and anniversaries.  We slept in treehouses, hostels, and airports. We booked flights days before leaving and made hotel reservations less than 24 hours before our stay. 

We went to 20 countries across five different continents. We had incredible experiences that can never again be replicated. But to get to that point, I had to make a very difficult decision. 

Life Pre-Travel

Before we took off on our adventure, I was a features producer at CBS This Morning. I had a hectic schedule, often working 20-hour days, but I loved every minute of it. I relished meeting new people, having to stretch the limits of my creativity, and working against the clock. 

But when COVID-19 hit, everything changed. 

The social aspect among coworkers was gone. The creativity I craved was thrown out the window. We rarely did any feature pieces anymore and everything we produced was focused on the pandemic. We were short-handed, and suddenly, I was being assigned weather hits and news-of-day pieces. The night we got engaged, I pulled an all-nighter (after the celebrations) to finish a piece about the subway being shut down because of COVID-19. 

I had some really miserable days but I also managed to find joy in the job on the rare days when I’d produce feature pieces. Those days would ignite a little spark of excitement and passion that I’d hold onto as I continued to work the less exciting details of the job. 

Meanwhile, my fiance Asher was finishing up a clerkship for a federal judge in Atlanta, Georgia that would end right before the wedding. His plan was to begin working for the family business based in South America shortly after we got married. But, because of the pandemic, they could no longer hire him full-time. That got his wheels spinning. 

The Decision to Travel

While we were out for drinks one night, slightly stressed with planning a wedding in the middle of a pandemic and keeping our families happy, Asher broached the idea of traveling. He wanted to escape the U.S. for the time being and establish our life as a married couple through adventure. Traveling made him feel alive and put things in perspective. He was glowing as he explained his vision to me and it was the happiest I’d seen him since our engagement. Although I believed quitting my job to travel was irresponsible, I told him I’d think about it. And I did.

Many thought we were crazy for going through with our wedding during a pandemic. We changed the venue three times (the last one the week before our wedding), cut our guest list in half, and proceeded with our plans knowing that beloved family and friends could not make it. We agreed that, for us, it was about being married, not the event, and we wouldn’t allow the pandemic to control our lives. 

I used that same thought process when I decided to quit my job and travel. We didn’t want the virus to put our lives on hold and the best way to do that would be to travel (albeit safely) and seize the day. We didn’t want to start our lives together stressing over work and stuck at home in fear. We were eager to collect meaningful experiences and live our lives to the fullest. We had, unfortunately, seen many die from the virus, and we decided life was too short to sit around passively. 

That point was made even clearer for us when I had a cancer scare one week after the wedding. I had an amazing doctor and was operated on quickly, but it made me prioritize my passions and marriage ahead of my career ambitions. So we packed our bags.

Saying goodbye to CBS News was probably one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. I had worked there since graduating college, and it became a second home to me. While I no longer enjoyed it as much as I did pre-pandemic, I felt alive working there, and that was hard to give up. But I knew deep down it was the right decision.

Travel Journalism

You can take the girl out of a journalist job but you can’t take the journalist out of the girl. Meaning, even while we were relaxing and enjoying our extended honeymoon, I couldn’t stop documenting and writing about our travels. I took countless photos and journaled to keep track of everything we were doing. I turned to social media and changed my personal Instagram account into @aroundtheworldincoronadays where I revealed tips and tricks on how to safely (and sanely) travel during a pandemic and how to keep kosher in exotic, unfamiliar locales. Documenting our travels helped me feel purpose and filled part of the void that was growing from not working. 

I loved traveling but I missed the productivity and excitement of working as a producer. Asher was working part-time, and I was making customized itineraries here and there, but there was something missing. I still wanted more. 

ACHI, AMERICAN COMMUNITIES HELPING ISRAEL 

Exactly a year into our travels, I received a call from my mom’s childhood friend’s sister, Rochelle Zupnik. She told me about a pro-Israel organization she founded with friends and asked if I would be willing to volunteer my time to help them out. 

My parents always emphasized that the most important donation I could give is my time. Despite my father running his own business, he spent weekends and free time visiting nursing homes and hospitals, taking elderly community members to movies and plays, visiting public schools and churches to teach about the Holocaust, and even assistant coaching a little league team. My mother had five kids in eight years, or as she’d correct me 7 ¾  years, yet always volunteered in classrooms and offered her occupational therapy skills to children in our community who needed help but whose parents couldn’t afford it. 

So when Rochelle asked me to help her organization, ACHI, I immediately said yes. And it’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.  

ACHI (American Communities Helping Israel) is a non-profit organization dedicated to encouraging the support of Israel and its economy. The nonprofit acts as a counterpunch to the BDS movement with a slogan that says it all:

Think Israel. Buy Israeli.

Suzanne Weilgus founded ACHI in 2004 after the Second Intifada. She had organized “Ben Yehuda Fairs” in the Northeast to help Israeli merchants whose businesses were suffering from the lack of tourism. Vendors who traveled to the U.S. to sell their products told her they sold more in four hours at those fairs than they had in two years.

That experience showed Suzanne that people outside of Israel wanted to support the Israeli economy; they just needed to be shown how. She recruited friends Rochelle Zupnik, Gloria Gordon, Tova Taragin, Dr. Lynda Zentman, and Marcia Wagner, who found her inspiration and enthusiasm contagious. Through ACHI, they promoted Israeli products in stores, synagogues, and all over the community. Their goal was to instill a love of Israel in the hearts and minds of this generation and future generations. 

When COVID-19 hit, and they saw that Israeli businesses were suffering once again, ACHI went virtual. 

The team enlisted the help of website designer Stephen Plotsker to create the ACHI Market, which enables customers to support Israeli businesses even if they can’t physically travel there. The market supports more than 150 Israel-based vendors.

It was around that time that Rochelle reached out to gauge my interest in becoming their newest volunteer. They needed help with strategy, marketing, social media, and spreading word about the online market. 

She also explained another part of the ACHI initiative, the KLEE Campaign. KLEE stands for “Klee L’ezrat Yisroel,” a vessel to help Israel. The idea is to encourage people to have a dedicated vessel filled with products from Israel. The ACHI team runs events in schools and synagogues to encourage children to make their own dedicated plate, bowl, or platter to fill with Israeli goods. It’s a constant reminder in every home of an easy and practical way to support Israel. 

What I love about ACHI – and what made it so easy to say yes to Rochelle’s request – is that they’re not asking for money but providing feasible actions for people to take to support Israel. Through ACHI, you’re not giving charity, but acquiring items you actually want. 

The current ACHI Market categories include Judaica, art, cosmetics, fashion, food, gift stores, jewelry, photos, toys, and wines of Israel. One section offers customers the option to purchase Israeli goods online to be delivered to friends and family living in Israel.

How Volunteering Helps Everyone

Rochelle called me five months ago. Since then I’ve helped them boost their social media presence, snagged them an interview with an internationally broadcast news show, secured multiple print interviews for the organization, and ran a KLEE event for second graders in Aventura, Florida. 

My husband often gets frustrated with the amount of time I put into helping the organization when I should be taking care of myself or working on my own business, but I feel fulfilled helping them. During this period, I also signed up with Chai Lifeline, an organization that helps children battling fatal diseases, and currently volunteer with a family of five kids, and deliver meals to hospitals, when I can. It’s a lot of work and keeps me insanely busy, but I finally feel a purpose. I no longer have that void that grew while traveling. I’m helping others and gaining tremendously. What more can I ask for?

Any Israeli vendor who sells a product online and is interested in being included in the ACHI Market can email the team at contact@ACHI613.org. All the vendors need to join the market is an e-commerce website in English and the ability to ship goods to customers in the U.S and Canada.

Think Israel. Buy Israeli. Shop www.ACHI613.org

About the Author
Elianna Mintz Perez resides in Hollywood, Florida after spending the past year and a half traveling the world during the pandemic. She volunteers for ACHI (American Communities Helping Israel) and runs her own travel planning and production business, Elianna Mintz Productions. She can be reached on her Instagram @aroundtheworldincoronadays.
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