Research News

Creating lifetime connections through tourism

The thing that makes Israeli officials nervous about the program to keep their country connected with young American Jews may be the reason it’s working so well. Shaul Kelner, assistant professor of sociology and Jewish studies at Vanderbilt, has spent seven years researching an Israeli program that brings thousands of young Jewish Americans to the Middle East to cultivate a feeling of attachment to their Jewish heritage. Israel (along with Jewish communities around the world and some private philanthropists) has spent more than half a billion dollars on the program that Kelner examines in his book Tours That Bind: Diaspora, Pilgrimage and Israeli Birthright Tourism.

“About 250,000 people have taken advantage of the program in the past decade,” Kelner said.”That means that almost every young American Jew has either been on the program or at least knows someone who has participated.”

Israel is careful to bill the trips as”educational” and not”tourism.” But Kelner, an expert on tourism who has observed first-hand several of the 10-day pilgrimages, says the trips are really classic tourism – a mix of education and fun.

Rather than concentrate on religious and political connections, the trips tend to connect American Jews to Israeli and Jewish culture through consumerism, Kelner said.”The tourists spend their time trying to find the right souvenir, snap the perfect photo and taste the most authentic falafel,” he said.

“This might seem to contradict the stated educational purpose of the tours, but since so much of modern life is about ‘we are what we buy,’ the consumerist approach ends up being an unintended but very effective engagement strategy,” Kelner said.

Even Israel’s religious sites are treated as consumer goods. For instance, American Jews who visit synagogues in Israel don’t typically pray in them. Instead, they experience the buildings like tourists, focusing on the architecture and history of the buildings.

“Traditionally, synagogues are places of prayer, study and assembly for Jews,” Kelner said.”[rquote]Seeing these sacred buildings from a tourist’s perspective can change how American Jews view synagogues at home.[/rquote]”

An all-expenses trip for college-age adults also leads to a certain amount of partying, including alcohol consumption and romantic liaisons, Kelner said. Trip organizers are not necessarily pleased that the tourists are using their time in Israel for such indulgences.

“Strangely enough, this behavior sometimes gives tour participants a personal connection with Israel that is deeper than the political and religious ties that are intended,” Kelner said.”We identify forever with places where we’ve had formative or ecstatic experiences.”

Israel is not the only country using tourism to connect with its diaspora, Kelner said. Similar homeland tours exist for Chinese Americans, Irish Americans and other ethnic groups. In recent years, Ghana has tried to use tourism to develop connections with African Americans.”The Israeli effort is the largest and oldest in the world,” Kelner said.”It is often seen as a model for how to use tourism to build connections.”

Media: For review copies of Tours That Bind: Diaspora, Pilgrimage and Israeli Birthright Tourism, contact Betsy Steve or Joe Gallagher at telephone (212) 998-2575 or To speak with Shaul Kelner, contact Jim Patterson at (615) 322-NEWS or