A group of tourists visiting from the Dominican Republic got the shock of their lives Sunday when they bumped into two of Latin media’s most iconic faces while walking in the Ein Kerem village in Jerusalem. The tourists screamed in disbelief as famed Univision TV hosts, Don Francisco and Raul De Molina, posed for pictures with them.
“Just imagine all these people posting pictures to Facebook saying they met these guys in Israel,” said Irwin Katsof, director of America’s Voices in Israel, the organization responsible for bringing the stars here. “That’s why this is so important.”
AVI, a division of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, is dedicated to bringing stars to visit Israel in an effort to help boost tourism. Previous participants included cast members from “Scandal,” “Once Upon A Time,” “House,” “Twilight,” and “Grey’s Anatomy.”
This time, the sponsors, who are primarily AVI board members, paid an estimated $40,000 each to send five major names in Latin media to Israel. Among them was Don Francisco, the Chilean host of Univision’s “Sábado Gigante,” the longest-running entertainment program in history. Other members included famous TV host Raul “El Gordo” De Molina; Daniel Coronell, senior vice president of Univision; Gabriel Abaroa Jr., president and CEO of the Latin Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences; and Ramón J. Pineda, the general manager of Univision.
Francisco also happens to be Jewish; he changed his name from the Jewish-sounding Mario Kreutzberger when he started doing stand-up comedy acts in Miami more than 50 years ago.
“I never wanted to give up my Jewish name, but nobody could remember me,” Francisco said over lunch. “But I’m always promoting Jewish culture whenever I can.”
The child of Holocaust survivors from Germany, Francisco said he and his wife host Shabbat dinners every Friday at their home in Miami. He and fellow Univision news host, De Molina, shared Shabbat dinner together on Friday, with a group of about 150 Jewish students from America and Israel at a private home in David’s Village, a residential enclave opposite Jerusalem’s Old City.
“When you come as a tourist, you don’t get to experience that kind of tradition,” said De Molina, a Cuban-born star who visited Israel with his wife two years ago. “And of course, you learn more about the country that way.”
Learning more about the country is what AVI’s Katsof and team of sponsors are aiming for. The group has bankrolled five trips a year for the past three years, with the intention of attracting tourists who wouldn’t necessarily visit Israel without the incentive of a free trip.
Yet Katsof has repeatedly said on each trip that nothing can promote Israel better than having household names visit and fall in love with the country themselves.
Millie Magid, a Spanish AVI board member from New York who converted to Judaism 31 years ago, said there are many misconceptions of Israel that can only be broken by actually visiting the country. When she first visited 30 years ago, she grew to have a particular appreciation for the military.
“At first I was scared, then I realized these are young people out there to protect me,” Magid said. “After that, I wanted to share with everyone what I saw.”
In Israel until Thursday, the TV stars and executives will visit all the major tourist spots in Israel while paying special attention to the Christian sites that are significant to Hispanic culture. They will also have briefings with several governmental figures in order to gain a fuller understanding of Israel from a political and diplomatic perspective.
Katsof said he hopes De Molina will spread the word about his travels to his nearly 950,000 followers on Twitter, most of whom are Hispanic.
“That’s an audience that would be very difficult to reach through traditional media,” he said. “Their ability to impact tens of thousands of people is just so incremental that it’s a tremendous use for us.”