John Campbell had been in Israel for less than a week, but he was already making plans to come back. Staring out at the Mediterranean during breakfast at the Carlton Hotel in Tel Aviv, the 25-year-old city treasurer from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, said he was both exhausted and invigorated by his trip here, which he had been offered free of charge by Project Interchange, an educational institute of the American Jewish Committee.
“I have found Israel to be an amazing experience,” said Campbell, the third-youngest openly gay politician in the United States. “It’s been physically and emotionally draining… but to have access to the sort of people we have had, who have answers to your questions, it’s fascinating.”
Like most of Project Interchange’s participants, Campbell is not Jewish and was in Israel for the first time. His group, made up entirely of LGBT leaders from across the United States, was spending the week being shown Israel through the lens of its lesbian and gay culture, on an itinerary designed by AJC to educate its participants and hopefully foster partnerships that would last long after the end of the tour. For Campbell’s group, that of course meant a stop in Tel Aviv, but also involved trips to Ramallah, Efrat, Sderot and beyond. They also met with politicians, had a conference with influential gay filmmakers Gal Uchovsky and Eytan Fox, and even ran into Paula Abdul — who was in Israel on a private visit — in the Tel Aviv Carmel Market.
Project Interchange, which has been operating since 1982 and runs trips for university presidents, Latino leaders, journalists and dozens of other groups, covers all the costs. Participants are asked for nothing in return, says Myra Clark-Siegel, the director of internal communications, but several major Israeli projects have been born out of such trips.
“We have no sort of quid pro quo for participation in PI delegations,” Clark-Siegel said in a phone interview from her home in Los Angeles. “But we have a two-way level of trust and respect, which I think is critical.”
Delegates get access to top-level politicians and thinkers in their fields, and PI caters trip itineraries to delegates’ areas of work and expertise. Even once the group is already on the ground, PI encourages its delegates to speak up if there is something specific they hope to see or someone they’d like to get in touch with. If such a request is workable, PI will scramble to make it happen.
Such personalization has paid off; the new Cornell-Technion Innovation Institute and the gleaming, state-of-the-art campus being built for it on Manhattan’s Roosevelt Island, a $2-billion project, came about thanks to a PI delegation for university chancellors, which brought Dr. David Skorton, president of Cornell University, together with Prof. Peretz Lavie, president of the Technion.
Next year, when the Israel Museum’s impressive collection of pre-Columbian Central American art travels to Chicago, it will be thanks to a PI trip of Latino Leaders that included the head of the National Museum of Mexican Art, who chanced upon the exhibit during a tour of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem and fell in love.
And down in the Negev, at the shimmering new Advanced Technologies Park that desert residents hope will kick-start a new high-tech revolution in Israel’s south, construction is only happening because Marvin Suomi, CEO of the mega development company KUD, joined a 2005 Project Interchange trip of construction leaders and met Avishay Braverman, at the time the president of Ben-Gurion University, and was tapped for the job.
The trips work, says Clark-Siegel, because they show Israel with no filter. The goal is not to promote the country or an agenda; it is to simply open up access to the best Israel has to offer and let the delegates then think for themselves.
“We’re not afraid to show dissension. We know Israel isn’t perfect,” she said. “But,” she quipped, “the only countries in the world that are perfect are dictatorships.”
Campbell said he was amazed to realize that outside of Tel Aviv, Israel is in fact not a bastion of gay rights and rainbow flags. Meeting with the mayor of Efrat, his group had a frank and sometimes terse discussion, with delegates asking the mayor point-blank how he would feel if one of his own children turned out to be gay.
“You come here thinking it’s the land of milk and honey for LGBT people, and you realize there are still issues our people are facing here,” he said.
That’s exactly the point, said PI Israel Director Keren Naveh. “We believe in Israel, so we are not afraid to show it in all of its diversity and complexity,” she said.
It’s a model that other organizations are starting to mirror.
Vibe Israel, a project of the nonprofit educational organization Kinetis, has for nearly three years been sponsoring week-long, all-expenses-paid Israel trips for influential bloggers in fields ranging from art to cooking to motherhood. Like Project Interchange, they require no commitment from the delegates they host, but “there is an unwritten understanding that we’re not bringing them here for a holiday,” says Kinetic founder Joanna Landau.
Vibe Israel keeps its trips super small — only five bloggers are hosted at a time — but it generally sees a healthy payoff, with its participants, who have included Filipino fashion blogger (and “America’s Next Top Model” judge) Bryan Boy and world-renowned foodie David Lebovitz, posting an average of 20 blog posts per trip. Add to that mix the hundreds of tweets, Facebook status updates and Instagram posts that Vibe Israel’s smartphone-armed delegates file all day long, and you’ve got a world wide web of impact.
“They come not just because they want to have a nice time, but also because they are seeking out innovative content,” says Landau. “And Israel is considered quite an exotic destination.”
Each tour, which is funded thanks to private donations, offers delegates a carefully curated itinerary showcasing the best Israel has to offer in the group’s specific field. Food bloggers are taken to produce markets, hummus stands, and bakeries. Fashion writers meet top designers, talk to graduates of Shenkar College of Art and Design, and explore the Tel Aviv boutique scene. Tours focused on Israel’s wine industry, sports scene and emerging photographers are in the works for 2014.
Last week, as Israel reeled from its heaviest winter storm in decades, a Vibe Israel tour of art bloggers braved lightning and a downpour to take in a number of sites and galleries across the country. Among the bloggers was Chris Jobson, the creator and editor of the highly buzzed art blog Colossal.
Jobson writes about and promotes artists, and an endorsement from him can change an emerging artist’s career. On his trip so far, he said, he has homed in on three talented young people he would like to feature on his site.
“I’ve found some people and I’m super excited,” he said. “The art scene in Israel was not something I was familiar with, and that was part of the main reason I was excited to come here.”
Jobson’s reaction to the Israeli art scene is exactly what Landau hopes for with each and every tour.
“The truth is that most people around the world don’t have an opinion about Israel, and they don’t want to be told what opinion they should have, either,” she says. “But they are interested in art and culture and business and sustainability. Israel has something to offer there, so we should be talking about it.”