Jun 12, 2020  By Laura Wittcoff  Category: Travel,

Amazing virtual Israel missions let you visit without boarding a plane

We may not be leaving on a jet plane, but we are leaving on a virtual bus for a Jewish National Fund-USA virtual mission to Israel

My husband, Mark, my mother-in-law, sister-in-law, and I boarded our virtual bus for the first virtual tour headed by our amazing bus chair, Lauren Lizerbram, with her husband, Sol, who came up with the idea for virtual missions. Also on board: friends, family, friends yet to be made, and of course, JNF-USA’s Sharon Joy and Monica Edelman.

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, so many of us have had to cancel trips to Israel, missing friends and family who live there as well as being aware of the negative impact on tourism, particularly the amazing licensed tour guides JNF-USA often employs to lead missions. Those of us who have been fortunate enough to have a licensed tour guide realize we are being led by well-trained professionals who know Israel deeply, including its many unknown and often untold stories.


The guide on our virtual mission, Yocheved Kolchin, was exceptional in her passion and commitment to sharing her knowledge and insights, including many lesser-known tidbits for us to gnaw on during conversations at our shared Zoom dinner each evening.

Yocheved gave us an overview of Israel’s history and culture while taking us through the overall geography and the specific stops we'd make on a given day. She smartly began each day with a Hebrew word specific to our planned experience. The first, chevreh, means a small group of people forming a community, which we would soon be. Learning to say Kama ze oleh? ("How much does that cost?") prepared us for our day of shopping in Jerusalem's Mahane Yehuda market. I happen to have brought dried fruit purchased at that very market, from my visit there in December, on the virtual bus with me that day… mmm, a bit of karma.

We visited numerous sites -- naturally, virtual touring allowed us to cover ground more quickly. We saw quite a bit of the country, but anyone who knows Israel knows we could travel for months and still not see everything. Israel is a small country, but with so many hidden treasures and such a rich history. My understanding deepened and my curiosity was furthered with each exposure.

"If we cannot go to Israel today, we can go to Israel virtually through this truly inspiring experience."

To my amazement, many of my bus-mates who had been to Israel (over hundreds of times combined), as well as those who grew up in Israel, were surprised by a new fact or story Yocheved shared. She managed to delight us daily with her energy, enthusiasm, and style, making all of us feel we were on a real tour vs. a virtual version.

Each day, we toured for an hour. We visited Beit She’an National Park; Rosh HaNikra on the border of Lebanon (taking the steepest cable car and ending in the beautiful grottoes); Jerusalem and the luscious sights and scents of the Mahane Yehuda market, where we could practice our Hebrew word of the day. We went to Atlit Refugee Detention Camp and Ammunition Hill and we spent time in the Gaza Envelope learning about family life there. We traveled to Sderot, Aleh Negev Nahalat-Eran, Be'er Sheva, the Dead Sea and more. 

thumbnail_IMG_9984The information was incredibly well-presented; Yocheved was not only guiding us via Zoom, but doing it during our Los Angeles time zone, which for her, in Israel, was 3 a.m.!

It truly felt as if we were actually in Israel, and perhaps even more meaningful was the shared experience with our newly formed chevreh. Eating dinner together post daily tour (with a break back at our virtual hotel to refresh and get ready), we talked about what we had seen and shared personal stories related to our experiences of the day.

Just as on an in-person tour, feelings, experiences, and memories were awakened and shared with group members. This ignited our evening conversations, and it was truly beautiful to learn from fellow bus riders about their upbringing in Israel or other relevant and poignant stories. A few shared aspects of their families of origin.

Two, in particular, were strikingly similar to mine, and we discovered that perhaps our families knew one another while in Vienna, Austria, the country my mother and grandparents fled from. These conversations were deeply significant and brought the virtual mission into a much more "real" space than I had anticipated. Connecting in this way brought us as close to Israel as we can be at the moment, gave us community with others missing Israel, and opened up new relationships with people I might not have otherwise met. This is the beauty of the JNF-USA family and its many opportunities… in this case, a virtual real mission.

If we cannot go to Israel today, we can go to Israel virtually through this truly inspiring experience. Mark and I want to go again, and I hear virtual missions are happening weekly. We all mourned saying goodbye on our last Shabbat evening and, quite honestly, when 4 p.m. L.A. time rolls around, I’m thinking I need to get onto Zoom so I don’t miss the virtual bus!

All proceeds from these virtual tours go directly to the licensed tour guide. For information about how you can jump on a bus of your choice to see Israel virtually while supporting tour guides and making new friends or enjoying a tour with old ones, contact Ilana Rosenzweig at 212.879.9305 x255 or email irosenzweig@jnf.org.