January 19, 2020

Israel Tour Highlights Social Activism

Itay Asaf (left) leads a tour at Massada.

Itay Asaf, his brother, Eyal, and sister, Shelly, grew up in Israel with their orphaned father. They listened to stories about his childhood and how he had been in and out of shelters and various families’ homes. They also had a special-needs aunt, whom they would visit frequently at Kfar Tikva, a community for adults with cognitive, developmental and emotional disabilities, near Kiryat Tiv’on in northern Israel. 

When the three siblings grew older, they knew they wanted to work as social activists, and they fulfilled that desire just over a year ago by creating Esperanso, the first socially responsible tourism agency in Israel that supports people in the special needs, LGBTQ, refugee and other overlooked communities. 

Eyal and Shelly run Esperanso from Israel, while Itay, 31, is in charge of operations from his home in New York. “I thought there was great potential for a new concept for tourism in Israel,” Itay said in a phone interview with the Journal. “We’re combining social justice and change with tourism.” 

The siblings lead tours with families of between five and 10 people, Jewish organizations and congregations. In the future, they hope to be able to accommodate special needs people and to conduct wheelchair-friendly tours. 

Itay already had a wealth of experience under his belt when the siblings formed Esperanso (the Asaf family’s original name in 1492 in Spain). He had led social justice trips to Israel with the Jewish Agency for Israel when he worked as an emissary for the nonprofit organization in North Carolina from 2016-2018. He would introduce students to the refugees and asylum seekers on visits to south Tel Aviv. 

Itay Asaf’s aunt, Miriam Tzoref (right).

“We know Jewish Americans care about Israel and want to be part of it,” Itay said. “I feel like I’m giving them the opportunity to not just to visit and say, ‘This is amazing falafel,’ but to also become part of our society and our family.”  

On Esperanso trips, participants can visit Kfar Tikva and meet the residents, head to Tel Aviv and talk to gay people about the challenges they face, or participate in a coexistence tour to learn about the Jewish and Arab communities in the country. 

Other options include a preplanned or customized tour. “I get to know what matters to you and the experiences you are most excited about,” Itay said. “What are the meaningful activities that won’t take you away from your wonderful tour?”

When Itay was 16 and still living in Israel, he coached basketball players and took them to visit Kfar Tikva. “I wanted to raise awareness that five minutes from where we were playing, there were special people,” he said. “It was always an inspiration.” 

“In the future, they hope to be able to accommodate special needs people and to conduct wheelchair-friendly tours.”

North Carolina resident Jordan Gudaitis, who is in his late 20s and works in the banking industry, went on a customized Esperanso group tour two years ago. It included some of the standard tourist activities, including climbing up to Masada, snorkeling in the Red Sea and staying in Tel Aviv. However, the group also visited a winery that employs people with special needs, went to a lookout honoring a fallen soldier in the north of the country and helped at a preschool in Jaffa for children from Eritrea and Sudan.

“The trip was exhilarating and fun, but we would stop, take a moment, appreciate our surroundings and take a few minutes to learn just a bit about the history and meaning of specific places,” Gudaitis said. “It was a breath of fresh air from any other travel experience.”

Gudaitis grew up in New Jersey but said he wasn’t involved in the Jewish community at the time. “I thought [Esperanso] would be a great opportunity to connect with my roots and learn about Israel and its people,” he said. “Esperanso provided me with an opportunity to do it in the most meaningful, fun way and I am glad I did it.” 

For Itay and his siblings, Esperanso is all about both fulfilling and fun experiences for their clients. “We don’t only give you the best time of your life,” he said. “We also give you something meaningful.”