Larry Ritter: Modern Day Zionist and Israel Supporter

I spent the last week in Israel as part of a solidarity mission sponsored by the Masorti Foundation and the Rabbinical Assembly. The goal of the mission was for Conservative rabbis in North America to learn more about the Masorti (Conservative) Movement in Israel and to show solidarity with the dozens of Masorti congregations throughout the country. The mission was subsidized by Israel Tour Connection (ITC), a New Jersey-based tour provider company headed by Larry Ritter. Spending time in Israel with Larry, I learned about his passion to bring thousands to Israel each year in order to support the Jewish country. The following is an article I wrote about Larry’s passion and principle objective in life. This was originally published on The Times of Israel and on the Huffington Post.

There are Zionists and there are lovers of Israel. Some are both.

On a United Jewish Appeal mission to Israel in 1982 Larry Ritter claims he became a full Jew. There was no conversion involved as he was born Jewish and raised in an Orthodox home. However, the Livingston, New Jersey native visited Israel for the first time that year and says he never fully felt Jewish until that experience. Thirty years later Ritter has had his passport stamped close to 100 times with the seal of the Jewish state.

Ritter, 69, firmly states that one cannot be a complete Jew without being a Zionist and loving the land of Israel. For that reason, he launched Israel Tour Connection (ITC) in 1989. Sitting at his kitchen table with his rabbi at the time, Samuel Cohen of Beth Shalom in Livingston, Ritter expressed his desire to help people get to Israel and have a taste of the memorable experience he first had earlier that decade. He wasn’t looking to start a travel agency, rather he wanted to become a reliable tour provider in an effort to help others feel the excitement and love for Israel.

Today, ITC sends over one hundred groups to Israel a year which translates to tens of thousands of pilgrims, both Jewish and Christian. They might be part of a synagogue, church or organizational mission or they might be part of a family traveling to Israel to celebrate a child’s bar or bat mitzvah in Jerusalem or atop Massada.

Ultimately, Jewish continuity is the banner Ritter waves in his effort to support Israel through tourism, one of the country’s largest industries. “My fear is that each new generation of Jews gets farther away from the Holocaust and they don’t have that communal memory to bring them closer to Israel. And drawing people closer to Israel is my core mission in life. I do this because I believe in it,” Ritter told me recently. In that vein his company identifies homogeneous groups to take to Israel. The majority of groups are from Conservative, Reform and Orthodox congregations throughout North America as well as family trips. However, the past decade has seen a steady increase in the number of Catholic, Christian and Evangelical groups Ritter has sent to the Holy Land. In a few weeks Ritter will accompany a group of African American tourists through the AME Church to Israel. Through the years not all of those groups have been homogeneous either. He has also brought interfaith delegations to Israel, building bridges between Christian Zionists and Jewish leaders.

The first time I traveled to Israel with Larry Ritter was in January 2003 when I was a rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. As the U.S. was about to send troops to Iraq and Israel had once again been facing acts of terrorism, Ritter approached the Seminary and offered to subsidize a solidarity mission for students and faculty. After securing funding from the Ministry of Tourism and adding funds out of his own pocket, students were asked to pay only $300 for the four-day trip to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. At a time when Israel’s hotels were half empty Ritter helped over 100 students travel to Israel to show their support to their brothers and sisters in the Jewish state.

Fast forward ten years and I now find myself back in Israel with Ritter. This time Ritter determined it was necessary for North American Conservative rabbis to travel to Israel and show solidarity with their sister congregations throughout the country following the recent conflict with Gaza. Once again, Ritter helped subsidize the mission with his own funds. “Not only did I see a need to come to Israel following a challenging time for Israelis, but I knew how critical it was that Masorti (Conservative) congregations around Israel see that their movement’s rabbis from North America are willing to take time out of their busy schedules and come to Israel and give them strength,” Ritter explained.

On this most recent excursion, Ritter brought a duffle bag in addition to his own suitcase to Israel. Inside the duffle bag were two Torah scrolls to be donated to Masorti congregations in Israel. Not only does Ritter have a knack for finding the best hotel values, but he’s also developed a gift for locating Torah scrolls in American synagogues to be gifted to the small Israeli congregations that need them. As one rabbi who traveled with us in Israel this week put it, “What makes Larry so special is not only that he motivates people to come to Israel, but that he goes the extra mile.” Rabbi Harold Kravitz of Minnetonka, Minnesota continued, “He always wants to help. He’ll do whatever it takes to bring one more person to Israel or one more Torah to Israel for a fledgling congregation.”

With his staff of eleven, including his wife Marlene, in his Livingston, New Jersey office Ritter coordinates each trip with his satellite office in Israel and submits each itinerary to a “Situation Room” of the IDF to ensure the group’s safety. Each tour is custom designed based on the needs and desires of the traveler. Larry considers how many times the travelers have visited Israel in the past, what sites they might enjoy, and which areas of the country would have the deepest impact on them. Barbara Sutnick, ITC’s educational director in Israel explained, “Because of Larry’s vision, our goal is to bring to life all the wonder that is Israel through our tours – its places and its people, its past and its present.”

Each time he comes to Israel, Ritter feels like he’s home. “Israel is where I go to recharge my batteries,” he says. Although, his metaphorical batteries aren’t the only ones that get recharged while in Israel. Ritter’s two cellphones are constantly ringing as he makes arrangements with the airlines, various hotels, tour bus operators and other providers, as well as with religious leaders back in the U.S. eager to plan their next trip.

Through his Zionism and his love of helping people discover that same beauty and inspiration that he found in Israel thirty years ago, Larry Ritter is doing his part to keep Israel’s tourism industry vibrant and strong. Nothing seems to deter him from connecting young and old with the land of Israel. As he stated proudly, “So long as we have an Israel I’ll be sending people there.”

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Spirit Airlines Gets Into the Passover Spirit

Like many Jewish people I often get tired of all the marketing geared to a Christian audience. While Christianity is the most common religion in the United States, the Christmas and Easter themed advertising sometimes goes too far. But that doesn’t mean I’m looking for big corporations to draw on Jewish holidays to use in their marketing campaigns.

So, I was surprised when I opened an email message today from Spirit Airlines with the subject line: “Don’t Passover These Low Fares From $19.80* One Way!” At first I thought it was a spoof message from a Jewish humor website. I read the rest of the message and was surprised by the many references to the upcoming holiday of Passover.

Spirit Airlines Passover Promotion

The many references in Spirit Airline’s email to Passover even made question if I had been religiously targeted by the airline. Was it because I had three trips in March with Spirit Air and they noticed my yarmulke? Was it because I have “rabbi” in my email address? I wondered if any other major company had ever conducted a promotion tied into Passover.

The Spirit Airlines Passover promotion is also odd because it was launched the day before Passover. If the company’s intention was to get people to book their Passover flights with Spirit, it’s too late for that. Most of the qualifying flights in the promotion have dates in May and June. Perhaps, the Spirit marketing department should have considered a Shavuot sale (no obvious puns there). The other thing that is odd is that I didn’t receive an Easter promotion from Spirit Airlines even though that (more widespread) holiday takes place this weekend too.

A little research on the Web showed me that Spirit Air used the same silly pun (“Don’t Passover These Deals”) last year in a marketing email. So, I guess their marketing team isn’t that creative after all. And they really overdid it on the kitsch (no need for the “Mazel Tov!” greeting at the end of the ad).

My only comment after flying Spirit thrice last month is that air travel shouldn’t feel like such a PLAGUE (no leg room!), the gate agents should act like the mean PHARAOH forcing me to pay extra for each carry-on bag I bring on board, and I yearn for the days of FREEDOM when complimentary drinks and peanuts were served on flights. Hmmm, maybe there really is a Passover connection with Spirit Airlines!

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

TSA Issued Lulav Alert for Sukkot This Year

On this blog I’ve written about past incidents on airplanes concerning presumed breaches of airline security when Jewish passengers began to put on tefillin (black leather straps and black boxes known as phylacteries). Like many others I criticized the airlines and Transportation Security Administration (TSA) for not educating flight crews that these were necessary parts of Jewish prayer garb and therefore permissible on planes and in airports.

Therefore, I feel it is important to now praise the TSA for its recent notification to all employees concerning the prayer accoutrements that might have been seen in airports and on airplanes during the Sukkot holiday. The TSA’s alert stated that “Observant Jewish travelers may carry four plants – a palm branch, myrtle twigs, willow twigs, and a citron – in airports and through security checkpoints. These plants are religious articles and may be carried either separately or as a bundle. Jewish travelers may be observed in prayer, shaking the bundle of plants in six directions.”

It concluded that “TSA’s screening procedures do not prohibit the carrying of such agricultural items through the airport or security checkpoints, or on airplanes. These plants are not on TSA’s Prohibited Items List. As always, TSA is committed to treating all passengers, including passengers who may be observing Sukkot, with respect and dignity during the screening process.”

Very nice. I hope the TSA remembers to issue this directive in future years as well. So, it seems that Jewish travelers are now free to carry and shake their lulavs through airports and in airplanes (not during takeoff and landing please) without fear of being interrogated, breaching security measures, or being responsible for an emergency landing.

As for bringing your kid’s plastic sword on board an airplane during Purim… don’t push it!

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Delta Adopts Saudi Arabian Airlines No Jew Policy

For a long time in Michigan, Northwest Airlines had its hub at Detroit Metropolitan Airport. That meant an essential monopoly on domestic flights in and out of Detroit. A few years ago Delta Airlines took over Northwest Airlines and now the vast majority of domestic flights at Detroit Metro are operated by Delta. That fact makes it especially troubling to learn that Delta will add Saudi Arabian Airlines to its SkyTeam Alliance of partnering companies and would require the Delta to ban Jews and holders of Israeli passports from boarding flights to Saudi Arabia. The partnership was originally announced by Delta Airlines in a press release on January 10, 2011.

World Net Daily reported that this issue was “first was presented to Congress, the public and others by talk radio host and former U.S. Rep. Fred Grandy, whose own battle against discrimination was documented when his former radio station demanded he tone down criticism of Islam on his program. He then left the station.”

The article included correspondence from Kathy M. Johnston, Delta’s coordinator of Customer Care, explaining that Delta does not discriminate nor condone discrimination against any protected class of passenger in regards to age, race, nationality, religion, or gender. However, she stated , Delta must comply with all applicable laws in every country it serves. That means that if the Saudi government denies Jews from entering its country and Delta brings them there on its flight they can be fined.

The issue here is one of principle. Delta isn’t being forced to include Saudi Arabian Airlines into its Sky Team Alliance. In fact, Delta could stand on principle and refuse to include Saudi Arabian Airlines based on its discriminatory policy. No, it’s not Delta’s fault that the Saudi government is anti-Semitic, but it doesn’t have to go along with it. It’s as if the Saudis are telling Delta that when it comes to Jewish passengers its name should become an acronym: “Don’t Even Let Them Aboard.”

I know I’m not the only one who finds it troubling that Delta would go along with Saudi Arabia’s policy of not allowing Jews on their flights. While I’m not planning a vacation to Riyadh any time soon, I would have a hard time flying with Delta knowing they are collaborating with the discriminatory government of Saudi Arabia.

The American Center for Law and Justice has already taken up this issue and I have no doubt that organizations like the Anti-Defamation League will not be far behind. I fly Delta a lot, both domestically and internationally. In fact, I’ve flown Delta flights to and from Israel twice in the past four years. Each time I arrive to my destination with Delta, I hear a flight attendant thank the passengers by saying, “We know you have a choice when you fly so thank you for choosing Delta.” However, that’s not entirely true. Here in Michigan, we often don’t have much of a choice when we fly. It’s usually Delta or nothing.

I have no doubt that this matter will not quietly go away. The Jewish community will not feel comfortable flying Delta knowing about its new association with Saudi Arabian Airlines.

Clarification: Delta Airlines is not changing any policies. Delta claims they do not discriminate and I concur. The issue here is that they have welcomed an airline (Saudi Arabian Airlines) that does discriminate into their global partnership (SkyTeam). Finally, Delta does not own the Sky Team alliance. SkyTeam is a global airline alliance (founded by Delta Airlines and a few other airlines) that provides customers from member airlines access to an extensive global network with more destinations, more frequencies and more connectivity.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

No iPads in Israel

Cross-posted at Jewish Techs

If you just bought the new iPad from Apple and your thinking about what a luxury it will be on your eleven-plus hour flight to Israel… think again!

You might be able to pass the time on your overseas flight by catching up on movies and TV shows or reading a novel on your new iPad, but once you arrive in Israel your iPad will be confiscated by Israeli customs.

Bar Ben Ari and Zohar Blumenkrantz report in Haaretz that “the Communications Ministry has blocked the import of iPads to Israel, and the customs authority has been directed to confiscate them. The decision follows the refusal of the ministry’s engineering staff to compromise on testing the device’s suitability and compliance with Israeli wireless networks. It seems however that the engineers made their decision without notifying Communications Minister Moshe Kahlon in advance – and caused an uproar within the ministry. For now, the ministry has not given the device categorical approval required for wireless devices; and ministry officials say its wireless technology is not compatible with Israeli standards.”

Israel’s Communications Ministry has requested the relevant information from Apple’s Israeli distributor, iDigital, so that iPads can be cleared for import into Israel.

The head of customs at Israel’s Ben-Gurion International Airport in Lod claims that they have confiscated ten Apple iPads so far. Until further notice, I’d recommend leaving your iPad at home when traveling to Israel.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller