When the pandemic made travel to Israel impossible for many Jewish organizations, staff at the international Jewish network Olami decided to create a fundraiser that met three essential criteria.
First, it would help Jewish organizations raise money in a time of economic crisis. Second, it would help people get active while many gyms remained closed due to coronavirus restrictions.
Third, it would foster a sense of Jewish community and get people “thinking and talking about Israel and putting it front of mind even though we can’t do our trips and we can’t travel there,” according to Michal Nordmann, director of marketing at Olami.
Thus, Walk to Israel was born. Teams affiliated with Jewish organizations around the world pledge to walk the distance between their location and Israel in 30 days. Individual team members commit to covering at least 100 miles in that time.
Participants walk or run at a safe social distance from others and use pedometers to track their collective miles online. The Walk to Israel website shows the teams’ “location” on its journey and displays fundraising progress.
Russian American Jewish Experience, which runs a Leadership Fellowship and takes 40 Russian Jewish students to Israel for two weeks every year, organized a team in Philadelphia. The goal is to cover 6,000 miles, the approximate distance between the East Coast and Israel.
“We’re having this, like, withdrawal. We can’t go to Israel this year with everything that’s going on,” RAJE Philadelphia Director Rabbi Akiva Pollack said.
Jamie Kaplan, who went to Israel on a RAJE trip in June 2018, was already tracking steps on her FitBit when Pollack reached out to tell her about the challenge. She joined the Philadelphia team.
“It’s a way to help the RAJE program pass on the same great program that I went through and also challenge you a little bit in terms of making sure you’re getting out,” she said.
On Aug. 6, Kaplan hit 60 miles. She aims to cover 200 miles by the end of the challenge.
Sponsors can opt to back either an individual team member or the entire team as they meet certain milestones.
“I reached out to a few of my close friends, and especially people who I went to Israel with, to sponsor myself,” Kaplan said.
The fundraising model is meant to offer flexibility to organizations based on their individual needs.
“Some of [the organizations] are using it to really engage their high-level donors and make a large amount from small teams, some are using it to go as wide as possible for a crowdfunding,” Nordmann said.
“We want this to be a platform that all Jewish organizations, regardless of their affiliation to Olami, can use so they can set their own fundraising goals and develop their strategy based on what works for their community,” she continued.
Pollack said Walk to Israel is helping RAJE raise money for future projects at a time when traditional fundraising events are off the table.
“This has been a big help. And people are very excited about it, and it’s a great way to get young Russian Jews back into that mindset of thinking of Israel and doing things for Israel,” he said.
Olami is also getting Israelis involved in the challenge to help the Diaspora teams reach their goals.
“They’re actually pairing us up with a city in Israel,” Pollack said. “They’ll also be like part of the Philadelphia team and also walk 100 miles [each].”
Olami organized a Worldwide Warm Up event on Aug. 2 hosted by Beatie Deutsch, Israel’s national marathon champion. Israeli entertainer and mentalist Lior Suchard performed live during the event.
Deutsch, who has won the Tiberias Marathon, the Jerusalem Marathon, the Israeli half-marathon and other notable races, told the story of running her first marathon to inspire participants who felt daunted by the 100-mile goal.
“I crossed the finish line in three hours and 27 minutes, but it was the most eye opening experience for me, because I realized if I hadn’t taken that risk, and stepped out of my comfort zone, I never would have discovered the gift lying within me — the gift I had of running,” she said.
Omer Yankelevich, Israel’s minister of diaspora affairs, also offered a message of support.
“Just as Jews around the world desire to connect to Israel, we in Israel desire to connect to and walk with you and your communities. As the minister of diaspora affairs, it is my duty to make sure the path between us is mutual, goes both ways. That we walk together towards our shared destiny,” she said.
Olami saw an increase in registrations after the event, including the Philadelphia team leader’s son, Efraim Pollack.
“It was actually my son’s birthday, and I asked the leaders if they could just throw out a mention, and they said ‘happy birthday’ to him. My son was happy about that and then he ended up becoming a walker,” Akiva Pollack said.