Sitting with a friend in a once popular restaurant in Ein Kerem, a neighborhood in Jerusalem, I was startled to see how empty it was. A young guard sat at the front gate. Next to him, a note was posted stating that all customers were to pay an extra two shekels to help cover his cost.
After getting the bill, I asked to speak to the manager. I told him, while the waiter hovered in the background worried about a complaint, that I would be paying three times the amount of the bill. I explained that as a visitor coming to visit family and friends during these terrible times, I had brought "virtual tourists” with me.
I told the manager that I would be paying three times the amount of the bill.
Most of the members of my small Jewish community in Victoria, on the far west coast of Canada, were heartfelt in their support of Israelis. However, the realities of their lives prevented them from coming personally. So they had sent me with money ($1,700) to spend on virtual drinks, meals, services and gifts. They particularly asked me to support small businesses suffering from serious economic losses due to direct and threatened terrorist attacks and lack of tourism.
The manager and now-smiling waiter were clearly surprised and very moved. "We in Israel feel that we are all alone in the world," he said. “But this is amazing that there are others so far away who actually care about us here."
I laughed and said: "Actually they are virtually here, having virtual meals. But their money is real."
Over the next few minutes, another waiter and two waitresses came to the table to thank me and to hear the story of "virtual tourists" for themselves. The manager asked for my name and presented me a Hebrew book on the history of Ein Kerem, inscribed by the staff with a warm note of appreciation for bringing a smile to their day.
My friend, who was moved to tears, commented on how wonderful to bring a moment of joy to such young people.
FUNERAL FOR A STORE
This idea of "virtual tourism" had been picked up by our rabbi, Harry Bremmer, and passed along in our synagogue and by email a few days before I was to leave for Israel. During final preparations for my trip, I was constantly interrupted by calls and visitors, dropping off checks and cash. Needing to get some sleep before my departure, I finally had to ask the late callers to pass along their donations to the next community members to go.
Throughout my two-week stay, I repeated my "virtual tourist" explanation, often twice to the same stunned owner or manager of small businesses, cafes, restaurants, hairdressers, flower stores and gift shops.
One small gift shop on Yoel Solomon, at the bottom of the Ben Yehudah Mall, remarked on the sweetness of this idea. She went on to tell me of one shop owner down the street who had a funeral for his closing business. He dressed in black and invited his friends and the press for a funeral -- an amazing display of humor and sadness.
Half of the 500 tourist shops in Jerusalem have shut down since the increase in violence; 75 per cent of hotel beds are empty. In the central area of the city, 40 restaurants have closed.
NEGOTIATING THE PRICE
I found my own voice breaking with feeling as I repeated the story over again. One small pizza place on Emek Refaim had just reopened that morning after a dreadful bombing of a cafe just up the street. After explaining "virtual tourism" to him and giving him 100 shekels (four times the bill of 25 shekels), he suggested that 50 shekels would be enough. I insisted, and he then tried to negotiate a compromise of 75 shekels. I insisted that I was obliged to give him the full 100 shekels for the other six "virtual tourists" with me.
He said what a good luck sign it was, on this first day of reopening. We laughed together about the irony of someone negotiating to be paid less.
On the occasion of each small purchase, my friends joined in this delightful experience, which became a bond between us, the owners and my small community in Victoria, which grew less distant from us each day.
Some managers complained they had no key on the cash register for donations.
Some managers demanded I tell them what to do with the extra money, remarking they had no key on the cash register for such an item. I told them I had fulfilled my responsibility, and that this would be their big problem for the day. Many said they would share it with their staff. Some quickly said they would pass it along to someone "who really needs it.”
The last of the funds was spent on 15 pitas (with the Jerusalem mixture of spicy meats) for the IDF's negotiating team dealing with the standoff at the Bethlehem Church of the Nativity. One of my friends was on his way for reserve duty with this group.
FOOTPRINTS ON THE SHORE
As this small idea moved into action, from my community, through me, to Israeli small business people and friends, I became aware of it rippling out in circles beyond our knowing. One friend's son told of it in his citizenship class. Visiting relatives of another couple passed it by email to their home community in America. No doubt, others would be passing it along over dinner and in phone conversations.
When asked why he thought this small act was met with such emotion, one Israeli said because it is so unexpected and completely unconditional, something for nothing, an expression of our being together.
Early in this process, I realized I had not only given, but was also being given a truly uplifting gift. My fervent hope is that others going to Israel will take along their own "virtual tourists" who will leave their footprints on the shores of the turbulent sea of our homeland.
And just as our footprints are being washed away by the tides, more will be made, and Israelis will know that they are not alone. For we are with them.