What do stuffed turnips have to do with Middle East peace? Practically everything, if you ask Elisa Moed and Cristina Samara
Moed, an Israeli Jew, and Samara, a Palestinian Christian, are the co-founders of Breaking Bread Journeys, which describes itself as a "cooperative Israeli-Palestinian tour program providing travelers with the opportunity to tour Israel and the Palestinian Territories." At its heart, Breaking Bread employs food — from those who cook it and sell it to those who love it — to provide visitors a taste of life from both sides of the borders.
"There's so much that can be told through food," says Samara, a 20-year veteran of the hospitality industry who was born and raised in Jerusalem.
"You can dive into the roots the foods are coming from, learn about their national backgrounds — are they Israeli? Are they Palestinian? It's a great way to understand the culture better and all the folklore and traditions. Plus, the tastes that come out of it are excellent."
Samara and Moed, a fellow tourism veteran who was born in the U.S. but has lived in Israel for nearly a decade, would probably have never met were it not for Britain's former Prime Minister Tony Blair, who in his capacity of special envoy for the Middle East Quartet, created a Holy Land Marketing Panel.
Samara and Moed were tapped to participate on the panel, and when they met, they realized they shared the same frustration with Israeli tourism, with its cookie-cutter bus tours and limited glimpses of life.
"Tour operators are often coming to things with a really canned perspective, because that's what's easy," Moed says. "Cristina also had this pent-up energy that I had, that we could do something different here, something that would offer a traveler true value."
Breaking Bread tours crisscross the pockmarked Israeli-Palestinian border, ushering their small groups into crowded Hasidic kitchens to braid challah, through the alleys of Jerusalem's Arab market to meet spice vendors, and into coffeehouses off Bethlehem's famed Manger Square to sip steaming espresso and chat with locals.
Hands get dirty too: Each day's itinerary includes a cooking workshop, be it chopping fresh herbs for tabbouleh salad with Muslim, Jewish and Christian chefs, or stuffing turnips alongside female refugees at the Women's Center in the tourism-starved West Bank city of Nablus.
Tours are small, with about 15 visitors at a time and one professional guide. Besides food and culture, itineraries focusing on religious pluralism, sustainability and biblical history are available. All the tours include stops at major Jewish, Christian and Muslim historical sites, with an emphasis on breaking bread with locals whenever possible.
Moed and Samara are hoping to affect those at home as well: Breaking Bread Journeys is expected to inject $1 million into the West Bank economy by 2016, and is being supported by USAID under the Compete Project in the West Bank, which emphasizes economic development and tourism as a path to stability and peace.
"Middle Eastern hospitality is so ingrained in the culture, both in Israel and inside the Palestinian Territories," Moed says. "To know a people is to know their food."
For an eight-day tour, prices start around $1,800 a person, double occupancy, land only. The price includes hotels, two meals a day and entrance to all sites. Shorter trips and custom pricing are available.