2015 was a rough year for the world. From a travel perspective, it was a year when the world became smaller — when people from very different places, culturally and geographically, became far more aware of each other’s circumstances and motivations.
The year’s biggest travel story was about migration, not leisure travel. So many headlines involved clashes of cultures, from the mess in Syria and the ISIS threat to the Paris attacks, violence in Israel and Ukraine, and terrorism everywhere from Ankara to Colorado.
After Paris, many travelers reconsidered overseas jaunts. Then violence broke out in the least likely of places — the holiday party of an obscure governmental agency in San Bernardino, Calif.. So we might as well go places and engage with the world, gestures of optimism in a world roiled with conflict.
Here, a few 2016 destinations that speak to the moment we’re living in:
Canada. To start with, the U.S. dollar is strong and the Canadian dollar is weak — so from Newfoundland to Vancouver, you get a lot more for your money up north.
Ottawa, long considered the boring backwater of Canadian cities, buzzes with newfound hipness as the Trudeau Camelot attracts idealistic young Canadians from diverse backgrounds to its walkable neighborhoods. Meanwhile, Montreal is no longer just the cheap North American substitute for Paris; it’s also a cosmopolitan Jewish hub, as well as the source of a distinctive Jewish cuisine that has spawned offshoots from Brooklyn to San Francisco. Eat your way around Mile End, the artsy neighborhood that gave us the eponymous New York delis (and honey-laced bagels), then take a walking tour organized by the Museum of Jewish Montreal, now in its fifth year. If you’re an oenophile, head to the Niagara peninsula of Ontario — an hour’s flight from New York — to explore the burgeoning wine scene that is putting this unlikely Northern region on the gastronomic map.
Asia, from the Indian subcontinent east to Japan. I know, it’s a big territory. But one thing most of these countries have in common — from Sri Lanka and China to Myanmar and Japan — is low-priority status for Jewish travelers, who generally head to Europe for Jewish heritage and culture, and North America for convenient, kosher-friendly vacations.
By chance, I’ve recently been talking with several Orthodox Asia experts excited about Jewish communities in places most Americans wouldn’t think to look: Shanghai, New Delhi, Rangoon. Last week, I wrote about Rabbi Marvin Tokayer, who presided over a Jewish communal renaissance in Japan and lauds the explosion of kosher dining facilities throughout Asian capitals — societies where, he emphasizes, European-style anti-Semitism is virtually unknown. And the “two Aris” — Rabbi Ari Greenspan and Professor Ari Zivotovsky, the kosher adventure-travel team leading a groundbreaking leadership mission of Jewish India for the Orthodox Union next month — have made a project of delving into the most exotic regions of Asia, foraging for local interpretations of glatt kosher cuisine and discovering far-flung Jewish brethren.
Jewish contact with Asia is hardly a new phenomenon; India is a longtime hub of the Israeli backpacking circuit. But my conversations with kosher pioneers have convinced me that observant Jewish travel in Asia is not only possible, but in fact far easier, more authentic, and more accessible today than at any time in the past.
Cuba, now through Jewish eyes. The opening of Cuba to American tourism, if still on a limited basis, was last year’s big travel story — but as the situation evolves both touristically and politically, new opportunities are emerging for thoughtful, respectful engagement, especially with Cuba’s long-isolated Jewish community. Cuba-Jewish trips have thus far been synagogue missions rather than private vacations, but that’s changing in 2016.
The best Cuba trips will be those that look to the future as well as the past — and engage with Cubans as fellow humans, not culturally fossilized oddities. One such offering: the L’Chaim Cuba nine-day tour just launched by Central Holidays, which combines secular highlights (Hemingway’s house, a cigar factory, the UNESCO World Heritage core of colonial Trinidad) and a full weekend with Havana’s historic Jewish community. Rather than simply touring a synagogue, travelers share Shabbat with locals, visit children at the Hebrew school, and chat with the kosher butcher to better understand our Caribbean counterparts.
The newly restored synagogues and cemeteries of Eastern Europe. What’s new in Europe is old — the remarkable restoration of dozens of historic synagogues and Jewish heritage sites, symbols not only of a tangible Jewish past, but also of renewed European determination to validate a thousand-year history.
Here are just a few of the Eastern European Jewish tourist highlights unavailable a few years ago: The Czech 10 Stars Museum, a nationwide project that includes 10 Jewish-themed exhibits at 10 Jewish sites; restored wooden synagogues across the Baltics, as well as a just-unveiled “Lost Shtetl” memorial complex of four sites around Šeduva, Lithuania; a re-opened historic synagogue in Wroclaw, Poland; the magnificently restored Moorish Zion Neolog synagogue in Oradea, Romania; and a memorial park underway at the Jewish cemetery in Bitola, Macedonia.