For the better part of the academic year, Yair Cassuto and three fellow Israelis studying at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School have devoted their free time to contacting hotels, restaurants, tourist sites and business leaders back home.
No, they're not studying the intricacies of the tourism business, nor are they getting paid a cent for this work. Instead, they are voluntarily arranging what has become an annual "Wharton trek" to the Jewish state.
They do it, they said, for the joy of showing their fellow, mostly non-Jewish classmates how much Israel has to offer to tourists and young entrepreneurs alike.
"We want to show the world a different Israel than people might think," said Cassuto, 30.
In recent years, student-organized trips have become popular spring- and summer-break activities at several U.S. business schools, including those at Harvard and New York universities, and the University of Chicago. These excursions are separate from the global travel that some schools, including Wharton and Indiana University, have also begun incorporating into regular accredited courses.
At Wharton, foreign students have escorted colleagues through at least seven countries, ranging from Peru to China. The trip to Israel, however, has become the second most popular following Japan, reported Cassuto.
'Through Their Eyes'
Former Israeli students started the trip five years ago, taking about 25 travelers on a 10-day tour in mid-May, said Cassuto. By last year, he said, the trip had grown to some 70 travelers, and they're expecting even more this spring.
Altogether, organizers estimated that they'll have brought roughly 250 Wharton students to Israel after this upcoming trip.
Other than the fact that Wharton students organize and promote the trip, the university has no official affiliation or involvement with it. And unlike many other programs that send American Jews to Israel, the Wharton trekkers don't receive any financial subsidies. The travelers bear the full cost, which generally amounts to about $3,500, including airfare, said Cassuto.
"It's a very unique opportunity to visit someone's home country, probably somewhere I wouldn't have visited on my own, and being able to see it through their eyes," said Melanie Chase, 28, a first-year student who plans to join the summer tour.
Brian Zaratzian, a second-year student who went on the trip last year, echoed those sentiments. "Israel comes off as a place that's much better to be there with someone who lives there if you're not Jewish," said Zaratzian, who is Catholic and Armenian.
It turned out to be "one of the best trips of my life," he said. "There was something in it for everybody. Some parts were fun, some parts were cultural, some parts were religious."
The trip also automatically builds business connections, he said, "because we're spending time and bonding with all these Wharton students."
Business school can be stressful, so it's nice to have a chance to relax and solidify friendships, said Yoel Amir, 28, who helped organize the trip last year and this year. "Even for me, it was a perfect vacation," he said. "Even though I'd been to the Dead Sea 25 times, I really wanted to share these experiences in person with the friends I've been with."
In addition to Mediterranean beaches, winery tours, water sports on the Red Sea, Tel Aviv nightlife, holy sites and tourist highlights like Masada, the trip includes visits with politicians and entrepreneurs.
Through those meetings, said Cassuto, the students see how advanced the Israeli business community is, as well as the benefits of investing or conducting business there in the future.