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Friday, September 20, 2019

Englewood, NJ— The boutique winery in Israel, tucked into a protective forest, was the perfect setting for a visiting celebrity couple from Los Angeles. After viewing the exclusive production process, the couple strolled to a private outdoor table, where they dined on a gourmet three-course meal accompanied by several exquisite wines. Does that sound like something you’d like to do? Don’t open your guidebook to look for the number—you need protexsia, Hebrew for connections.

The boutique winery tour was arranged by Shari Alter of Englewood, New Jersey and Harvey Tannenbaum, who made aliyah from Los Angeles 14 years ago, partners in Protexsia Plus (www.protexsiaplus.com), a company specializing in event planning and VIP travel in Israel. Protexsia Plus organizes visits for two and events for 500. With Alter in the U.S., and Tannenbaum in Israel, they arrange all advance work and on-site coordination. For the boutique winery tour, Tannenbaum visited each location before the couple arrived to make sure the trip flowed as smoothly as wine from a bottle.

Alter first met Tannenbaum when she hired him to help her coordinate her oldest son’s bar mitzvah in Israel in 2006. About a year later, he asked her to work with him. Now they are partners.

Alter is the creative force at Protexsia Plus, often the first one to meet with clients and hear about their dreams. With a background in interior design, she takes the lead in planning the itinerary, décor and printed materials. She showed me a pre-departure gift she created for one bar mitzvah party: a coordinated package with luggage tags and passport holder that was sent overnight to the homes of all the guests before they left.

Tannenbaum coordinates the logistics in Israel, using his protexsia to find the vendors and venues that will make clients happy. Alter said their teamwork speeds up the planning. “Because of the time difference, our clients can ask me questions in the afternoon that Harvey can work on it in Israel while they are asleep,” Alter said. “They wake up with answers.” The sun doesn’t set for long on Protexsia Plus.

First time visitors to Israel appreciate Alter’s guidance. “I worked with a family from New York’s Upper West Side who didn’t think much about religion until their son’s bar mitzvah, and they decided to make it in Israel,” Alter recalled. “They wanted to know where to go and what to do. We suggested they visit Hebron, a place they had never heard of. It made a big impression. When they came back, the parents wrote a check for $5,000 to the Hebron Fund.”

Alter and Tannenbaum have turned the most fanciful ideas into spectacular reality. They planned an engagement party on the top of Masada, with the couple flying in by helicopter. One family had a simcha in Hertzliya with their own private amusement park. A South American family wanted a simcha in the desert – they had it on top of a mountain, complete with tents, a dance floor, DJ, back-up generators and an after party. Everyone, including the staff, wore white.

Alter and Tannenbaum also use their protexsia to fulfill smaller, meaningful requests. “We planned a bar mitzvah for a boy with special needs who loved to drum. We arranged for him to drum with a local Israeli band. It was a really special day for him,” Alter said. “We had another bar mitzvah boy who loved to cook. We arranged a bake-off contest for all the guests.”

The economic climate has affected some aspects of travel to Israel. Alter said people planning simchas have fewer friends coming now, and some have to scale down the size of their events. Sometimes Alter has to gently tell a client that an activity they want, like practice at a shooting range for $120 per person, may be too expensive. But a four-hour party in New York costs as much as a trip to Israel. So by comparison, making a simcha in Israel can be a cost-effective decision.

Politics can create obstacles, but Protexsia Plus knows how to get around them. When they had an event planned in Jerusalem’s old city and roads were blocked off due to a sudden security problem, Tannenbaum called someone he knew who offered to get the catering truck there through a back route. Alter said she knows of only two events families cancelled due to fears about security—and both regretted cancelling afterwards.

The kind of research Tannenbaum and Alter do would be almost impossible for travelers to conduct themselves. They hire babysitters, mostly girls who have done their Sherut Leumi service, who are trained and competent. They speak to chefs about special diet requirements. And of course they are knowledgeable about kashrut supervision and the preferences of their clients. Clients who rent apartments arrive to find their refrigerators stocked and flowers on the table. Like a personal concierge, they will arrange hard to get concert tickets and advance restaurant reservations.

Tannenbaum began the business shortly after arriving in Israel, having been a lawyer in LA. “People I knew kept asking me for recommendations and advice. I realized I could make a business doing this,” he said. Over the years, he has developed many relationships with caterers, hotel staff and restaurant managers. He evaluates other service providers by trying them out first with family and friends. “Ten years ago, my great aunt came for a visit and wanted to go to Tel Aviv,” Tannenbaum related. “I asked a driver who, unbeknownst to her, I was looking at to work for us. When she returned I asked her, ‘Did he drive well? Was the cab clean? Would he understand the American mentality?’ He became one of the company’s trusted drivers and also recommended others.”

Matching the right resources to the client is part of Tannenbaum’s expertise. “We try to stay out of politics, but we know which guide is a good fit,” he said. “Some tour guides specialize in bringing Tanach to life for those with little background and others are scholars. We also have guides who are knowledgeable about Christian sites for the many non-Jews who come to Israel.”

And then there are those sudden glitches that are insurmountable if you’re on your own but Tannenbaum and Alter can fix with a few well-placed phone calls. Their U.S./Israel partnership saved the day for one couple who arrived in Israel at night for a family simcha later in the week. After a relaxing dinner, they prepared to check into their hotel only to be told at the front desk that they had no reservation and the hotel was full.

The client called Tannenbaum. Tannenbaum called Alter in New Jersey (yes, at 2 a.m.). Alter went through all the records and found the problem;  the hotel had transposed the couple’s name. They did indeed have a reservation.

Protexsia Plus came to the rescue for a college student in London who was supposed to meet her family touring in Israel. Tannenbaum got a frantic call from the father. His daughter went to Heathrow Airport by mistake when she should have gone to Luton. There was only one El Al flight left she could take and arrive before yom tov. Tannenbaum called a travel agent he knew who called El Al. The young woman caught a cab to Luton and was met by an El Al representative who whisked her into the airport and onto her plane.

Tannenbaum and Alter have a passion for Israel. Tannenbaum is guided by the memory of his father who grew up without a bar mitzvah—they didn’t have any in Auschwitz. But now, a generation later, he’s making it possible for others. Alter, whose mother-in-law also survived the Holocaust, loves making people’s dreams of visiting Israel come true and now has a second home there. “We travel to Israel so much that sometimes we have to remember how special it is,” Alter said. “Travel to Israel is a blessing that we can’t take for granted.”

By Bracha Schwartz