For the past 30 years, members of the theater community have attended the Tony Awards and then, win or lose, set off on a nine-day trip to Israel.
“The joke is most people lose so they’re just thrilled to get out of town,” said producer Manny Azenberg. “Or some people have to atone.”
Azenberg began bringing groups on the trip to help provide Americans with a greater understanding of the Middle East and to eradicate stereotypes they may have held. For several of the 500 actors, producers and others who have gone on the trip over the years, it has deepened cultural connections and inspired greater civic commitment.
The impetus for the trip, which leaves Tuesday, was an opinion piece Woody Allen wrote in The New York Times in the late 1980s, in which he condemned Israel’s role in the first intifada, the Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation. This sparked a larger conversation between Azenberg and others about anti-Semitism and the need to change preconceived notions about Jewish and Arabic people.
“We don’t have a political or religious purpose other than education,” Azenberg said. “I think it’s an experience that people have when they visit other countries, that you shatter their preconceptions.”
Helmed by a local guide, the trip spans four nights in Jerusalem, three nights in Galilee and two nights in Tel Aviv, featuring discussions with political leaders, soldiers and both Palestinians and Israelis.
Word of the trip has spread throughout the theater community, which means that Azenberg is often faced with a deluge of interest. There’s no official selection process to narrow down the number of participants to about 30, but Azenberg said he does give some priority to his former students from Duke University.
Still, the large numbers may be a problem of Azenberg’s own creation, as many come on the trip due to his persistent outreach.
That was the case for Jason Alexander, who starred in Azenberg’s 1987 production of “Broadway Bound” and his 1989 production of “Jerome Robbins’ Broadway,” for which Alexander also wrote material. Though Alexander resisted the trip for years, under the impression that it would be too religious, Azenberg eventually convinced Alexander and his wife to go at the tail-end of their European vacation.
“He basically said, ‘I will pay your airfare,’ and I couldn’t come up with a good reason to say no,” Alexander said.
Attendees do not have to be Jewish, but those who are described having profound moments of connection when visiting sites such as the Wailing Wall.
“Those trips are an amazing opportunity both to bond with the land and bond with one’s religion,” said producer Jeffrey Seller.
Seller has been on the trip twice: in 1996 after “Rent” won its Tony Awards and in 2016 after “Hamilton” swept the awards — “that’s a good moment to exhale,” he said — traveling the second time with his children and partner. Seller then returned to Israel the next year, in 2017, at the request of his son, who was inspired to hold his bar mitzvah there.
And Seller plans to return again, as he and Azenberg have discussed him taking over the trip in the future.
The trip also sparked several return visits for Alexander, who was inspired by the idealism of the citizens and their commitment to the country.
“I had taken democracy for granted,” he said. “I came home and became much more of a citizen of the U.S. and of the world.”
After the first trip, Alexander began working with One Voice Movement, which supports activists working toward a fair resolution to Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
While many of the travelers work together on Broadway, general manager Charlotte Wilcox, who went in 2016, said the trip gives everyone a chance to bond in new ways.
“The personas that we all exhibit in our daily lives disappeared, and suddenly we were just all people traveling together and sharing,” Wilcox said.
But, as actor Walter Bobbie noted, there are still ties to the theater world.
“Like great [theater], it is brilliant, fun, provocative, riveting, and deeply moving,” Bobbie wrote in an email. “I laughed, I learned, and I actually wept uncontrollably in Gethsemane.”
In the past 30 years, the group has only skipped out on the trip twice due to warnings from the state department. Asked if he thought recent violence surrounding the U.S. moving the embassy to Jerusalem would impact the trip this year, Azenberg said there have always been reports of violence, but that, “in many respects it’s safer than downtown Philadelphia.”
And, as always, Azenberg hopes that the trip can help its attendees and others understand the current climate.
“I’m hoping they have a greater understanding of how complex the Middle East is,” Azenberg said.