Mitt Romney may be the highest-profile Mormon to visit Israel but he is far from alone. Christians have traditionally dominated tourism to Israel and make up nearly two-thirds of visitors to the country, according to the Israel Ministry of Tourism, a figure that includes members of the Church of Latter Day Saints, or Mormons.
Although the Mormon church strongly encourages all of its 7.5 million members to complete a mission trip (a two-year, church-planned journey to spread their faith) in a foreign country, the many Mormon students, tourists and even politicians who visit Israel have sworn not to preach, or even pray. Rather, they’re there to learn about biblical history, the Jewish faith and Israeli culture.
They arrive with a goal of conversations, not conversions.
“Mormons see their faith as a restoration of everything given to the children of Israel,” said Daniel Rona, who has been taking LDS groups to Israel for over 30 years. An American born to a Jewish family in pre-war Palestine, Rona converted to Mormonism after moving to New York City and now operates Israel Revealed, which runs tours and has planned private tours for high-profile Mormons like former Utah governor Jon Huntsman, Jr.
Rona’s unique background — he bills himself as “an Israeli, an American, a Mormon and a Jew” — makes him well-equipped to understand his clients. And, according to him, Mormons don’t travel to Israel looking for the expected.
“Questioning is healthy for Mormons. They don’t just want Mormonism transported overseas from Provo (Utah),” he said.
To that end, he provides each day’s itinerary at locations in Jerusalem, Galilee and Nazareth with both sights to see and “insights,” both personal and biblical, to reflect upon. It’s this combination, he said, that synthesizes into a truly edifying experience: “It might sound trite, but it’s really life-changing.”
Seeing his work less as commerce and more as a labor of love and faith, Rona prefers not to use advertising to generate business, but rather relies on word-of-mouth, free education talks and fireside visits at Mormon churches.
Potential Mormon sightseers are highly valued by Israel and several other companies have sprung up offering Mormon-themed tours of Israel. Most companies emphasize the importance of learning over teaching as the integral part of the LDS experience in Israel.