With college trips to Israel canceled, new website offers virtual tours
Virtual LifeDigital Excursions

With college trips to Israel canceled, new website offers virtual tours

Israel Street View offers the next best thing to being there

Israel Street View offers users a panoramic, 360° view of various sites across Israel_Photo provided by Isaac Minkoff..png
Israel Street View offers users a panoramic, 360° view of various sites across Israel_Photo provided by Isaac Minkoff..png

To paraphrase an idiom: “If you can’t come to Jerusalem, Jerusalem will come to you.”

When COVID-19 began to affect countries across the globe, organizations that had been coordinating and planning trips to Israel were forced to postpone or cancel tours. This created a particular problem for Isaac Minkoff.

As the IACT coordinator for Hillel Jewish University Center in partnership with Combined Jewish Philanthropies, Minkoff is tasked with creating unique educational opportunities and trips to Israel with organizations like Birthright Israel and the Maccabee Task Force.

In other words, Minkoff used to work bringing students to Israel but since the coronavirus pandemic, he has been trying to figure out how to bring Jerusalem to his students.

When the pandemic hit, Minkoff, a University of Pittsburgh graduate, was charged with creating an Israeli experience for students who would not have the opportunity to physically walk through city streets in Jerusalem or visit the country’s historic sites.

He found a solution when Eric Esses, CEO of Upstart Ideas and a partner with CJP, approached IACT coordinators from across the country with the idea of creating a website for students to explore.

The result is Israel Street View. The website utilizes Google Street View, a function of Google Maps and Google Earth that provides interactive panoramas for many of the world’s streets, to bridge the gap between Israel and those unable to visit the country.

Israel Street View, according to Minkoff, is “an immersive experience for our students.”

“We can’t have them walk through a shuk in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv,” he said, “but we can post immersive 360-degree imagery that gives them a flavor of what it will actually be like when they are able to go to Israel.”

Visitors to the site can choose a category and then click on a panoramic photo of a popular attraction in the country, including the Western Wall, a cable car in Haifa or the view from Mt. Arbel. The goal is to leave the user with more than simply the memory of a photo of a location on a map.

Minkoff served as co-editor on the team of 13 that created the site, overseeing the blurbs written about the various locations available to view and the website’s written content.

It was exciting “to create the language that we’re using to communicate the importance of each area,” he said, and hopes that the writing communicates “the importance of each area, what each place feels like, what it smells like, what it represents.” He also hopes the blurbs are “as visceral as possible, creating an emotional connection to the imagery without actual being there.”

The interactive experience of Israel Street View does not necessarily end when students close their browsers and walk away from their computers.

For those who live in Israel or have been to the country and think a point of interest should be included, they can click the “Add a Street View” option and submit their suggestion. As long as Google Street View has an image of the location and the site’s administrators agree that the spot is compelling, it will be added.

Allowing for the addition of a growing number of locations and images means that Israel Street View is never finished. “The project isn’t done,” Minkoff explained. “It’s still growing. That’s why it’s so exciting for me.”

The site offers students and educators an opportunity to use technology in a way that is different than what they might experience in other virtual classroom settings.

“We’re adapting our educational models based off of what we think is most accessible to students,” Minkoff said. “We’ve found that a lot of our students are a little fatigued of the Zoom call.”

The intention is that students will find and use the technology on their own terms, according to Minkoff.

“The website is constantly advertised on social media — Instagram, Facebook — so students are seeing it and they’re liking it,” he said. “I’m allowing them to find it on their own, wherever possible.”

Hillel JUC Executive Director and CEO Daniel Marcus said he was disappointed that the more than 100 students in the Pittsburgh area who had planned trips to the Jewish state this summer would not be able to go. He does, however, see the Israel Street View program as “a unique educational tool that provides the opportunity to visit Israel together with the students.”

“It is also a resource that students can use on their own to familiarize themselves with the geography of Israel and see what to expect when we can physically travel together, hopefully in the near future,” Marcus said.

And while Minkoff and his team developed the website with college students in mind, they aren’t the only ones that can utilize the site.

“The initial idea was, ‘how do we compensate for the pandemic and the people who were unable to go to Israel?’ but anyone can use it. A 15-year-old can show it, a teacher can use it, you can be sitting with your spouse in your living room and take a look,” he said. “It’s for anyone, no matter your age or capabilities. As long as you have access to a computer you can use the site.” PJC

David Rullo can be reached at drullo@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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