Lizzie McGrath was enjoying her last day in Israel, spending the afternoon with her family at the National Military Cemetery on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem. She had just wandered over to the grave site of Golda Meir, the fourth Prime Minister of the Jewish state, when she spotted a group of IDF troops.

Lizzie McGrath offers up a warm smile and a salute after meeting this group of IDF women during a trip last summer to Israel. PHOTOS / www.garyfeinbergphoto.com/

Lizzie, who’s only 6 and a student at the Davis Academy in Atlanta, was standing next to the five young troopers when someone nearby suggested she offer up a salute. It was a perfect Kodak moment and, fortunately, was captured by a photographer in the area.

The memorable picture shows Lizzie with a sweet smile spilling across her face, her right arm raised and hand resting lightly against her brow. In the background, the soldiers all grin with delight, three of them returning Lizzie’s greeting with smart salutes of their own.

“It’s not something you see every day,” says Robin McGrath, Lizzie’s mom. “It certainly makes you appreciate the fruits of freedom that we all enjoy and the sacrifices of these young girls.”

Lizzie was traveling in Israel last summer with her parents, Robin and Kevin McGrath, her brother, sister and 30 or so others. The trip, a two-week tour pulled together by Congregation Etz Chaim in East Cobb, featured stops in and around Tel Aviv, Haifa, Tiberius and Jerusalem.

“There’s just so much to do and see in Israel,” says Gary Feinberg, a long-time member of Etz Chaim and the photographer who snapped the picture of Lizzie and the IDF soldiers. “This was a wonderful trip and what made it really special was being able to experience it with friends – old and new – from my synagogue.”

It turns out that such congregational trips are also great news for Israel – especially the country’s economy. Travel to the Jewish homeland is booming, according to the Israeli Ministry of Tourism. Nearly 300,000 tourists visited Israel in July, a record for the month and an 8 percent increase over the previous July.

“It’s a period where, on the face of it, we should be struggling with an economic downturn and the Arab Spring around us,” the tourism ministry’s Uri Steinberg told the Associated Press. “But it hasn’t worked out that way.”

Although final numbers for the summer season have yet to be fully reported, tourism officials are certain that 2012 is shaping up to be a record year. The even better news, officials report, is that large numbers of tourists visiting Israel for the first time often return again.

That’s certainly the case for the McGraths. They had been looking forward to visiting Israel for years and decided to join the Etz Chaim group so they could celebrate their son’s Bar Mitzvah in Jerusalem.

“It was unbelievable,” Robin McGrath says. “The trip provided us with a great overview of the country, but now we’re hoping to return next summer and have the time to really see everything at our own pace.”

BY RON FEINBERG / Web Editor