The ongoing violence in the Middle East has challenged Israel program directors to modify planned itineraries on the fly, and in some cases, even cancel or cut short their trips.
As they have done every summer for decades, local Jewish youth groups and summer camps readied excited teenagers for a taste of all the wonderful flavors that the Jewish homeland has to offer, from falafel to camel rides to salty dips in the Dead Sea.
This year, the violence and uncertainty surrounding the conflict in Gaza and the potential for danger have led many program directors to struggle with whether or not to cancel.
Some organizations, such as Camp Pinemere, decided to cut their Israel trips short, bringing their travelers home halfway through the itinerary. Others, such as B’nai B’rith Perlman Camp, canceled their trips before even departing from the United States. But at least three camps serving this area — Galil, Ramah and Harlam — have continued with their regularly scheduled programming.
Those groups that decided not to cancel or already had campers abroad when the conflict started now face the challenges of ensuring the safety of their groups; reworking itineraries around those precautions; and keeping parents updated on the latest developments.
These have become daily topics of discussion for Avi Green, an Elkins Park native now living in Washington, D.C., and the managing director of the B’nai B’rith Youth Organization’s national Passport to Israel program. Usually, BBYO sends some 400 American teens to Israel in staggered groups throughout the summer. This year, the last group of 75 was scheduled to leave on July 8 — the same day the conflict in Gaza erupted.
The teens were waiting to board their plane at the John F. Kennedy airport in New York when the news broke that Hamas was targeting Israel, and possibly the Ben-Gurion airport specifically.
“Based on the information that we had at the time, and our concerns about the teens taking off and not being able to land, we decided not to go forward,” Green said.
The teens were offered the option of joining one of BBYO’s non-Israel trips or rolling over their registration until the following summer. “It just didn’t seem responsible to try and reschedule it” for later this summer, Green said.
The next headache for Green’s staff was debating what to do with the 325 teens who were already in the middle of their trips. Though they considered bringing them home early, Green said, they decided to remain in Israel as long as they could safely continue meeting their goals.
“We talked about a lot of contingencies, we talked about what it would take for the program to not go forward, but our mantra has been as long as the experience is safe, meaningful and fun, and it’s time well spent in Israel, we can continue,” Green said. If that changed, “we would have revisited those decisions. But we were able to really make some smart and quick decisions to modify the itinerary.”
Two of the areas that the BBYO teens were forced to stay away from were Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, though Green noted that a few of the groups were at least able to spend their last Shabbat in Jerusalem before returning to the United States on July 21 as planned.
Jordan Gottlieb, a 17-year-old from Haverford, said she was disappointed to miss out on Tel Aviv and Eilat, where they were scheduled to travel before a rocket fell there. They felt torn, she said, “between wanting to be safe and wanting to experience the real authentic Israeli experience.”
The rising senior at the Shipley School in Bryn Mawr said the scariest moment came when the group learned that a siren had sounded in Arad moments before they arrived there in lieu of their planned stay in Tel Aviv. But, she said, the fear dissipated as the group later hiked to a waterfall and camped out.
She added that returning to Jerusalem for the last Shabbat allowed them to come “full circle” and, after getting over her initial fears, she even wished that she had gotten the opportunity to see the Iron Dome defense system in action.
“At first I — most of us — were very, very nervous because we didn’t really understand the capabilities of Iron Dome — we just thought that there were rockets flying at us,” Gottlieb said. “But by the end, as we kept going and meeting soldiers who were just so ready to defend the country no matter what, we became less and less worried.”
Ultimately, Gottlieb said the Gaza conflict offered her a chance to “really know what it’s like for Israelis” and now she is “dying to go back” and check out the parts of the country she missed.
For camps like Harlam, Ramah and Galil, which partner with national youth groups or tour providers to operate their Israel experiences, the debate over canceling or modifying itineraries were left to those companies. But the directors still had plenty of communications work to do to keep nervous parents up-to-date on the whereabouts of their children.
Harlam, the Union for Reform Judaism’s overnight camp in the Poconos, has 58 campers currently abroad as part of the NFTY in Israel program.
“They’ve been fluid — certainly, they’re switching some things around with the itinerary,” said Harlam director Aaron Selkow. “But really, they’ve not had to abandon the program.”
Selkow added that while NFTY so far hasn’t talked about bringing the group home early, it has made a point of ramping up communications with parents through daily emails.
According to Miriam Eiseman, the Penn Valley mother of 16-year-old NFTY in Israel participant Noah, one recent such email outlined a new itinerary that will keep the travelers in the Galil region in Israel’s north — far away from the rockets.
For all of her trust in the program to keep Noah safe, Eiseman said she was still “freaked out” by watching the news. “But I’m not at the point that I’m bringing my kid home,” she said, noting that, according to Noah, the parents of two Harlam travelers had chosen to bring their children home on their own.
Parents of Harlam’s Israel program participants have also set up a blog where they can voice their opinions and share news with one another.
“These kids are bonding with their friends in Israel, but as parents, we’re also bonding and we kind of know that we’re not in this alone,” Eiseman said.
Alan Stern, whose 15-year-old son, Benjamin, is attending the Habonim Dror youth movement’s Machanah Bonim b’Israel program through Camp Galil, shared similar concerns.
“As a parent, you always want to be there to protect your child,” the Upper Dublin parent said. “As much as we get the emails and the blogs, you worry — are they in any type of threat or danger?”
But, like Eiseman’s assessment of NFTY, Stern said he felt that the Habonim Dror movement was doing a great job of keeping parents in the loop and assuaging any concerns.
Stern has visited Israel four times, including his first visit in 1981 when Israel bombed Iraq’s nuclear power plant.
“Now my son is getting to experience a similar type of adventure, except this time it’s not taking place in Iraq, it’s taking place in Gaza,” Stern said. “There are kids still in Israel, for lack of a better term, ‘toughing it out,’ and in going along with that Israel experience — even with all the danger and everything that’s going on —they’re sticking it out there and, so far, so good.”