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To Stay or To Go? The Travel to Israel Dilemma
Twin sisters Rena and Karli Wojnilower and their parents plotted out every detail of their joint B’not Mitzvah ceremony in Jerusalem — down to the Post-It notes in the prayer books reminding the girls how to pronounce certain words and when to pause.
The Ardmore family had hired a tour guide. They had organized a picnic and walking tour of the Old City that would take place after the July 10 service. Shortly before leaving for Israel on June 27, the Wojnilowers even arranged to get extra copies of the prayer books used during services at Robinson’s Arch — which is adjacent to the Kotel but outside the main plaza — so everyone attending the ceremony could easily follow along.
They had planned for everything — everything, that is, except for Arab terrorists abducting and killing three Israeli teens in the West Bank; Israeli extremists, in revenge, abducting and killing a Palestinian teen in a Jerusalem forest; and an ensuing conflict that saw rockets flying from Gaza and the Israel Defense Forces responding with air strikes.
The ceremony went on as planned, but not before the family spent some time taking cover.
“I won’t say that we understand what life is like there, because we don’t, but it gave us just a taste of what people there experience,” Sam Wojnilower, Rena and Karli’s father, said upon his return home this week.
American Jews ordinarily follow an uptick in violence in Israel on the news or perhaps in phone conversations with relatives who live there. But it’s summer, a popular season for travel to the Jewish state. So many locals — teens on summer programs, Birthright participants, synagogue members on congregational trips — are finding out what it means to be in the thick of the conflict.
Some had to decide whether to stick with their plans or stay home. Others were already in Israel, getting a firsthand account of living under threat of attack. One Jewish camp canceled its annual trip for its oldest campers; another brought its campers home early.
After traveling through other parts of the country, the Wojnilower family arrived in Jerusalem on July 8, the day when sirens first sounded, alerting people to find shelter.
“I kind of just panicked and didn’t know what do,” said Rena Wojnilower, 13. “I kept getting thoughts that I wanted to go back home.”
Their guide had been a medic in the Israel Defense Forces and was called up from the reserves. Luckily, he was granted permission to rejoin the family for the ceremony. The Wojnilowers considered moving the service to a synagogue, but ultimately kept it at the outdoor spot where egalitarian services are allowed. The only change was to move the picnic reception to a Jerusalem home.
“It was really peaceful,” Rena Wojnilower said of the event. “Our whole lives we face Jerusalem and then, bam — you’re there facing the Kotel.”
While the twins went through with their service, others did get canceled.
Rabbi Albert Gabbai of Congregation Mikveh Israel traveled to Israel on July 9 expecting to attend his grandnephew’s Bar Mitzvah as part of his usual summer vacation. But the nephew’s immediate family — who live in Switzerland — decided not to hold the service at the Kotel on Saturday because they did not want to put guests at risk.
So far, the Egyptian-born rabbi said, his visit has been interrupted by sirens and three or four daily trips to shelters.
“It’s not the vacation I wanted to have, but it’s OK,” said Gabbai. “I am here in solidarity with everybody. I mention to everyone that I come from Philadelphia and say, ‘I am with you in supporting you morally,’ and they are very appreciative.”
Though much of Israeli life is going on as normal, that doesn’t mean that trauma just evaporates in the Mediterranean climate. Orly Benshoshan was living in the southern city of Netivot during the first Gulf War when chemical warfare, not rockets, was the most urgent threat. She said a gas mask was always within reach.
“That was horrifying for me,” she said. “I could not take it anymore so I came to the United States.”
Now a Hebrew teacher at Perelman Jewish Day School, Benshoshan traveled back to Israel last week to visit family. Her brother was preparing to pick her up at the airport, driving to Netivot on a route that would have taken him through Beersheva and Ashkelon — prime targets for Hamas. She told him not to come.
Instead, she visited family in Meirav, a kibbutz near Mount Gilboa in the north. Some of Benshoshan’s other family members came from the south to join her. They spent Shabbat together and then drove to Netivot on Sunday. Two days later, Israel announced that it had accepted a cease-fire proposed by Egypt and would halt military operations.
After hearing the news, Benshoshan said she and her mother set out to walk to a friend’s house for a shivah call. Then, the familiar sound of sirens filled the city. From one direction they saw a rocket soaring through the sky; from the other came an Iron Dome missile with a sharp trajectory.
“It’s like watching fireworks in the sky,” Benshoshan said. “We had to duck down in the middle of the street.”
Hamas had not agreed to the cease-fire.
Meanwhile, in Tiberias, a group of 12 teenagers from Pinemere Camp, the JCC Association camp in the Poconos, got word on Tuesday that their trip would be ending July 17, nearly two weeks before the scheduled July 30 return.
“I think everyone was really hopeful for the cease-fire and disappointed that it was not accepted by Hamas,” camp director Mitch Morgan said in a phone interview from the camp.
Like many trips, their itinerary was altered because of the situation. The group, which arrived on July 2, cut short time in Jerusalem and traveled north on the advice of an Israeli tour company.
“Our goal was to create a positive experience in Israel and have an experiential education,” Morgan said. “While we’ve totally done that and it’s been a great trip, we don’t have confidence that that can continue being that we’ve been in the North already 10 days and we don’t feel comfortable safety-wise to go South.”
Meanwhile, the B’nai B’rith Perlman Camp in Lake Como, Pa., canceled its annual Israel trip for 16-year-olds, which was scheduled to depart earlier this month.
Back in Philadelphia, Congregation Ohev Shalom Rabbi Jeremy Gerber is fielding nervous emails from members set to travel on the synagogue's “food and wine tour” of the country in August. One traveler, he said, sent an email with the subject “Ashkelon,” asking, “Is this a place we need to reconsider?”
Gerber said he’s trying to break from standard tourist itinerary — and hopes to have other trips with a particular focus in the future — to “encourage congregants that it’s not a place you just go once and check off your bucket list, but a place you have a relationship with.”
Before he talks about return trips, though, he has to get congregants there the first time.
“What happens if there’s an air raid while we’re there and we have to run to a shelter?” he said. “It would certainly make the trip feel very different than going to Jamaica but it teaches us to feel a tiny glimmer of what Israelis deal with every day. Our tour company is going to take care of us and we’ll be home safe and sound, but they live with this every day.”