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Barrack Delays Study Abroad in Israel Over Safety Concerns

August 13, 2014 By:
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The Alexander Muss High School in Israel's Hod HaSharon campus. Photo courtesy of AMHSI

The Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy has decided to delay the departure of the school's 11th-graders scheduled to study for a trimester in Israel, largely because of  some parents' concerns over the security situation there.

Sharon Levin, the head of school, emailed parents on Sunday to inform them that the students who were scheduled to spend 12 weeks at the Alexander Muss High School program would leave on Sept. 7 rather than Aug. 24 and would still return on the same date in late November, meaning that their time abroad would be cut short by two weeks.

Levin said in an interview with the Jewish Exponent that she decided to push back the departure date for the program, which is offered as part of the junior year for students at the Jewish day school in Bryw Mawr, in part because of parents who said they would not send their children on the trip if it departed Aug. 24.

"Part of the reason for delaying was to keep the group as unified as possible," said Levin. "These are friends going, and we wanted them to have the experience together as a grade."

Barrack's decision comes at the end of a summer during which many programs in Israel were affected by the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas. Some teen programs were cut short or canceled, and Birthright Israel, the 10-day free trip for college students and young adults, suffered many cancelations. 

Though there is still nearly two weeks until the originally scheduled departure to see if the latest cease-fire between Israel and Palestinian terrorist groups in Gaza holds, Levin said she faced a final deadline on Monday to inform El Al Airlines and other organziations involved with their travel plans whether the group would leave on time, and that forced her to make a decision.  

"A lot of thought went into this — and angst to some extent. You can't make everyone happy, but ultimately the best outcome will be that when I send these kids off on Sept. 7, that people who would have preferred to leave two weeks earlier will say, 'See, we told you so.'  That would make me the happiest. That would mean that the quiet will have held which would not only be good for Israel but also good for us as a Jewish people,"  Levin said. 

The issue had been a major topic of discussion among parents in the group. While some Barrack parents were pushing for the change, others expressed dismay and even anger over the decision.

"I ask all in our parent community not to stand too firmly in their own view without regard for what is best for the whole," Levin wrote in an email to parents. She noted that a group from the Gann Academy, a Jewish day school near Boston that is also slated to study at the same Muss program, is still scheduled to leave Aug. 24. But she said that only one-third of that class is participating, whereas 53 of the 63 students of Barrack's junior class are scheduled to go.

Levin declined to say how many families were considering withdrawing their students from the English-speaking study abroad program if the trip had left on time. But she said it was "a substantial enough number to have made the decision that I have made."

Levin said she thinks students would be fine in Israel now, but if the conflict again escalates to where it is unsafe for them, they could further postpone the trip. Only once in 30 years of students from Barrack or Akiba Hebrew Academy, as it was previously known, attending Muss have organizers delayed the program more than a few weeks, she said. After the Hebrew University bombing during the Second Intifada in 2002, the trip was postponed and Barrack students instead spent the third trimester of their senior year in Israel.

The itinerary will not be affected by the delay, Levin said, with all trips included in the program still scheduled to happen. Three teachers from Muss will travel to Philadelphia and start classes over the two weeks that students would have been in Israel. 

Lenard Cohen, whose son Alec is scheduled to participate in the Muss program, said he would have preferred that the class left on Aug. 24 but that he has "full faith in the head of school that she made the right decision."

Cohen, an attorney who lives in Wynnewood, said he thinks students will be "perfectly safe" on the Muss campus, which is located in Hod HaSharon in central Israel, and that he isn't sure what a two-week delay means in terms of safety.

"What difference does the two weeks make? I don't know, but I support the decision she made," said Cohen, a father of three. "We need to have a unified community and not quarrel over a decision that the head of school made to postpone the trip for a couple weeks."

But those two weeks will make a difference for Dr. Debbie Cohen-Stein, who is scheduled to leave for Israel with her family on Saturday for the Bar Mitzvah of her youngest son, Noah. Her  son Jacob is scheduled to participate in the Muss program, and the plan was for him to remain in Israel after their family trip to begin the program with his Barrack classmates.

Instead, Cohen-Stein, a nephrologist who lives in Wynnewood, had to buy an additional ticket for him to come home because of the two-week delay.

As for their family's trip they had made the decision that they were going "no matter what," she said. "We decided that it was an important time to go to Israel and show support as a family." 

As for Barrack's decision, she said she was  "not happy about" it. What happens if some people decide to back out in four weeks, she wondered.

"I do understand that some people may be uncomfortable, but if they are uncomfortable, they shouldn't send their kids," said Cohen, who had two older children attend the Muss program. "You have to make a decision and go with it."

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