Jewish groups see slowdown in student trips to Israel

With the rise of Israeli-Palestinian strife, some families are keeping their teens stateside

Three years ago, Lynn Fleer sent her eldest daughter, Erica, to Israel on a summer program for high schoolers. But when the time came for her younger daughter, Jackie, to go, Ms. Fleer decided the risk was too great. "It was a hard decision to make," she says, "but I'm not secure enough for her to be there right now."

Her reservations are typical in the Jewish community. Because of security fears, participation on trips that cater to young Jews has decreased dramatically over the past two summers.

This means that thousands of Jewish teens will not have an experience that bears special significance to the Jewish community. By visiting important religious and cultural sites and witnessing Israel firsthand, young Jews form connections that reaffirm their Judaism.

"For the past three decades at least, going to Israel for young Jews has ... allowed them to return to the source of their tradition," says Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass.

"It has brought together their search for identity with a locus where they can discover and express their identity," he adds.

The danger associated with the intifada - the current Palestinian uprising - has interrupted tourism, causing some organizations to cancel their trips. The Eli and Bessie Cohen Foundation, which sponsors camp Pembroke in Massachusetts and camps Tel Noar and Teviya in New Hampshire, decided to cancel their trips two years ago.

"Our mission is to have a quality camping experience and to enhance that with a leadership trip to Israel, and when we can do that again, we will," says Pearl Lourie, executive director of the foundation. "We waited all winter until we could have a comfort level. After being there myself that May, we were not comfortable sending kids to Israel."

Those groups that are still running trips are experiencing a dramatic decline in participation. While enrollment is up compared with last summer, the North American Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY), which caters mainly to Reform Jews, is still only sending 40 teens this summer, down from 1,400 three years ago. To try to reassure parents, the organization has many measures in place to ensure security, and trip coordinators are in constant contact with parents.

But the organization admits that news reports of terrorism make Israel an unpopular destination.

"We want to promote the program, but we understand that it's the decision of the parents," says Gadi Dobkin, coordinator of NFTY travel programs. "It's a touchy situation."

Even though travel to Israel has not completely stopped, the growing numbers of American Jews refraining has caused many to worry that this will sever connections to the land, traditions, and people.

"It will certainly take away one possibility for making strong connections," says Mr. Sarna. "The fact that for several years we have had only a small number of American Jews going is significant because the window for some Jews to go to Israel is very narrow. This will distinguish them from the young Jewish leaders before them. Because they haven't been to Israel, their knowledge of Israel is shaped by what they read in the media rather than a firsthand encounter."

This problem has caused some organizations to view this as a critical time to introduce young Jews to Israel.

"This is a generation that has taken Israel for granted or only knows it through the media," says Simon Klarfeld, executive vice president of Birthright Israel, which for the last three years has provided 18- to 26-year-olds who have never visited Israel with free, no-strings-attached, 10-day trips to the country.

Mr. Klarfeld notes that young Jews are not participating in Judaism through traditional means, such as joining synagogues or youth groups, making trips to Israel more important than ever.

"The question is how is the community going to respond to this new need of the age group saying 'We want connection,' " he says.

In response to this problem and the intifada, some organizations are reaffirming their dedication to the country. Hadassah, the organization that sponsors Young Judaea, decided a year ago to build a $10 million facility in the heart of Jerusalem for American students who are visiting Israel on educational programs. The center will serve as a meeting place for Young Judaea's programs, as well as those of similar groups.

"It's a dual commitment to continuing to send children and to supporting the Israeli economy," says Moshik Toledano, the interim national director of Young Judaea.

"[The center] also gave a message to parents that we still believe in the state of Israel and believe in peace in the future."

However, Mr. Toledano says, the center is not meant to be political. "We're sending our kids to Israel to enhance their Jewish identity and to deepen their relationship with the state and the people of Israel. We're not bringing them to make an ideological statement."

Many young Jews are actually opting to make the pilgrimage to Israel in spite of the potential danger.

Jeremy Sklarsky, who participated in Young Judaea's year-long program for high school graduates in 2001-2002, says he wanted to deepen his personal connection with Israel and found the trip both enriching and educational.

"Having Israeli friends and being with them through terror attacks made me see the real face of Israel, the good and the bad."

He says he was rarely afraid - except during March 2002, when more people in Israel were dying because of terror attacks than in car accidents. "I didn't always want to go outside," he says. "You're always looking over your shoulder on the bus. It's a fear you learn to live with." Even with the danger, the experience "gave me a concrete expression of a Jewish and Zionist identity."

Until the violence abates, however, many American Jews have decided to wait. Jackie Fleer is disappointed but hopeful that she has not missed her only opportunity to travel to the country. "Eventually it will be safe," she says. "I'm 16 years old; I have the rest of my life to go."

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