Israel trip leaders in S.F. try to stem tide of bail-outs

"Our trips to Israel are sponsored by a million Jewish mothers. Since they're not worried about a thing, you shouldn't be."

Maya Foner of Hadassah's Young Judaea program has had to use that line a lot lately.

And with many Bay Area Jews expressing fear, canceling their reservations or merely not showing interest in Israeli travel as the violence continues, Foner is certainly not alone.

During a meeting last week at the Jewish Community Federation building in San Francisco, several leaders of Bay Area Israel programs for students, teens and adults expressed their current recruiting frustrations and discussed viable solutions.

Avner Evan Zohar, for instance, said parental resistance and a drop in applicants left him with no choice but to postpone the Israel Project student leadership tour until the summer. The tour is sponsored by the S.F.-based Israel Center.

"For years I used to think I had issues with my own mother," joked Zohar. Now he knows those "issues" were not unique. Referring to his many phone calls with concerned parents, he said, "Most have had major issues with their kids going to Israel right now. The moms would say they weren't going and the kids would e-mail and say, 'Yes, I am.'

"I decided it was best to postpone."

At least one program for adults, the S.F.-based JCF Women's Alliance: Women's Journey Through Israel, also has had to postpone, said organizer Maxine Epstein.

"At first it was, 'Wow, we are going to Israel,' and now boom!" said Epstein of the trip planned for 30 female, Israel first-timers through a two-year recruitment process. "When the travel warnings blew up…a number of the women canceled."

Meirav Yaron, program director for the Israel Center, noted that first-timers, unfortunately, have a higher tendency to cancel than those who have been to Israel before.

"A lot of people have a perception that there will just be soldiers with guns around," said Dana Hoffman from B'nai B'rith Youth Organization. "They think Israel will be empty and scary."

Avraham Infeld, president of Melitz — a nonprofit, Jerusalem-based center for Jewish-Zionist education — also took part in the discussion. An Israeli scholar on the issue of Israel-diaspora relations, Infeld told the group he was "very, very concerned" by the decrease in Jewish groups traveling to Israel and wished to help in any way possible.

"I'm worried about the message it sends…when a person is offered a free trip and that doesn't happen," said Infeld, emphasizing that "the people responsible for running Israel programs are responsible people who don't take chances." The impact, he said, "is very bad."

Infeld said his program, Israel Experience, is also getting "cancellation after cancellation after cancellation" from throughout the United States — like a wave, starting with one fearful person and creating a domino effect.

"But waves can go both ways," he said. "What can we do to create an alternate wave?"

Having himself just returned from Jerusalem, Infeld added: "I don't think a trip to Israel at this time is any more dangerous than three years ago. I have no qualms telling people to come. I think it's the right time to come."

Not all Israel programs are encountering severe problems, however. Sean Mandell from YAD Missions, said his adult-oriented program is moving "full-steam ahead" with 18 participants already "expressing solid interest."

Part of the Young Adult Division of the S.F.-based JCF's program's success, he said, has come from offering a full return on the trip deposit.

Infeld called a refundable deposit "an effective tool" for recruitment. He also suggested "contingency planning."

"That way, if the situation is bad at the time of the trip and you can't go to Israel, you can at least go somewhere else," said Infeld.

"That's what BBYO is doing," noted Hoffman. "And if we do go somewhere else, we'll invite Israeli kids so that they can get connected with our kids. That way our kids will want to go to Israel next year."

But Amir Segal, Israel emissary for the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay, disagreed with this idea. He said that by pushing alternative trips, the message that Israel is unsafe may come across.

"We should not express panic," he said. "We should express confidence."