Security concerns kill teen trips to Israel

Some 300 Bay Area Jewish teenagers are suddenly faced with more free time this summer than they anticipated.

For the first time ever, this summer's teen trips to Israel offered by the Bureau of Jewish Education, the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay and the Koret Foundation have all been canceled because of security concerns.

The Reform movement's United American Hebrew Congregations also announced the cancellation of its trips Saturday night, becoming the first national group to do so. Other groups report the numbers of participants have been dwindling continuously.

Organizers of the Bay Area trips issued a joint statement Tuesday after they reached a final decision on the local trips.

"It is with great sadness and a profound sense of regret that we have decided, separately and collectively, to cancel the trips," said the statement. It was issued by the BJE, the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, the East Bay federation, the Jewish Federation of Greater San Jose, the San Francisco and East Bay Israel centers and Koret.

At peak periods this year, the S.F.-based BJE had signed up 156 teens for the trip, the East Bay had 125 and Koret about 50. But the numbers were dropping as the violence continued.

Saying Israel will remain a central pillar of their educational efforts, the organizations wrote: "The decision to cancel comes after months of carefully monitoring and evaluating the situation in Israel. Following intensive consultation among ourselves, with experts throughout the country and with our partners in Israel, we have concluded that the unstable situation has compromised our ability to assure the safety and security of the teenagers while providing them with a meaningful experience that is consistent with our educational objectives."

Provided the situation improves, the teens will go next year, meaning area groups may send twice as many participants as usual.

Ami Nahshon, executive director of the East Bay federation, wrote to the parents of the youth who were slated to participate in the East Bay community trip:

"Were time on our side, we would have preferred to wait a few weeks in the hope that the security situation in Israel might stabilize. Given the short timeframe before our planned departure, we felt compelled to make a decision now. Within the current uncertain reality, we have chosen to err on the side of caution and cancel the program, and to begin working immediately on an alternative summer 2002 trip for the class of 2001."

Nahshon further commented that safety was much harder to guarantee as the violence lately has been increasing in Israel proper as well as in the West Bank and Gaza.

The East Bay and BJE trips were scheduled to leave later this month, with the Koret trip leaving in July.

Robert Sherman, executive director of the BJE, said that while the deadly bombing outside a Tel Aviv disco on Friday was not what caused the decision, it did contribute to it. Twenty young people were killed in the attack.

"It's not the result of any one thing; it's the cumulative effect of pretty continuous violence that appeared to be escalating," said Sherman.

"I personally promised people that at the point at which I could no longer say to them with full honesty that I could assure a safe and secure program that would meet our educational objectives, we would withdraw for this year. And we reached a point where I felt I couldn't say that."

Sam Singer, a spokesperson for the Koret Foundation, which sponsors a trip administered by the East Bay federation, said Koret's board had been debating for two to three months whether it should withdraw its trip sponsorship.

"It's a very tough situation, and in good conscience it would be hard to tell parents there's no risk in going to Israel," said Singer.

Nationally, the UAHC — which sent 1,500 high school students to Israel last summer — is the largest group to cancel teen trips to Israel so far, and many expect its decision will influence other groups and individuals that were uncertain whether or not to go to Israel.

It also puts other programs that are continuing with their trips on the defensive with worried parents.

The Conservative United Synagogue Youth, the Orthodox National Council of Synagogue Youth, Birthright Israel and other groups sticking with their plans say they are heightening already strict security measures and will likely adjust their itineraries to include less time in major central cities such as Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

However, Hillel — one of the providers of the free 10-day Birthright trips — tentatively postponed until next week participation of approximately 120 New York-area students who had been scheduled to depart early this week.

In addition, all those groups are eliminating free time — and possibly home hospitality weekends — for participants. Instead of allowing the young adults to mill around cafes and malls or go to beaches, the programs will offer more structured events and parties, and take participants to private beaches.

The need to cut out free time factored into the UAHC's decision to cancel, said Rabbi Allan Smith, director of the organization's youth programming. "The beauty of an Israel program for teens has always been to let kids roam. It would have been very much camp compound-like, where you don't have freedom to wander around."

That sentiment was echoed by one local parent, Steven Gottlieb of San Francisco, whose daughter Tori was enrolled in the BJE's trip.

"The safety issue was the main concern, and I don't think they would have been able to have the same kind of trip. They wouldn't be able to go to many of the places," Gottlieb said. "The kids deserve more than that."

In the wake of last week's suicide bombing that killed 20, Gottlieb believes the BJE made the right decision.

Susan Schwartz of Fremont, whose son Ken was signed up on the East Bay community trip, said that at a parents' meeting Sunday, it sounded as if the federation was going forward with the trip. Then, she was surprised to get an e-mail from Nahshon on Tuesday.

"Most people felt optimistic that they had a good safety plan and evacuation plan, and that they prioritized safety and having a good experience, and having fun and relaxing, but evidently, they weren't able to guarantee all those things" Schwartz said.

While Schwartz was disappointed because she had heard from her friends about the wonderful experiences their children had on the trip, she said the cancellation came as a relief.

Had the trip not been canceled, "I think there would have been much discussion" as to whether Ken would have been allowed to go. "He really wanted to go but didn't want to be placed in a dangerous situation."

But now with the news, "I'm relieved we don't have the burden of making that decision."

Both the BJE and the East Bay federation are planning a few activities for the teens who would have gone to Israel. "It's definitely on the radar screen," said Nechama Tamler, director of the BJE's Teen Initiative, adding that her first priority was getting refunds to the parents.

Nahshon said the East Bay federation was planning a meeting for the teenagers to talk about their feelings, to get a sense of closure about the summer.

Noting that the Bay Area has led the nation in sending teens on community trips, Nahshon reiterated his commitment to ensuring that this year's contingent will still get a chance to go to Israel. "My personal goal is to double the number of kids we send in 2002 to make up for 2001."

"Will it be challenging? Absolutely," Nahshon continued. "Have we figured out how we're going to manage it? No. But are we committed to doing it? Without any hesitation. We'll figure out how to do it."

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."