A tragic mistake for community: canceling teen trips to Israel

"If I forget Jerusalem, let my right hand be severed." Those are the words of the great Jewish poet and philosopher Yehuda Halevi, a variation on Psalm 137.

It seems that members of many American Jewish organizations have forgotten these immortal words. They have been running scared in the past couple of weeks or so. Since the tragic bombing in Tel Aviv, they have been canceling trips for youth groups to Israel. Some give the reason that they can't put their children at risk. Others claim they are driven by concerns of parents or warnings of possible liability by their lawyers.

These organizations are making a tragic mistake that will have an impact on the mentality of thousands of young people for decades to come.

Instead of saying bravely that nothing can sever the bond of the Jewish people to their land, they are sending the opposite message: "When Jews are at risk in Israel, we're folding; when the going gets rough, we're not going."

In the case of my community, the local federation trip was canceled when the tour organizer, the Zionist group Young Judaea, informed us that the Old City of Jerusalem was off-limits. That would mean no visits to the Western Wall, the Jewish Quarter or the ancient sites that stand at the core of Jewish identity. Faced with a limited itinerary, my local Bureau of Jewish Education backed out.

Think for a moment of a 16-year-old teenager. For months he has saved and planned for the summer adventure to Israel. Finally just before he was supposed to leave, he is told we're not going. The message is clear: "When things get difficult, we are not really committed enough to put ourselves on the line for Israel and our people."

Some will say that there is danger in the Holy Land. This is true. I experienced it firsthand two weeks ago. My 19-year-old daughter and her older brother were in Jerusalem on a Saturday night when a car bomb went off a few hundred yards away near Zion Square.

The decision to send a son or daughter is the choice of every parent. But it's a lot different when the Jewish community cancels, whether it is the local federation, Jewish education agency or synagogue. Then it is the Jewish community publicly and officially saying, "We are not going to Israel when things get a bit rough."

That's a message of weakness not of courage and commitment. It's a capitulation to terrorism. It hands victory to the enemies of Israel, giving them exactly what they want: the weakening of support for Israel. It might even motivate terrorists to strike again when they see the success they have in scaring off American Jews from Israel.

Some groups are saying the parents don't want their children to go, and they are only responding to parental desires. Jewish organizations doing this are abdicating their leadership to the shrillest voice. Instead, during such a time of crisis, Jewish groups must speak out assertively, setting the agenda and leading the community in support of Israel.

In fact, those organizations that are not canceling or are deferring their trips are discovering that the actual attrition is limited. For instance, the Birthright programs operated by Chabad's Mayanot are having only a 20 percent cancellation rate. During the week following the terrible bombing in Tel Aviv, some 300 students arrived in Israel on that program. The participants were not religious; many had limited Jewish experience. Still, when the participants heard the program was continuing, few backed out.

As for me, I'm sending my 15-year-old to a special program in Bet Shemesh for the children of Chabad emissaries around the world. The program is at full capacity. Some 40 teenagers will spend six weeks learning and touring, seeking to connect with the depth of their heritage and the uniqueness of Eretz Yisrael. My son will understand that we don't fold under pressure. That when the going gets tough we stand together with our brothers and sisters in Israel — because if it's not safe enough for our kids, then its not safe enough for the million Jewish children who live in Israel permanently.