Kol Shofar Israel trip canceled day before departure

"Timing is everything in life, and we just hit the wrong date," said San Anselmo resident Bruce Raful, in describing this week's cancellation of a 12-day trip to Israel by members of Congregation Kol Shofar.

Rabbi Lavey Derby and a contingent of 16 others from the Conservative synagogue in Tiburon were set to leave the Bay Area on Wednesday, just hours before the U.S. attack on Iraq.

"I'm extraordinarily disappointed," said Raful, one of the organizers of the educational expedition.

Raful stressed that concerns over logistics — and not safety — were the reason for the trip's cancellation. Leaders said the synagogue would reschedule the mission for sometime this summer or fall.

"There wasn't anybody who thought we shouldn't go because it was going to be unsafe," said Raful.

Congregation President Ron Brown said, "we're all pretty depressed about it. We very much want to support Israel, especially at this time."

The trip, which had been in the works since November, would have taken congregants to Jerusalem, with a two-day excursion to Safed. The itinerary included Torah study, get-togethers with congregants from two sister synagogues in Jerusalem and talks by noted scholars.

But on Tuesday morning, trip organizers Raful, Derby and Brown concluded that the trip was off.

"It's a little disconcerting for Bush to say that I'm giving you 48 hours and the 48-hour deadline is three hours before your plane leaves from New York," Raful said. The group's El Al fight was scheduled to depart from New York at 11 p.m. Wednesday, and organizers feared that their flight might have been diverted.

Two Kol Shofar congregants decided to go ahead and leave for Israel on their own.

But Raful said he and the other organizers concluded that the plans needed to be canceled because "the folks we were going to see when we were there weren't going to be available to us."

Raful explained that some of their Israeli hosts, including the group's bus driver, had been called up for military duty.

There were other concerns. "If the air raid siren goes off [and] you're in a sealed hotel room for five to six hours, then your itinerary is shot," Raful said. "Then what's the point?"

Noted Brown: "We just faced the notion that it was likely the trip would be completely disrupted."

He stressed that the plans had been postponed, rather than canceled altogether. "We will go," Brown said.

Besides canceling reservations, trip participants will return $3,000 that was collected from fellow congregants as part of a "virtual tourism" campaign to support Israel's sagging economy.

The idea was for members of the Kol Shofar contingent to pay extra for merchandise and services while in Israel as if "there were three other people back in Tiburon who would have been there," Raful said.

"We're refunding it," said Raful, noting that Kol Shofar congregants would be asked again for donations once the trip is rescheduled.

"The rabbi felt it was just inappropriate to keep it for that long of a period of time."

Derby could not be reached Wednesday for comment.

But as recently as last Saturday, Derby had told congregants at morning services that "there are still seats on the plane," Raful said.

"Literally, we were still going up until the time Bush said we're going to war in 48 hours. When he said that, the decision was made."

Ironically, Raful said he received e-mails just last week from congregants at one of Kol Shofar's sister congregations in Jerusalem. One, he said, expressed disbelief that the group was still coming and described the tourists as "real gutsy.

"I don't think the Israelis are surprised that we're not coming."