13 local teenagers visit Israel despite terrorism

Local Jewish teens aren't spending much time fretting about their safety as they prepare to leave Wednesday for a month in Israel.

Convincing nervous friends and relatives that they'll come back unharmed is another story.

"They don't want me to die," said Jerry Cohen, a 15-year-old Orinda youth who is among 13 Bay Area youngsters venturing off on the annual trip sponsored by the Jewish Community Federation of the Greater East Bay.

Cohen, a Miramonte High School student active in Midrasha in Contra Costa, is confident that his trip, which is avoiding Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and other big cities, is "really safe." But he said he frequently encounters comments like "Don't get blown up" and "Don't get killed" from anxious friends.

With Israel rocked by ongoing waves of terrorism and other acts of violence, the summer rites of passage that once drew hundreds of American teens are now attracting mere dozens.

Many parents "are not sending their teens," said Nechama Tamler, teen initiative director at the S.F.-based Bureau of Jewish Education, which hopes to resume its trips next summer.

Once the largest community-based trip of its kind in the country, the BJE's Summer in Israel Youth Program was canceled for the third year in a row. The BJE program drew 160 youngsters in 2000, when trips sponsored by the East Bay federation and the Koret Foundation drew nearly 200 others.

A check with other agencies showed that the Conservative movement's United Synagogue Youth is sending 230 teens to Israel on various programs, and Camp Ramah, also Conservative, is sending 191. Hadassah's Young Judaea is sending 165, B'nai B'rith Youth Organization has 32 going, and the Reform movement's North America Federation of Temple Youth has 35 signed up.

"In 2000, we had almost 1,400," said Gadi Dobkin, coordinator of NFTY's travel programs. Last summer, just 10 teens went to Israel with the organization.

Orthodox programs have been less affected. The National Conference of Synagogue Youth is sending 208 teens and has a waiting list of 20 for one of its programs.

Locally, the families of some participants on the East Bay federation trip say they've carefully balanced — and largely resolved — safety concerns. Ultimately, they decided that adequate precautions had been taken and that the spiritual and cultural rewards of the experience outweighed any lingering worries.

"It's my homeland," Cohen said. "I feel connected to it. I always wanted to go there."

As for his mother, Margaret Sawyer, safety is a definite consideration. "Believe me, I read the pop-up headlines every day," she said. But because the tour is avoiding big cities, "that takes out a big worry."

East Bay federation officials say the itinerary has been carefully designed with safety in mind. Besides eliminating more danger-prone areas, organizers are consulting daily with Israeli security officials and traveling exclusively on private buses.

The trip, which is drawing kids from throughout the Bay Area, will spend two weeks each exploring the northern and southern parts of the country. Plans include touring the hillside town of Safed, staying on a kibbutz, getting five days of army training, snorkeling in the Red Sea and climbing Masada.

"We don't go anywhere near the West Bank or Gaza Strip," said Talia Leibler-Gabay, the Israel trip director. "We have a security chaperone, a medic with us, 24/7. We don't go on anything public."

Still, some parents described the decision to let their children go as wrenching — and touchy.

One Bay Area woman whose child is signed up for a different Israel trip was uncomfortable being interviewed by the Jewish Bulletin. She cited fears that an article would be sensationalized or give the impression she doesn't love her child as much as parents who refused to let their son or daughter go.

Cohen's mother, meanwhile, said she is nervous but supports her son's desire to visit Israel. "I really am happy Jerry has a Jewish identity," said Sawyer, who was raised Catholic but is committed to raising her son in his father's Jewish faith. "I said to Jerry the federation will yank the trip if things get out of hand," she said. "Up until the day before, I'm putting my faith in them."

While well aware of the reasons, Cohen's biggest regret about the trip is "not going to Jerusalem and the Wailing Wall, which makes me kind of sad."

Across the bay, Randy Hoffman of Palo Alto admits she has mixed emotions about letting her 15-year-old daughter, Heather, go on the trip. The family sat down to discuss safety issues beforehand.

"They've really tried to take into consideration security a lot," Randy Hoffman said. "It still weighs on my mind heavily."

While the trip is a "great opportunity" for her daughter, "because things are so easily inflamed there, you just never know."

In addition, "I hear it from a number of people, 'How can you let your daughter go?'"

Her husband, Howard, is satisfied with the security arrangements. "They're doing a lot so we felt comfortable having her sign up," he said.

Two years ago, the intifada prevented the Hoffman's now-17-year-old son Mitchell from going.

The lost experience "was significant," Randy Hoffman said.

Now, as Heather packs, she hopes her daughter returns with an understanding that "this is a matter of survival, what's going on in Israel now."

For her part, Heather, who just finished her sophomore year at Gunn High School, acknowledges that there are risks associated with her trip.

But, she noted, "Anything could happen in the U.S., too."

Safety concerns and tips were discussed at a recent weekend retreat for trip participants. "It's my parents that are going to think about this," said Heather, who said the teens "all clicked" on that retreat.

"I know I have to just stay low and not cause any trouble and I'll be fine," she said.

Howard and Randy Hoffman met while on a federation trip to Israel back in 1983. While acknowledging that sending his daughter was "not an easy decision," Howard Hoffman believes the summer trips have a bigger impact on youngsters' sense of Jewish identity "than any single thing parents or federation can do."

Anticipating the trip, Heather said that along with the chance to ride a camel, dance on a floating disco boat, stay on a kibbutz and swim in the Dead Sea, she hopes the expedition will indeed strengthen her religious identity.

"Maybe Israel can open up my opinions," she said. "I'm really excited about that."

So is 15-year-old Rachel Shiozaki of Walnut Creek.

"I think it's important to me because I'm Jewish, and every Jew has some kind of connection to the Jewish homeland," said Shiozaki, an Acalanes High School student who was confirmed at Temple Isaiah in Lafayette.

"Most people are really nervous for me," she acknowledged. "I tell them we're going to be in really rural places."

Her mother, Fern Nemenyi, supports her daughter's decision and, in fact, plans to be visiting Israel on her own this summer. Asked if she had worries about her daughter's safety, Nemenyi replied, "Of course, how could I not?"