Stanford University students in Jerusalem on a Birthright Israel trip in 2017.
Stanford University students in Jerusalem on a Birthright Israel trip in 2017.

Omicron variant scuttles major Stanford Israel trip as borders close 

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

The omicron variant discovered in late November sent travel plans into a tailspin for a group of Bay Area students excited to embark on a trip to Israel, many for the first time.

It was not to be.

Twenty Stanford Hillel undergraduates who were scheduled to leave for Israel on Dec. 12 were notified two weeks before takeoff that their trip was being canceled. They had been booked on a free, 10-day tour prepared by Israel Outdoors, a provider of Taglit-Birthright trips.

Israel was one of the first nations in the world to announce on Nov. 27 that it would close its borders to foreign travelers (with some exceptions) after the new variant was found in South Africa. The border would be closed for two weeks, officials announced, and Israelis traveling home would have to comply with testing and quarantine requirements.

The Israeli government said it would be revisiting its guidelines on Dec. 12, as soon as more scientific studies on omicron were made available.

The trip was going to be the first Stanford Hillel trip to Israel in two years, and the largest group of Stanford travelers to Israel in seven years, according to an organizer.

The cancellation, just hours after Israel closed its borders, complicated winter break plans for the trip’s 33 travelers — which included the Stanford group and some students from UC Davis.

“It was just a really big disappointment,” said Sarah Tibbitts, a Springboard Fellow with Hillel International who helped to coordinate the trip.

Although the trip was free, once it was canceled it forced many students who do not live in the Bay Area to find last-minute flights home for the winter break at great cost.

“It’s just expensive to travel last minute like that,” especially at this time of year, said Tibbitts. She added that Hillel at Stanford has offered to cover the flights for any students who faced financial hardships traveling home.

RELATED: Why are Americans moving to and Israeli city just nine miles from Gaza?

“We don’t want students to have to bear this financial burden out of something that’s not their fault,” she said.

Matan Zamir, the deputy consul general at Israel’s diplomatic office in San Francisco, said in a phone call with J. that with only 21 omicron cases recorded in Israel as of Dec. 6, people might be better off waiting to cancel their winter travel plans to Israel. He is hopeful that they may get to fly after all if the Dec. 12 revisiting of guidelines leads to reopening Israel’s borders.

“We closed very quickly, and as quick as we were to close, we can be quick to open, once we get solid information that omicron is not the big scare that people thought it was,” Zamir said. “So I’m optimistic.”

Even with the border closed to foreign visitors, Zamir pointed to a list of exemptions that allow non-Israeli citizens to travel to Israel, such as to attend a wedding, funeral or b’nai mitzvah.

“Experts, researchers, athletes — so there’s a long list,” Zamir said. “And we can also provide a case-by-case answer to people who are not sure.”

Israel Outdoors is keeping its options open.

Nate Edelstein, the North American director of the tourism organization, is also optimistic about Israel reopening its borders in time for upcoming travel. The next Bay Area trip departs on Dec. 26. Other trips leave on Dec. 19 from New York, Miami and Los Angeles.

“We’re definitely waiting on the edge of our seats, like everyone else,” Edelstein said.

After winter break, Stanford Hillel will offer an Israel learning fellowship and give priority spots to the students who planned to travel to Israel next week.

“If they’re still interested in learning about Israel, or meeting with other students, that will be there for them,” TIbbitts said. “But it’s obviously not the same thing as being on the ground.”

Jew,  Jewish,  J. The Jewish News of Northern California
Emma Goss.(Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)
Emma Goss

Emma Goss is a J. staff writer. She is a Bay Area native and an alum of Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School and Kehillah Jewish High School. Emma also reports for NBC Bay Area. Follow her on Twitter @EmmaAudreyGoss.