As crisis escalates, programs in Israel adjust to keep kids safe


NEW YORK — Ever since rockets from Lebanon started pouring down on Israel, Emily Kramer has been able to think of only one thing: her sister.

Kramer, 24, of New York City, says she talks to Samantha, 17, who is on a B’nai B’rith Youth Organization program to Israel, “like 100 times a day.”

The rest of the time she’s glued to CNN, or calling her parents for updates.

With violence spiraling since Hezbollah launched a cross-border raid last week, summer programs to Israel have been fielding calls from anxious relatives and confronting tough security decisions.

One trip, the only program slated to be based entirely in the North, has been canceled outright. Many more have adjusted their itineraries to avoid both Israel’s northern border and the area near the Gaza Strip.

Other trips report a slow trickle of kids leaving of their own volition.

“I can assure you that we are, moment by moment, monitoring what’s happening and making decisions,” said Emily Grotta, director of marketing and communications for the Israel experience program of North American Federation of Temple Youth, which is affiliated with the Reform movement.

On July 13, NFTY, which sent about 600 kids to Israel on summer programs, moved several groups from the northern Golan Heights to the southern portion, farther from Lebanon.

“If we have to curtail certain activities, then we curtail them,” agreed Jules Gutin, director of the Conservative movement’s United Synagogue Youth. The program canceled buses going to Safed and Haifa last week.

In other ways too, programs are remaining vigilant and responsive. Most trips already have in place communication networks such as listservs, hotlines or emergency cell phones. Staff-to-participant ratios are high, and unsupervised free time is kept to a minimum. Public transportation is generally avoided.

In addition, most groups make decisions based on information from sources like the Jewish Agency for Israel, which takes its cues from Israel’s military, police and security services.

Agency spokesman Michael Jankelowitz said many groups have chosen to head south to the Negev and Eilat. He estimated there are 10,000 Jewish kids from abroad in Israel on summer trips, 6,000 of them American.

But he said the majority of these students will be heading home soon, as peak trip season draws to a close in July.

A spokesman for birthright israel said that only a small portion — just fewer than 1,000 of the 11,000 students it shuttled to Israel this summer — are currently there. They are being diverted from the North.

The rest of the groups participating in the free 10-day trips for 18-25 year-olds have finished their tours, and are safely back in their home countries.

He said that he has not heard of any students leaving prematurely, and that the organization has not been inundated with queries from concerned parents.

Birthright is still planning to take about six more groups, with 200 participants, to Israel later this summer

One program to scrap its itinerary altogether has been a Reform group out of Great Britain, Jankelowitz said. That group was supposed to take 400 students to a location just north of the Sea of Galilee, outside the approved zone. Jankelowitz said the group is now scrambling to put together an alternative plan.

“There is no mass exodus of kids on programs to Israel,” he confirmed.

In a letter to parents and relatives, officials with Hadassah’s Young Judaea program explained their rationale.

“Our program participants and counselors continue to report that the programs are achieving their educational goals,” the letter reads. “The kids are seeing Israel, they are learning from first-hand experience. They are having a powerful, group educational experience. They are strengthening their Jewish identities and their Zionist commitment. They are having fun.”

In fact, some programs are using the current situation as a platform to teach kids about life in Middle East.

USY has brought in experts to discuss the crisis, and is working to foster dialogue between teens.

“That’s an important part of their Israel experience,” Gutin said. “When they come back after spending six weeks in Israel, they weren’t just there as tourists. We want to make sure they felt they were well-informed.”

Groups also are struggling to keep parents up to speed.

“Parents want specifics on where their kid is visiting. They want to know the details of what applies to their kid,” Gutin said. “Parents understandably want to be reassured, and that’s a major part of our responsibility as well.”

The stress may be even more profound for the parents of special-needs children.

Nechama Braun, administrator of the Yad B’Yad program, which mainstreams special needs kids into its Israel trip, said those parents have more anxiety to begin with.

“As a group of people with special needs, the concern and anxiety is probably tenfold as sending a typical child to Israel,” Braun said.

“But they also have a lot of trust in our decisions,” she said of the parents. “We’ve been doing this for 15 years.”

Whether the upsurge in violence will have a long-term effect on Israel teen trips remains to be seen.

During the intifada, many programs canceled their trips altogether, while others were drastically scaled back.

USY, for example, which sent 76 participants in 2002, now has 420.

“Obviously, you can see the numbers are affected one way or another,” Gutin said.

Braun seemed optimistic that any impact would be short-lived.

“Honestly I don’t believe this is going to have a long-term impact at all,” she said. “Israel goes through situations that appear to be more dangerous, and those that appear less dangerous.

“We are set to leave for Israel Sunday,” she said. “As far as we know, everyone is still on board.”

But for those on the ground, the situation remains unnerving.

Around midnight Sunday, Samantha Kramer’s BBYO group left Tel Aviv for a safer location in Jerusalem.

“We had just come back from Yad Vashem, and they told us at dinner,” Kramer said. “We went back, packed and moved. We didn’t get into Jerusalem until 1:30, 2 a.m.

“It’s nerve-racking, I’m not gonna lie, knowing that I’m like down the street” from violent areas, Kramer continued. “You have to sit there and think about that at night.”