WASHINGTON — Lila Faria, 19, a student at New York University, heard the whine of a bomb siren for the first time last month in Jerusalem. Along with several dozen other Americans on a trip with the Taglit-Birthright Israel organization, she was quickly hustled into a bomb shelter.
“There was a feeling of uneasiness among the group because it made the situation less exciting and a little more realistic,” Ms. Faria said in an interview from her home in Maplewood, N.J., a few days after she returned. “We suddenly realized that yes, there were bombs being fired, and people could be seriously hurt.”
The conflict between Israel and Hamas did not stop Ms. Faria and more than 6,000 other participants in Birthright from traveling to Israel in the past month, Birthright officials say, but some 3,000 out of an anticipated 31,000 participants have canceled their trips with the program this season, which runs from May to September. The nonprofit organization pays for 10-day educational trips to Israel for young Jews, the vast majority from the United States.
The drop in participation since the violence started in Israel and Gaza is consistent with other times of violence in the Middle East, said Gail Hyman, a Birthright spokeswoman. Since the program began in 1999, no trip has been canceled because of security concerns.
Graphic | The Toll in Gaza and Israel, Day by Day The daily tally of rocket attacks, airstrikes and deaths in the conflict between Israel and Hamas.
“If Israeli officials were to hear it was too dangerous, we’d be the first to know,” Ms. Hyman said. “No one wants to put our participants in harm’s way.”
But the abduction and killing of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank in June heightened security concerns this summer, and Birthright officials said they remained in close contact with Israeli officials. “We have real-time connections to them,” Ms. Hyman said.
For those still traveling to Israel, “every itinerary gets checked daily to make sure it’s O.K. to complete,” said Margalit Rosenthal, who organizes and leads Birthright trips through the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. Ms. Rosenthal traveled to Israel in July with a Birthright group that was initially to be 40 people, but shrank to 28 people because of cancellations. “Which is far better than some groups are faring,” Ms. Rosenthal said.
Ms. Rosenthal said the trip to a conflict zone was a learning experience for the participants about daily life in Israel. “We want them to understand Israel, and that this is a part of Israel, and showing them that something horrible is happening, but life goes on here,” Ms. Rosenthal said. “They don’t have the luxury of being tourists, they have a responsibility to know what’s going on.”
Nonetheless, Birthright tries to keep its participants far from the violence. “They put you in a bubble,” Ms. Faria said. “You learn about it and you get to be with the soldiers, so you hear through them, but it’s not like you’re in the middle of the war.”
Other Birthright groups in Israel this summer avoided dangerous parts of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, but still faced tense moments. Andrea Handel, 27, a special education teacher in Arlington, Va., who led a group rerouted from Tel Aviv to the northern Israeli city of Haifa, heard sirens warning of a bomb attack near Haifa while her group was on a bus.
“So I had to tell everyone to get off and lay down in the parking lot, covering their heads,” Ms. Handel said. “One minute we’re on the ground, and then after a few, we’re going on our way again.”
Getting in and out of the country has also proved difficult. American airline carriers suspended plane travel to Tel Aviv on July 22 after a Hamas-launched rocket landed less than a mile away from Ben-Gurion International Airport.
“My mom was definitely concerned about my flight back home,” said Ethan Kaslow, 19, of Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., in a telephone interview after he returned to the United States on July 25. “They really fly you out quickly.”
Like the Birthright organization, Dor L’Dor, a Jewish leadership program through the Cohen Camps in Wellesley, Mass., also took more than 100 Americans to Israel in late June for a scheduled five-week trip. When the three Israeli teenagers were found dead, the tone of the trip changed.
“You could really see the elevated amount of security and tension, people were getting more frightened on the trip,” said one of the participants, Nathan Saldinger, 16, of Weston, Conn., who spoke by phone after his return home. “But they kept us out of the way of dangerous places.” Mr. Saldinger’s group chose to leave the country a week early because of the violence. “It was for everyone’s safety,” he said.
Parents are typically the most worried. Ms. Faria’s mother, Deborah Gaines, first started to be concerned about her daughter when she heard that her group was not spending time in Jerusalem. “They were packed away, far off the beaten track, and Lila told me, ‘Wow, we went rafting,’ and it sounded like a great vacation, but not a Birthright trip,” Ms. Gaines said.
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(via NY Times)