Most summers, the trip to the Naot Sandal factory on a kibbutz close to Israel's northern border is a highlight of the teen tours run by United Synagogue Youth (USY). But this summer, with the north under constant threat of rocket attacks, the 400 USYers stayed in the central and southern part of the country, and Naot came to them, with a special sale near USY's base in Jerusalem.
That was one of the easier adjustments to a constantly changing itinerary for USY kids and the other estimated 6,000 American teens on tours in Israel this summer.
"All of us that have kids in Israel are trying to make the best of the situation," said Jules Gutin, international director for USY, the youth arm of the Conservative movement, which has about 50 California teens in Israel this summer. "We want the experience to be worthwhile and positive, as well as safe."
So while kids may be missing out on trips to the Golan Heights, to the kabbalistic city of Tsfat, the Banias natural pools or Maimonides' grave in Tiveria, tours are making up for it with extra time in Jerusalem and challenging hikes through the Negev.
Few Kids Have Returned Home
Most tours departed the United States before the violence escalated in Israel, and most of the teens have stayed. USY reports that as of early this week, three kids went home, and Young Judaea has a similar count, with six kids out of 470 being summoned home. Three of the 390 students on NCSY's Europe and Israel trip did not continue on from Europe to Israel.
The Orthodox Union canceled a trip scheduled to leave this week with its Yad b'Yad program, where 15 developmentally and physically disabled adults were to be accompanied by 35 teenage counselors on a four-week tour of Israel.
Administrators worried about heightening participants' anxiety, and about difficulties rerouting the group, or moving it quickly in case of emergency. The day before the trip, it was recast as a West Coast tour.
Israel Experience, the educational tourism arm of the Jewish Agency for Israel, coordinates programming and security for most of the trips that leave from North America.
"Trips are being rerouted based on the current situation, and it's an hour-by-hour reevaluation," said Rachel Russo, director of marketing for Israel Experience.
IDF, Police, Jewish Agency Monitor Tourist Itineraries
Israel Experience adjusts the groups' schedules according to recommendations it gets from a situation room staffed by representatives from the Israeli army, the Israeli police, the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel and the Jewish Agency. Each teen tour group that signs up with Israel Experience -- and most do -- is tracked by GPS.
"They are really fluid in moving the groups when they need to move," said Russo, whose daughter is in Israel with Ramah Seminar this summer.
Program operators have also been working overtime to keep in constant communication with parents. Young Judaea is sending out three email updates daily, in addition to photos and journals on its Web site. USY increased updates from the usual weekly to daily, and someone is available to answer parents concerns at all times.
Most teens also have cell phones with them, so parents are kept in the loop. So far, while parents have expressed concern, few are panicking. And by all reports, the kids themselves seem to be having a great time.
Bonnie Sharfman, whose 16-year-old, Zach, is on a trip with Nesiya, says she hopes the visit will have a lasting impact.
"We are choosing to look at this situation as an amazing learning experience for Zach and hope that he will return home in a month with much to say regarding the social, political and economic realities of Israel and the region," she said.
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