Each November, Valley Beth Shalom holds a meeting at which its youth director urges parents to send their teenagers on a summer trip to Israel. In 1999, more than 100 families attended. This past November, there were only eight. The low turnout appears to reflect parental anxiety over safety issues in the Middle East. Lisa Kaplan, who heads The Jewish Federation's Israel Experience Program office, explains that "in times of peace, the students make the decision. In difficult times, the parents make the decision."
Currently, many families seem to be having second thoughts about Israel trips for their teenagers. Maya Foner, shlicha for the West Coast branch of Young Judaea, notes that by now she's usually deluged with inquiries about teen summer travel options. This year, she says, "The phones aren't ringing."
Other youth leaders are facing similar problems. That's why a number of Jewish organizations that have long sponsored teen trips to Israel are going out of their way to woo reluctant parents.
Every organization enumerates its security procedures. These include well-guarded buses, itineraries that bypass trouble spots and constant checks with Israeli authorities about the safest routes for travel. Various groups have instituted new policies, including deposits that are fully refundable almost until departure time. Young Judaea's Foner tells nervous parents that "there is no financial risk whatsoever until June 1." Thereafter, up until the planes take off in late June, families will be charged only $500 if they pull their children out of a program that costs participants nearly $5,000 to attend.
Young Judaea, which also sponsors a year-long Israel program for high school students, sends parents regular security bulletins. This gesture has earned them the gratitude of many worried families. Lorri Lewis, mother of a Palo Alto student on the Young Judaea Year Course, told the organization that "your daily updates have been a boon to my sanity."
Foner insists that "we know how to keep them safe." She reminds families that Young Judaea's parent organization is Hadassah, and "a million Jewish mothers would not risk kids' lives."
United Synagogue Youth (USY), affiliated with the Conservative movement, recently held a free four-day trip to Israel for parents from every USY region. These parents, all of whom had committed to sending their own children to Israel this summer, were given an on-the-spot security briefing so that they could reassure other families when they returned.
The Los Angeles Ulpan, sponsored by the Bureau of Jewish Education (BJE), has been sending local teens to Israel for 37 summers, regardless of the political climate. Two weeks ago, the BJE's David Ackerman and Stacey Barrett held information sessions at which moms and dads could ask the tough questions. Attendance was low, but those parents who showed up -- many of whom had been to Israel themselves -- seemed seriously interested in sending their children. One father asked if the travel restrictions necessitated by the current unrest would diminish his child's Israel experience. To this Barrett replied that the crisis would actually enhance the ulpan, giving teens a stronger sense of Israel's role in the Jewish world.
Barrett, who alternates with Ackerman in chaperoning Ulpan trips, says, "We know this year that it will be a smaller group. And it will be a more intense group. We're sure they will bond and it will be an amazing experience. I wish I could go with them this year."