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Behind the Headlines: Amid Mideast Crisis, Students Struggle with Lure of Israel Trip

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Steven Postal was eager to explore the Jewish state after he heard about the Birthright Israel program from friends who went last year.

But a few weeks ago, when he was accepted to the program and offered a free 10- day trip to Israel this winter, he politely declined.

“I’ve never been abroad before and I thought this time, given all the violence over there, it wouldn’t be a good time for it to be the first time,” said Postal, a senior at George Washington University.

Amid renewed tensions between Israelis and Palestinians, Birthright officials are hoping Postal’s stance is not the dominant one as they prepare for what is supposed to be the program’s largest trip yet.

Last December and January, Birthright snagged headlines and praise with its debut trips, credited with energizing thousands of young, primarily North American, Jews, many of whom had been largely uninvolved in Jewish life.

But this year, the trip organizers are worried that potential participants will follow the lead of many American tourists — and heed a U.S. State Department advisory warning against travel to Israel — and will cancel in large numbers.

Program officials are insisting that the Birthright trip — which will bring 8,000 North Americans through a variety of programs — will not be canceled – – even if numbers are reduced, and that it will be safe.

To that end, they are stepping up security, hoping it will be enough not only to ensure no one is harmed on the trip, but to reassure jittery parents and travelers.

Of those slated to go, “several hundred” have opted out of the trips, according to Marlene Post, Birthright’s North American chairwoman.

All have been replaced from the large waiting lists formed of the 17,000 people who applied, but were initially turned down due to limited space.

But the real test for this winter’s round of Birthright trips — in which the college students and 20-somethings, most of whom have never been to Israel, are slated to tour the country — will be in the coming weeks, as departure dates loom and participants face deadlines for having their $250 deposits returned.

The deposit, which ensure a spot on the trip, is returned at its conclusion.

Students have until three weeks before their trips leave — Dec. 2 for those on the first trip, scheduled to depart Dec. 23 — to cancel.

A particular crucible, at least in the minds of many trip organizers, is Thanksgiving weekend, when students may back out after talking to nervous parents.

“We are expecting some additional families probably saying to the kid, `Look it’s not worth it,'” said Post.

Another crucial determinant will be whether the violence in the region remains mostly limited to the West Bank and Gaza Strip — areas that Birthright trips avoid — or if terrorist activities, such as suicide bombings, start occurring within Israel proper.

Some, like Postal, may reason that they can apply again for a Birthright trip in the future, when the situation in Israel appears calmer.

Birthright officials say that people who turn down the winter trip will not be penalized if they apply for future trips.

“Hopefully the situation on the ground will get easier, not worse, and fear will give way to reason,” said Richard Joel, president of Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, which is the largest provider bringing students on a Birthright trip, a total of 4,000 students.

While insisting that the trips will be safe, Joel and other organizers are careful to avoid pressuring anyone, particularly if their parents are leery.

“I don’t think anything we offer should be something that separates young people from their parents,” said Joel.

As part of beefed-up security precautions, individual trip organizers will be required to submit detailed itineraries to the Birthright office, and will be checking daily with Israeli government officials to ensure that the routes planned are still considered safe.

Students will have less free time to wander on their own than they had last year, and when they do have free time, will likely be given the choice of a few destinations, rather than free rein, said Post.

Buses transporting Birthright participants will be guarded when empty.

“We’re heavily invested in this project and will take no risk in performing these coming trips,” said Gideon Mark, Birthright’s director of marketing and development, who is based in Jerusalem.

However, he added, “people should understand that life in Israel is going virtually normally.”

“These are very sad events, but most Israelis do not see them except for on television,” he said.

Some students, like Scott Factor, a junior at the University of Kansas, say their interest in the trip is unwavering.

Factor said he is “99 percent sure I’m going.”

Factor is going with fellow counselors from Beber Camp, a summer camp run by B’nai B’rith. Originally, the group was supposed to be 15 to 20 people, but now stands at seven or eight, he said.

“The trip’s still going to be amazingly fun,” he said, but added that “if it scares people away there’s nothing wrong with that, because what’s going on is scary. But it’s not full-scale war.”

He did say, however, that if the violence spreads, he may reconsider his decision.

Others are less certain and are closely following the news, as well as consulting friends and family. Like Factor, many face uneasy parents who are not forbidding them from Israel, but are certainly not encouraging them to go.

In an interview with JTA, Alexis Leventhal, a junior at Ohio State University, first said she is “still not sure,” but then a few minutes later resolves, “As of now I feel pretty comfortable going.”

Leventhal said her mother, concerned by the State Department advisory, is “not excited about me going.” But then Leventhal talked to an Israeli friend who told her “there’s always something going on in Israel and it’s just a different way of life. You always have to be careful.”

Not all parents are discouraging their children from going.

Alan Potash, director of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said two mothers called him after returning from the General Assembly, a convention last week sponsored by the United Jewish Communities, the North American federation umbrella organization, and said they “feel strongly that their kids should be going.”

The G.A. featured various speeches urging American Jews to visit the Jewish state as a sign of solidarity, leading one parent to tell Potash, “Even though there’s a danger, I walked out with the feeling that we should be sending people to Israel.”

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