NEW YORK, May 8 (JTA) – New York University is refusing to send its Hillel staff to accompany students on a trip to Israel, citing a U.S. State Department advisory against travel to the volatile region.
The university this week sent out an e-mail memo to students and a letter to parents stating that NYU “does not endorse” the trip sponsored by Birthright Israel, a program that has sent 17,000 young Jews on free trips to Israel.
The policy is a compromise from discussions earlier this week, when the university was considering barring students from participating altogether.
Forty NYU students were scheduled to depart for a 10-day tour of Israel on Sunday. It is unclear whether the university’s announcements will affect their plans, but one NYU junior who is going said he worries the sudden announcements will spur “panic” and mass cancellations among other participants.
“It has the potential to undermine the trip,” said the student, who did not want his name used for fear of worrying his elderly grandparents, who do not know he is traveling to Israel next week.
An estimated 6,000 young adults will participate in Birthright Israel trips in May and June, 2,000 under the auspices of campus Hillels.
In the past six months, two other U.S. Hillels – at Duke University and one serving Smith College and Amherst College – have had to cancel their Birthright trips, under orders from host universities.
While most Hillels have had some difficulty recruiting for the trips since the resurgence of violence in the Middle East last fall, their host universities have not set policies. That is because the vast majority of campus Hillels are independent, funded through Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life’s international office, local Jewish federations and individual philanthropists.
At Duke, NYU and Amherst/Smith, the Hillel staff are employees of their universities.
According to John Beckman, a spokesman for NYU, this week’s decisions concerning Birthright Israel stem from a longstanding policy of not endorsing student travel to areas for which there is a U.S. State Department travel advisory.
Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life sent its own memo to the NYU students and parents saying it regrets NYU’s decision and reassuring students that numerous safety procedures will be in place to ensure security on the trip. The memo also noted that NYU “made this decision due to risk management/insurance considerations.”
Jeff Rubin, a spokesman for Hillel’s international office in Washington, said his group is “disappointed” at NYU’s efforts to distance itself from the Birthright trip.
However, he added, “We enjoy a close relationship with NYU and this is a disagreement between two close friends.”
Marlene Post, Birthright’s North American chair, said she was “a little surprised that the university didn’t just have the students sign waivers or releases” absolving NYU of any liability.
“The idea that they are disassociating themselves entirely is surprising especially in light of the fact that we had almost 9,000 people in Israel this winter at a time when there were as many problems as there are now,” Post said. Rabbi Andrew Bachman, the director of NYU’s Hillel, the Bronfman Center for Jewish Life, declined to comment about the matter.
The center is named after Edgar Bronfman, one of Birthright Israel’s funders. Michael Steinhardt, one of Birthright founders, also has a building named after him at NYU. Neither could be reached for comment on the school’s decision.
Hillel staff and 37 students from NYU participated in Birthright’s trip in January, when there was also an advisory on travel to Israel. However, the administration was unaware of this fact at the time, Beckman said.
“We don’t think it’s a responsible policy to sponsor travel in areas where a travel advisory has been issued,” he said.
“But we’re not completely clueless,” he added. “We understand many of our students will do that regardless of whether there is NYU sponsorship.”