NEW YORK, June 5 (JTA) — In a move that some are criticizing as a blow to American Jewish efforts to show solidarity with Israel, the Reform movement has canceled all its teen programs to Israel this summer.
The Union of American Hebrew Congregations’ decision was announced Saturday night, a day after a suicide bomber killed 20 young Israelis outside a Tel Aviv nightclub.
While the bombing was a factor, the decision stemmed from various security fears and followed weeks of what the group described as “painful soul searching.”
In a speech to his board of trustees, the UAHC’s president, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, said the movement’s “religious and Zionist commitments run deep, but this movement never uses other people’s children to make a political or ideological point.”
The UAHC — which sent 1,500 high school students to Israel last summer — is the largest group to cancel teen trips to Israel so far and many expect its decision will influence other groups and individuals that were uncertain whether or not to go to Israel.
It also puts other programs who are continuing with their trips on the defensive from worried parents.
The UAHC’s decision comes amid massive declines in tourism and teen trip registration since the outbreak of violence last fall.
The UAHC’s enrollment for this year was only 20 percent of last year’s. In addition, numerous community-based trips to Israel have been canceled in recent months.
However, so far no other major, national Jewish programs have followed the group.
The steering committee of Birthright Israel, which offers free 10-day trips to young Jews, met Sunday and decided to continue its trips — although one provider, Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, tentatively postponed until next week participation of approximately 120 New York-area students who had been scheduled to depart early this week.
The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism voted unanimously Sunday to continue its youth trips to Israel. Also, Young Judaea, a Zionist youth group under the auspices of Hadassah, and the Orthodox Union’s National Conference of Synagogue Youth said they will continue their programs.
“We believe that it’s important to offer the option,” said Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue. His group’s United Synagogue Youth expects to send 350 teens to Israel this summer, down from last year’s 600.
While parents “have the right to make the decision not to send their children,” said Epstein, “a number of our constituents have said they believe it’s still appropriate to go and have confidence in Israelis being able to provide for the security.”
Rabbi Dovid Kaminetsky, national director of the Orthodox Union’s National Conference of Synagogue Youth, echoed Epstein.
“I understand why any individual would drop out, but I believe as an organization it’s important for us to stay with our plans.
“There are families who feel there’s a message implied or given to” youngsters by saying “we’re behind Israel and want you to go because canceling is giving in,” he said.
NCSY sent 625 teens to Israel last year, and has approximately one- third that number registered for this summer. However, most participants have not yet paid, so may still cancel, Kaminetsky said.
Although reluctant to directly criticize the UAHC, leaders of other groups appeared to bristle somewhat at the implication that their decision to continue was politically motivated.
“We feel we can provide a quality educational experience and do it safely. Not because we’re trying to make a political statement , but because this is what we do,” said Joseph Bremen, president of the Alexander Muss High School in Israel.
Bremen is also chair of the North American Alliance for Jewish Youth, an umbrella organization for youth groups, camps and Israel trip providers.
The groups sticking with their programs said the UAHC’s decision will affect them.
“The pressure’s going to build,” Kaminetsky said. “I believe we’re doing the right thing but it’s going to be more difficult because people are going to ask” why the NCSY thinks the trip is safe when the UAHC has deemed it unsafe.
Doron Krakow, Young Judaea’s national director, said he is certain the UAHC’s decision will result in “a larger volume of questions being asked to all of us who’ve not made a similar decision.”
USY, NCSY, Birthright and other groups sticking with their plans say they are heightening already strict security measures and will likely adjust their itineraries to have less time in major central cities like Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
In addition, all the groups are eliminating free time — and possibly home hospitality weekends — for participants. Instead of allowing the young adults to mill around cafes and malls or go to beaches, the programs will offer more structured events and parties and take participants to private beaches.
The need to cut out free time factored into the UAHC’s decision to cancel, said Rabbi Allan Smith, director of the organization’s youth programming.
“The beauty of an Israel program for teens has always been to let kids roam,” Smith said. “It would have been very much camp compound-like, where you don’t have freedom to wander around.”
Several Israeli officials expressed disappointment at the UAHC’s decision, saying the Jewish state desperately needs tourists and solidarity.
“I really am saddened,” said Orly Gil, consul for academic affairs at the Israeli Consulate in New York.
“We need people to show their faces in Israel,” she said.
Menachem Ravivi, the representative to North America of the Jewish Agency for Israel’s education department, said Jewish groups “should take the leadership at this point and after making necessary arrangements should carry on with the programs.
“In the last 52 years we’ve never had quiet peaceful years, but people felt it was important to be in Israel — not just for the Israelis but for the Jewish identity of our youngsters,” Ravivi said. “The message of canceling groups as an organizational decision — it’s very difficult for us.”