WASHINGTON (Dec. 31)
The tourist industry in Israel is suffering, but you wouldn’t know it from the interest in Israel programs at a hotel here.
Security concerns and fear of violence still cause many people to worry about traveling to Israel, but many of the 1,150 teen-agers at the United Synagogue Youth international convention last week could barely contain their enthusiasm at the prospect of going to the Jewish state.
David Goldberg was one of a group of teens wearing blue-and-white T-shirts that read “I Care and I’m Going.” The group jumped up and down and shouted slogans in support of Israel.
As the Israel affairs vice president for the group’s eastern Canada region, Goldberg, 16, recently went on a USY leadership trip to Israel.
He said he felt completely safe touring parts of the border and other areas that are considered high risk.
“Israel is my home,” said Goldberg of Ontario. “Now is the most important time to go.”
The enthusiasm at the convention came as the Conservative movement — like other U.S. Jewish groups — tries to rally the number of participants in its Israel programs. Fears over security during the Palestinian intifada have driven down the numbers of those willing to visit Israel now.
Creating the connection between teens and Israel is important to the Conservative movement because it believes that those who develop a bond with the Jewish state early in life will maintain that commitment throughout adulthood.
“We have to get kids to put Israel on the option list,” said Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. “We have to put it on the agenda without saying, ‘You have to go.’ “
Wearing a crocheted kipah with American and Israeli flags, Epstein said an Israel trip is a first step to further commitment to Israel, as well as a way to experience Conservative Judaism in Israel.
Yet security and lower attendance on its Israel trips are real challenges as the Conservative movement celebrates USY’s 50th anniversary. It is a time for introspection, Epstein said, and to assess how to keep USYers involved through Nativ, the movement’s one-year study and kibbutz program in Israel after high school; Koach, the movement’s college outreach program in the United States.
With numbers of participants down this year, the fact that hundreds of kids won’t have that first-hand experience of traveling and learning in Israel is disconcerting to leaders in the movement.
Recognizing that parents are the group to win over, USY recently sent parents whose kids might take part in Nativ or the summer teen Pilgrimage trip to see things for themselves in Israel.
The parents were in Israel during suicide bombings in early December, yet they returned reassured enough that they were willing to send their children and convince other parents that Israel was safe, said Conservative movement leaders.
In another indication of USY’s increased awareness about security, a media blackout was imposed until after the convention ended.
Graduates of the Nativ program also are willing to explain the security situation in Israel. Josh Taff, 19, was one of 41 students on Nativ last year.
USY did “an incredible job” of keeping parents informed and assuring them of their children’s safety, he said.
Certainly last year’s Pilgrimage and Nativ trips had increased security — Nativ participants, for example, didn’t use public buses — as was a six-week, USY-sponsored seminar trip to Poland and Israel that Stacey Ackerman of Langhorne, Pa., just finished.
Ackerman, 18, admitted feeling worried about security before the trip. Now, she says, Israel is “the only place I want to be.”
Her friend Leah Kaye, 16, thought things wouldn’t be as fun as in past years because of the increased security in Israel. In the end, however, she still had an enjoyable trip.
Teens said their parents were worried, but hundreds of teens turned out for the convention’s Israel programs event, and 50 teens wanted to be interviewed for Nativ.
The response has been terrific, according to Yossi Garr, the central emissary for USY who coordinates the Israel programs.
Parents who refused to send their kids last summer now regret their decision, Garr said.
The violence of the past year and more has crippled Israel’s tourist industry.
Last summer the Reform movement canceled its summer teen trips. Next summer it plans to resume them, but will focus on kibbutz rather than travel programs and expects only a few hundred participants, compared with the 1,500 or so it used to send.
Birthright Israel, which expects to send more than 6,000 young Jews to Israel on free 10-day trips this winter, initially hoped to send more than 10,000. Recruitment has been difficult and cancellation rates high due to fears of terrorism.
USY, which sent 287 teens on its Pilgrimage trip last summer and hopes to at least match that number next year, says it is working closely with the Israeli government and the Tourism Ministry to encourage more trips and increase the number of visitors. In previous years, Pilgrimage has attracted nearly 600 participants.
Though he decided not to go on Pilgrimage last year, David Isman, 16, of Newton, Mass., said he wants to go this summer.
“So many people went and had a great time,” he said. “I don’t want to miss the opportunity.”
At the convention’s U.S.-Israel solidarity program, the excitement was palpable with talk of Israel trips.
Uzi Gafny, Israel’s deputy commissioner of tourism, urged the teens at the convention to come fall in love with Israel, “warts and all.”
“It’s time to see us in Israel,” he said. “We’re waiting for you with open arms.”
Contradicting the stereotype in popular culture of sullen teen-agers, hundreds of convention participants cheered wildly at pictures of Israelis and Americans in Israel, standing on chairs to sing a song about togetherness.
The students at the convention also participated in the Portraits of Hope public art and art therapy program. They painted flower murals that will be sent to programs for children with developmental disabilities at several Ramah camps, and made cards to be sent to sick children in hospitals across the country.
Taking a break from painting, Sarah Morris, 15, said her parents would prefer she not go to Israel, but she wants to go on Pilgrimage this summer.
Ultimately, Morris said, she might leave Denver to make aliyah. For now, though, she said Israel needs visitors, despite the tensions.
“It worries me, but I know I should be in Israel,” she said.