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Fighting in Israel forces teen tours to alter itineraries on the fly

Birthright participants visiting Masada, summer 2012.  (Taglit-Birthright)

Birthright participants visiting Masada during a more peaceful time, in summer 2012. (Taglit-Birthright)

TEL AVIV (JTA) — When the siren rang out in Jerusalem last week, the 41 teenage participants in a five-week summer Israel trip were already asleep, exhausted from a day that had begun with a flight from New York.

Within minutes, they were awake, out of their rooms and in a fortified room. From their shelter, they could hear rockets explode overhead.

It was July 8, the first day in Israel for participants in a trip organized by NCSY, the youth arm of the New York-based Orthodox Union. It was also the first day of Operation Protective Edge, the military campaign Israel has launched against Hamas in Gaza.

This wasn’t the trip they’d bargained for.

“Obviously, it was scary,” said Barry Goldfischer, who directs the NCSY trip. “The policy is to keep kids far away from the rocket fire. It’s harder and harder.”

The fighting between Israel and Hamas over the last week has caught in the crossfire thousands of American youth on summer tours. Previous rounds of conflict in Gaza occurred late in the year and their impact was largely confined to Israel’s south. In contrast, this round is taking place during the height of tourist season and has already seen rockets aimed at major cities like Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

As a result, leaders of high school trips are changing itineraries to keep participants out of missile range and increasing contact with parents to preempt undue worry. Instead of taking kids to the Western Wall in Jerusalem or the beach in Tel Aviv — stops typically at the core of the Israel teen tour itinerary – trips are headed for northern cities like Safed or taking hikes in sparsely populated areas.

Trip directors are coordinating with Israel’s Education Ministry, which sends out daily guidelines about which sites are off-limits. Trip directors say they plan to return to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv if the conflict ends before the trips do.

A group from Cleveland on a 10-day Taglit-Birthright Israel trip replaced its night out in Tel Aviv with unplanned stops further north.

“Headquarters won’t take chances,” said Max Katzir, the trip leader. “We should have had a full day in Tel Aviv. I gave them compensation for the planned day.”

Leaders say the teenagers have followed directions during attacks and have kept calm despite the missiles. Because the goal of the trips is to teach participants about Israel, the fighting hasn’t caused the trips to significantly change their educational component.

Bailey Dinman, 16, a participant in a BBYO trip, said the conflict has prompted spirited discussions among her friends.

“Some kids with more observant backgrounds or conservative views have differences from kids who are more Reform or liberal,” said Dinman. “What should the U.S. do in this scenario? Do we think a cease-fire is necessary? As a Reform Jew who’s liberal, I’m not necessarily exposed to the more conservative viewpoint.”

None of the trip leaders said that kids had flown back early due to the conflict. That includes some 3,500 participants now in Israel on Birthright trips.

Trips have also made efforts to reassure parents that their children are out of harm’s way, including sending out daily emails to parents or establishing a hotline parents can call for information. NCSY held a conference call last week to brief parents of its 500 participants on the situation; 400 parents called in.

“Parents are following news on a minute-to-minute basis, and our communication with parents has needed to become minute-to-minute,” said NCSY International Director Micah Greenland.

Dinman, the BBYO participant, said that whenever airplanes fly over, she “felt a drop in my heart” wondering whether they were on a combat mission. Experiencing the conflict has helped her identify with Israel, Dinman said, but it has also made her hungry for news updates, a need sometimes hard to satisfy.

“We’re in a foreign country, so Wi-Fi is a bit spotty,” she said. “So we can’t read all the news all the time.”

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