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Israel Programs Report Upswing, As ‘abnormality Becomes Normality’

June 18, 2003
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Violence and terror in Israel haven’t diminished Atara Lindenbaum’s desire to visit the Jewish state.

"I know the rules," the Yeshiva University freshman said of her upcoming year of study at a seminary outside the West Bank settlement of Efrat. "I don’t take buses in Yerushalayim — unless they’re bulletproof," she said, using the Hebrew term for Jerusalem as she rattles off one of her family’s stipulations.

Lindenbaum’s brother, Yehoshua, has been studying in Israel for two years, and the family has grown accustomed to the quirks and necessities of life amid terror.

In fact, a grudging acceptance of the fact that Israel periodically hemorrhages from terror may be one reason for a marked rise in attendance in student trips to Israel this summer and in yearlong academic programs starting at summer’s end.

With the "road map" peace plan not yet having ended the Palestinian intifada, some American Jewish students and their parents have grown tired of postponing the Israel experience.

Additionally, the end of the U.S.-led war on Iraq and, with it, the threat of an Iraqi attack against Israel have eased travel anxieties.

The past 12 months in Israel have been relatively less violent than the preceding year.

Enrollment in most short-term Israel programs still has not returned to anything near pre-intifada levels, which stripped programs of participants who feared for their security. But Israel programs are reporting significant increases over 2002, when they had their lowest enrollment in the past decade.

Some yearlong programs, which generally have suffered less from the intifada than have shorter trips, are now approaching or even surpassing their pre-intifada levels.

Overall, trips for this summer and coming year are up by 80 percent, according to Michael Landsberg, executive director of the North American aliyah department of the Jewish Agency for Israel.

"When abnormality becomes normality," he said, people adapt.

Navah Kogen, 16, who will attend a five-week summer program with the Conservative movement’s United Synagogue Youth in Israel, agreed.

"I think people have readjusted their idea of what normal is in Israel as opposed to 1999 and 2000, where we were all expecting peace to be right around the corner," said the junior at the Solomon Schechter Day School in West Orange, N.J.

"A lot of people are starting to understand that it’s going to be a much longer process," she said.

"We might be getting a little more complacent with the situation and also a bit more hopeful about where we might be heading."

Indeed, it seems, a creeping sense of optimism has changed the landscape of American programs in Israel.

"Over the last few months, there was a sense that this coming year is going to be a good year and an important year to be in Israel," said John Fisher, director of enrollment management at Yeshiva University.

This coming academic year, Y.U. will send its largest delegation of students to Israel in the program’s 25-year history. Of the university’s 2,800 undergraduates, 620 are slated to study in Israel this fall.

Along with the opportunity to "make a statement, to be there to support Israel," Fisher said, "I think there’s been optimism that it would be a year that would be relatively safe."

Enrollment in the program dipped slightly over the past two years, with 560 students last year.

In general, Orthodox programs have been least affected by the intifada, with numbers remaining relatively steady.

Birthright israel, the free trip to Israel for 18- to 26-year-olds who have never been on a group trip to Israel, is expecting twice as many North American participants compared with last summer.

Barring an extraordinary wave of terrorism, the group plans this summer to bring between 3,000 and 3,500 North Americans to Israel, up from 1,500 last summer, said Gideon Mark, international director of marketing and public relations for the group.

While the total number of participants is approaching the level of birthright’s early years, the proportion of North Americans among the youth — even with this summer’s projected increase — has fallen to about 50 percent from approximately 70 percent.

Hebrew University, the site of a deadly terrorist attack last summer, doubled its number of applications for summer programs this year.

Still, with about 450 American applicants for programs starting in the summer and fall, Hebrew University is far short of the 700 American applicants it used to receive annually before the outbreak of the intifada.

"We still have a way to go until we match pre-intifada numbers, but this is certainly a positive upward trend that would suggest that there is a growing number of students committed to study abroad in Israel," said Amy Sugin, director of the American Friends of Hebrew University’s office of academic affairs.

Program coordinators also say the quality of the students going to Israel is impressive.

Students visiting Israel today have deeper goals for connecting with Israel, said Neil Weidberg, acting director of Israel programs for Young Judaea.

"Kids used to come and want to go to Ben Yehuda Street and climb Masada and that’s it," he said, referring to the late 1990s, when his program shuttled 1,300 North American kids to summer programs in Israel.

The 170 North American kids registered for this summer, however, are starting out with a sense of knowledge about and empathy with the Jewish state, he said.

"They know Israel is in the condition it’s in, and they want to come and they want to contribute and they want to support Israel," Weidberg said.

The group’s Year Course program plans to bring 175 North American students to Israel in the fall, about equal to the pre-intifada enrollment and a jump from 98 students last year.

Parents, of course, play a critical role in shaping their children’s outlook and, ultimately, permitting their attendance.

"I think for a family to be able to send their child to Israel, they have to have a stronger connection to Israel than the parent did when it was just very popular to send your kid to Israel not so many years ago," Weidberg said.

In recent years, USY has run short Israel programs for parent representatives from each of the Conservative youth group’s 17 regions.

The trip, which highlights security measures, aims to soothe parents’ concerns and allow them to reassure other nervous parents when they return.

"The average parent would have greater credibility than someone who actually works for the organization," said Jules Gutin, international director for USY.

After the June 11 bus bombing in Jerusalem, USY sent a mass e-mail to participants’ parents informing them that the Jerusalem market where the incident occurred is off-limits to participants.

It added that the youth group monitors security with guidance from the Jewish Agency for Israel.

For many participants, the promise of an excursion in the Jewish state trumps any security-related fears.

"When you go, there’s a lot more life than death," Lindenbaum said, adding that the life in Israel is "so rich."

She said she is looking forward to experiencing Israelis’ laid-back attitudes and to being in an environment where "everyone is just going together to learn Torah."

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