Two Israeli women followed the throngs of people leaving the Western Wall on Monday, wondering who would be touring the shaken state.
When they learned it was a United Jewish Communities solidarity mission, they were shocked.
“Tell them thank you; tell them thank you,” the women said.
Relaying the story by telephone from Israel, Caila Bitran, director of missions at the UJC, said the recent terror attacks in Israel have only heightened their purpose.
Joel Alperson, national chairman of the current UJC solidarity mission, said he was “really energized” by the couple hundred people waiting with him to fly to Israel on Sunday, a day after the horrific events in Israel.
“I was heartened to see so many other people going to see Israel together,” he said of the 500-strong group. “Finally, I could do something,” noted the past board member of the Jewish Federation of Omaha.
The UJC is not alone in its determination to move ahead with trips to Israel.
Birthright Israel, which provides free 10-day trips for young adults, decided on Tuesday to go ahead with its winter programs, scheduled for December though February.
But determination aside, the flurry of conference calls and emergency meetings this week show that groups with missions and programs in Israel are worried that the latest attacks in Israel will further hurt their already-hurting programs.
The UJC’s special national solidarity missions began with the onset of the second intifada in October 2000 and have been consistently bringing nearly 500 people to Israel every month for five to seven days, say UJC officials.
Since then, there have been 20 national solidarity missions, and they are scheduled through next spring.
“We don’t cancel missions,” said Bitran, who says the current emotion and energy has propelled the missions and given them new meaning.
She said that only 23 people canceled their plans for the current mission after Saturday night, eight of whom because of illness, the normal attrition rate.
According to Art Naparstek, vice president of the Israel and Overseas Pillar for the UJC, the only change in the program when terrorism occurs is that they try to address the changing issues in Israel.
On the current mission, for example, participants have held a memorial service, made shiva, or condolence, calls and helped to assemble wheelchairs at a rehabilitation center.
Birthright Israel is also committed to maintaining its course.
According to Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman, Birthright’s executive vice president in North America, Birthright’s steering committee voted unanimously Tuesday to proceed with the program.
Still, Birthright’s numbers will be down. The program had originally hoped to attract 10,000 participants from around the world this winter, but program organizers now only guarantee an excess of 5,000. But they would not venture a guess on how many Americans would participate.
Jennie Berman of Brooklyn is one who has already canceled.
“To go on a free trip and an incredible program like that is very enticing, but I don’t feel that I would be safe to go over there right now, and I don’t want to put my family through that.”
Brian Schultz of Seattle, Wash., says he, too, is re-evaluating his decision to attend this winter’s Birthright biking tour.
“That decision,” he said, “is not just based on what happened over the weekend, but where things may be headed.”
Despite the cancellations, Zimmerman said, “The presence of thousands of young people will be one of the greatest moments for the Jewish people.”
By the end of this winter, Birthright estimates that more than 27,000 people from around the world will have visited Israel since the program began two and a half years ago. Birthright plans to bring 100,000 18-26 year olds from around the world over five years.
Already thinking ahead to summer’s youth programs, which took a huge hit this past summer, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism is currently sponsoring a trip for parents to scout out the situation for their children.
Yossi Garr, central shaliach, or emissary, for the movement’s United Synagogue Youth, is in Israel with 16 parents from 15 USY regions.
The organization fully subsidizes each parent for the three and a half day program, which offers a glimpse of some of the organization’s summer, yearlong and semester programs in Israel.
It’s the second year Garr has conducted this exercise, which was conceived in the wake of the current intifada, and he believes it’s the reason USY had a larger contingency than any other North American youth movement last summer.
“I want parents to go home and say, ‘I’m sending my kid to Israel, and I’m comfortable sending my kid to Israel.’ “
And it seems to be working.
“Now I can go back and tell other parents that USY is 150 percent on top of security,” said parent Amy Schwartz of New City, N.Y. , speaking from Israel. “It’s safe to be here, and life is going on.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.