American Trips Caught in Israel War Zone

Birthright and Summer Tours Disrupted by Rockets

No Tan for You: American tourists flee from Tel Aviv beach after rocket sirens sound.
getty images
No Tan for You: American tourists flee from Tel Aviv beach after rocket sirens sound.

By Ben Sales

Published July 14, 2014.
  • Print
  • Share Share

(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.”


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • "To everyone who is reading this article and saying, “Yes, but… Hamas,” I would ask you to just stop with the “buts.” Take a single moment and allow yourself to feel this tremendous loss. Lay down your arms and grieve for the children of Gaza."
  • Professor Dan Markel, 41 years old, was found shot and killed in his Tallahassee home on Friday. Jay Michaelson can't explain the death, just grieve for it.
  • Employees complained that the food they received to end the daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan was not enough (no non-kosher food is allowed in the plant). The next day, they were dismissed.
  • Why are peace activists getting beat up in Tel Aviv? http://jd.fo/s4YsG
  • Backstreet's...not back.
  • Before there was 'Homeland,' there was 'Prisoners of War.' And before there was Claire Danes, there was Adi Ezroni. Share this with 'Homeland' fans!
  • BREAKING: Was an Israeli soldier just kidnapped in Gaza? Hamas' military wing says yes.
  • What's a "telegenically dead" Palestinian?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.