Rebecca Blank, a sophomore at Blind Brook Public High School in Westchester County, N.Y., has wanted to study abroad for several years. Highly active in her temple youth group and a longtime attendee of the Reform movement’s summer camps, her first choice was Israel. So last week, Blank boarded an El Al plane at Kennedy Airport to embark on a four-month study program in the Judean Hills.
Blank is one of 66 students that the Union for Reform Judaism is sending overseas for the spring semester of its NFTY-EIE High School in Israel program — the most that the movement has ever sent in the program’s 43 years of existence and double last year’s total.
“After three years of declining figures and very little confidence in Israel as an appropriate destination for young people, people are now considering it again,” said Paul Reichenbach, co-director of the union’s youth division. “These high numbers give us renewed hope and confidence that young people will go to Israel.”
The increase comes almost three years after the Reform union was widely condemned after becoming the only major national Jewish organization to cancel its summer programs in 2001, a day after a suicide bombing rocked the Dolphinarium nightclub in Tel Aviv.
During the next year many other groups ended up canceling planned events in Israel, but none drew the high level of criticism that had been directed at the union and its president, Rabbi Eric Yoffie.
The number of participants in Israel programs, specifically the once-popular summer touring groups, has plunged over 90% since the outbreak of the intifada. The Reform movement itself, which sent 1,400 kids to Israel in the summer of 2000, could barely pull together 40 participants this past summer.
Reichenbach and others attribute the rise in their school-year numbers to the fact that Americans are acclimating to the situation in Israel. Rather than keep their kids from visiting Israel, the theory goes, parents are willing to accept security increases to ease their anxiety.
“The situation has definitely been quieter in the past few months, and parents have decided that a careful and cautiously run program can be appropriate for their kids,” Reichenbach said.
Since 2001, the Reform high-school program has beefed up its security in an attempt to rebuild parent’s faith in their children’s safety. Organizers have moved the program’s base of operations from central Jerusalem to the more secluded Kibbutz Tzuba, and placed restrictions on travel to public areas such as shopping malls.
Rebecca Blank’s mother, Nan, says security was not a key factor in the decision to allow her daughter to take part in the Israel program. “I’m only excited for her,” her mother said. “Saying goodbye to my daughter for 18 weeks is the bigger issue.”