As violence rises in Israel and the Israeli-occupied West Bank, parents of American Jewish students studying there say that they are relying on the security protocols of the programs to which they have entrusted their children.
It is not yet clear, however, whether such protocols were followed by Yeshivat Ashreinu, the school the American teenager Ezra Schwartz was attending when he was killed November 18 while participating in a study abroad program.
When Pamela Strell’s eldest son left for Israel with the rest of the junior class at his North Carolina Jewish boarding school, Strell wasn’t worried. “I didn’t have any out of the ordinary concerns,” she said. “We visited Israel before. We’ve always felt pretty comfortable there.”
The violence that’s left 20 Israelis killed, along with Schwartz, and more than 100 Palestinians shot dead — many of them while in the process of attacking Israelis — began just days after the group from the pluralistic American Hebrew Academy left for a 10-week stay at Hod HaSharon’s Alexander Muss High School in Israel. Even as attacks mounted, Strell said that she never considered having him come home early. “We really trusted the school,” she said.
The group returned to the United States on November 17, one day before the 18-year-old Schwartz was killed on an excursion to an unauthorized West Bank settlement outpost with Yeshivat Ashreinu. Schwartz attended the yeshiva, in the Israeli town of Beit Shemesh, under a program administered by MASA Israel Journey, one of several large Israel study or travel programs for young people. Yeshivat Ashreinu’s sponsorship of the trip to the unauthorized outpost, which the government had ordered demolished, was first disclosed by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.
Groups that host young American Jews in Israel, such as MASA, Taglit-Birthright Israel and Muss High School, are supposed to follow protocols intended to mitigate security threats to their participants. A MASA representative said it was “still too early to draw conclusions” as to whether the Yeshivat Ashreinu group had followed those protocols during the excursion in which Schwartz was killed.
In Haaretz’s December 2 report, an unnamed former MASA official told the paper that the organization has struggled for years with the question of how stringent to make its security guidelines. The group, he said, prefers to allow each individual program to set its own limitations.
Many MASA affiliates require written permission from both a youngster’s parents and from the director of the program before allowing its charges to travel to the occupied territories. A few groups ban or discourage such travel. But as a general rule, said the former MASA official, programs affiliated with the Orthodox movement enforce fewer, if any, restrictions on traveling to the West Bank.
Parents whose children were at Muss during the rising violence, and parents whose children are still at the school, said that they did not worry about safety, even amid daily stabbings on the streets of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
“Especially in light of what happened in France, I feel like I am more scared in this country than I ever would be in Israel,” said Katie Rosenfeld of Weston, Massachusetts, whose daughter is on a semester-long program at Muss that started in late August and lasts until the end of January. “I’m actually more concerned about being blown up in a restaurant or mall sitting in New York or Boston or Chicago or Miami.”
Another mother of a child on the semester-long program, Naomi Friedman, said that she considers Israel safer than downtown Asheville, North Carolina, where she lives. Friedman noted that the wave of stabbings had reached Ra’anana, near where the Muss school is located. “They have responded beautifully,” she said.
Strell, who lives in Hoboken, New Jersey, said that she managed her worries by chatting with other AHA moms over the messaging service WhatsApp. “I think if we were in isolation… I think we would have felt more insecure,” she said. “But we were supporting each other.”
Mordechai Cohen, the head of school at Muss, where Jewish students range from Orthodox to secular, said that his program coordinates trips with Israeli security officials. “Everything that we do is cleared by the security authority,” he said. “We don’t go to places that are dangerous.”
Cohen said that Muss does not take students sightseeing or touring in the West Bank, though some students at Muss from the AHA group did visit the home of a student whose parents lived in a West Bank settlement.
A representative for Birthright Israel said that the organization’s trips do not visit or travel through the West Bank or East Jerusalem, and that itineraries are approved on a daily basis with Israeli security authorities. MASA does not bar West Bank travel, though participants are not allowed to travel independently to areas of the West Bank not fully under Israeli civil control.
Program organizers, said a MASA representative, are required to coordinate visits to the areas under Israeli civil control with government security authorities.
Schwartz was killed traveling through Gush Etzion Junction, a commercial center in a section of the West Bank under full Israeli civil control. The junction has been the site of a significant number of attacks during the recent violence, including one on October 20, one on October 27 and one on October 28. According to the December 2 Haaretz report, they were on their way to a memorial established in honor of three Israeli hikers killed in 2014. The site, called Oz v’Gaon, is among the newest illegal West Bank outposts, according to the Haaretz story. It has been served with 18 Ministry of Defense demolition orders.
The MASA representative would not say whether Yeshivat Ashreinu followed MASA’s security guidelines or whether it coordinated the trip with security authorities.
“We intend to assess the specific circumstances and details of the incident in question; it is still too early to draw conclusions,” the representative said.
Yeshivat Ashreinu could not be reached by press time.
Yeshiva University’s S. Daniel Abraham Israel Program, which coordinates gap year programs for students heading to Y.U.’s undergraduate school, and which also works with Yeshivat Ashreinu, said that security protocols were up to the individual yeshivas.
“Each school has its own professional leadership and they make their own security decisions,” said Rabbi Kenneth Brander, Y.U.’s vice president for university and community life, in an email statement.
Brander said that any policy changes in the wake of Schwartz’s killing would be the decision of individual schools.
For the AHA students at Muss, security rules grew tighter over the course of the fall as violence increased. Andrew Bowen, whose daughter attended the program, said that the students’ independent travel was eventually restricted. “Those seemed like very reasonable precautions,” he said. Bowen said he and his wife had said to each other that they would be more worried if their daughter were spending the semester in New York City. “While the violence was very targeted and troubling… overall crime in Israel is rather low,” Bowen said. “There’s not a whole lot of muggings and rapes and murders and violence on the streets.”
Contact Josh Nathan-Kazis at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter, @joshnathankazis
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.