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As violence flares, Jewish youth groups assure parents their kids are all right

Youth programs are letting parents know that they are in constant contact with Israeli officials who steer teens out of harm’s way

Rocket attacks from Gaza and a car-ramming and stabbing in Tel Aviv — sparked by Israel’s deadly incursion into the Jenin refugee camp — have distressed American parents who packed teens off to Israel this summer.

But leaders from Jewish youth programs across denominations report that though some parents have called to make sure their children — many of whom are traveling around the country — are safe, no parent has pulled a child off a trip. These groups and camps, most of which have been operating in Israel for decades, typically let parents know that they are in constant contact with Israeli security officials who advise them whether a field trip is safe, or whether they should cancel it or change their route.

Adina Frydman, CEO of Young Judaea Global, which is responsible for about 300 young people visiting Israel this summer, said her organization received two or three inquiries from parents in the past few days.

“They wanted to understand what safety and security procedures and protocols are in place and to make sure we will be in regular communication when their children are in Israel because things change by the minute,” she said. “We reassured them and noted we have been running programs in Israel for over 65 years and have never canceled a program.”

Parents who decide to send their children to Israel for a camp or summer program generally understand that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict rages on, and that may mean that their children will be closer to danger than they would be had they stayed home. Many program leaders have tried to preempt worry by communicating to parents that they are keeping close tabs on the violence, and assuring that children will be steered far from it. NFTY-The Reform Jewish Youth Movement, for example, sent an email to parents on Monday saying that its youth groups in Israel are “nowhere near” Jenin.

On Thursday NFTY wrote another email, about how staff are talking with program participants about the current security situation “couched in the historical historical context of  years of the ongoing conflict,” and reminding program participants of security protocols involving curfews, their boundaries during free time and what to do in case of an emergency.

Any significant changes to the itinerary and safety protocols will be shared with parents, NFTY further informs.

The ‘situation room’

In many of these communications, youth group leaders tell parents about what’s known as the situation room, an office within the Israeli education ministry that contacts camps and youth groups when there’s danger to avoid.

“As part of our regular security protocols, our Israel team on the ground is working closely with Israel’s Ministry of Education Situation Room, who provides on-going support for all educational trips in Israel,” the NFTY email continued. “If necessary, we will be making changes in our itineraries in real time to ensure that your children continue to be safe, feel safe, and enjoy their summer.”

The director of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism’s youth programs, Benjy Behrman, said in a statement that its groups in Israel, which by next week will have welcomed more than 60 teens, are registered with the situation room. He said they don’t make a move in Israel without affirming that situation room experts consider it safe. “If we need to be updated about any security concerns, they will let us know,” he said.

An email went out Wednesday to the parents of teens in Ramah Seminar, a program associated with the Conservative movement that sends rising 12th graders to Israel, assuring that they are safe. Though several parents responded that they appreciated the reassurance, none had reached out to voice concerns, said Nancy Scheff, spokesperson for the National Ramah Commission, the governing body of Ramah camps. “They are aware of the fact that our teens were not near Tel Aviv or Jenin, and they know of our security protocols and ongoing contact with the situation monitoring room,” she said.

The director of an Orthodox sleepaway camp in Northern Israel with many American campers, who spoke on condition of anonymity citing security concerns, said she fielded a call from a father on Tuesday who said he knew his child was scheduled to go on a trip outside of camp this week and wanted to know if security would be adequate.

The director said she told him that the camp follows the situation room’s advice. “We file with them a list of every trip we plan to go on, the route we will be taking, how many will be going and the itinerary,” she said. “They tell us how many guards we will need.”

Typically Jewish summer programs and camps in Israel travel around the country with at least one armed guard trained by the Israeli military.

Trips outside of camp, she continued, are planned well in advance and reconfirmed with the situation room the night before.

“They are very cautious,” she added, and not just about violence. “If there is any issue they will tell us. And if they are expecting a heat wave, they will tell us not to go.”

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