WASHINGTON – Officials at Birthright Israel voted unanimously Tuesday to go ahead with plans to send close to 9,000 youths to visit Israel this winter, despite recent outbreaks of violence in popular tourist regions there.
The organization, which pays for 10-day visits to Israel by 18- to 26- year-old Jews, has also given travelers until Sunday to back out of the trip without penalty. But it hopes that security measures it has taken will allay parents’ fears for their children.
“There’s no better place than in Israel for them to understand their history, their culture, their religion and who they want to be as Jews,” said Scott Brown, executive director for Maryland Hillel at the University of Maryland College Park. The campus has sent 161 students on Birthright Israel trips already and another 23 planned to go this winter.
That was before Saturday, when two suicide bombers struck a commercial area popular with Israeli young adults, killing at least 10 people. A third suicide bomber struck Sunday on a crowded bus, killing 15. The Israeli military responded with air attacks on Palestinian sites Monday and Tuesday.
Birthright Israel officials said security measures will include a daily clearance of itineraries with the Israeli government. Those measures are expected to keep risks to a minimum.
“If there are any particular hot spots, we’ll be nowhere near them,” Brown said. “This is a difficult, tense time, but life does go on in Israel.”
Other Maryland colleges participating in the winter trip include University of Maryland Baltimore County, Johns Hopkins University and Goucher College.
The international program sends young Jews to Israel each summer and winter, with the goal of sending 100,000 young adults in five years. Now in its third year, it has sent a total of 22,000 travelers so far.
Joe Wagner, spokesman for Birthright Israel, said that the decision to proceed with this winter’s trip was reached in an hour-and-a-half meeting Tuesday, with little dispute between committee members.
“They decided to go forward with it because it’s an important message to send to the Israelis and to the North American Jewish community that it’s important to strengthen Jewish identity,” Wagner said.
For some, the excitement of the trip overcomes any fears they might have.
“I’m definitely going. I really, really want to go,” said Rockville resident Oren Fromberg, a College Park junior who has been to Israel nearly 15 times.
“People always say now is not a good time, wait a little longer, but it’s been going downhill for a very long time. You have to take the opportunity when you get the chance, before it’s gone,” Fromberg said.
Others do have some reservations. Eliza Zipper, a College Park sophomore, said both she and her parents are rethinking the trip.
“I’ve been seriously reconsidering whether I’m going or not,” she said. “I’m really worried because they’re starting to bomb the tourist areas, instead of just the more religious things.”
Besides the new outbursts of violence, Zipper said she fears that some areas now deemed unsafe will be closed off to her. But after anticipating the trip for so long, she is a little reluctant to let go of the opportunity.
“I would rather wait until I can go and see more things, but I kind of feel like I need to go right now,” she said. “I’ve never really felt a connection to my religion and culture with other people. I just want to get an even stronger connection by going there.”
Brown, who took a Birthright Israel trip two years ago, is encouraging his students to make the journey, but he said they have to decide on their own terms.
“The goal is not to guilt any student or any parent into going on this trip. There’s plenty of guilt already going around,” he said. “Our goal is to create a celebration of Jewish life in a safe and dynamic way.”