Jessica Leifer, a college student studying Hebrew this summer at the University of Haifa, went into a bomb shelter for the first time last Thursday just as a “precaution.” But when she went in again Sunday, it was the real thing.
“We heard intermittent booms,” Leifer, 20, said of the missiles that exploded nearby and kept her in the shelter for three hours.
The university canceled classes later in the day and bused Leifer of Manhattan and about 140 other foreign students to Jerusalem, where they were housed in the dormitories of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.Leifer, a biology major at Yale University, said she is looking forward to the resumption of classes and intends to stay in Israel through early August, as originally planned.
“I don’t want to leave,” she said by phone from Jerusalem. “I want to be able to finish my trip.”
Leifer is typical of the thousands of young American Jews who were in Israel on a variety of university and yeshiva programs, summer camps and summer tours, when the violence in the north erupted last week. More than half of the youngsters in Israel on tours organized through the JCC Association returned early this week — several days early — because “their parents wanted them home” or because their sponsoring communities wanted them back early, according to a spokeswoman for the organization. She stressed that the decision was not made by the JCC Association. Of the 139 teens and staff in Israel, 72 returned early.
Two Jewish federations — Detroit and Pittsburgh — also cut short the trips they sponsored for high school students and brought them back this week. But the major Jewish organizations sponsoring teen tours in Israel said they were not leaving. All have adjusted their schedules to remain south of Tel Aviv and out of the range of missiles being fired into northern Israel by Hezbollah terrorists.
In explaining the decision to wind up its trip early, Howard Dembs, a spokesman for the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit, said his federation, which has 216 teens in Israel for a month-long tour that was supposed to end Aug. 1, had grown concerned about safety.
“Arrangements are being made for a special flight,” he said. “The safety of our teens is of utmost concern and the feeling now is that we need to get them home.”
A spokesman for the United Jewish Federation of Pittsburgh said, “It was not an easy decision” to curtail the trip.
“The kids were having an amazing experience and I’m told a lot of them were very disappointed about having to leave now,” he said, adding that there was a question of whether “we could have maintained the same quality of programming” in the southern portion of Israel.
That same concern was expressed by Rabbi Dara Klarfeld, executive director of the North American Alliance for Jewish Youth, the umbrella organization for Jewish youth movements and summer camps in North America. “One of the biggest challenges will be to continually create meaningful Jewish experiences in Israel for these youth without constantly repeating location or concept ideas,” she said.
Rabbi Klarfeld noted that there are more than 9,000 youth in Israel from all over the world — 5,000 from North America — during the 10 weeks of summer. “We have the same amount of kids in Israel who are in half the amount of space — [all concentrated] in the south — and it is not chock full of as many exciting things to do as the north,” she said. “And it’s very hot in the south.”
Rabbi Klarfeld said her organization has “educators on the ground in Israel who are working in conjunction with the Jewish Agency for Israel to provide meaningful educational programs for the teens during this challenging time.” But she acknowledged that “in many ways the educators are having a difficult time reshaping the itinerary without having the groups bump into each other. … The Jewish Agency is creative, but it is difficult from a logistics perspective.”
At least one group, a conference of 400 British Reform youth scheduled for August at the Sea of Galilee, is expected to be cancelled, a representative told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. Thousands of American students from Orthodox families are studying at men’s yeshivot, girls’ seminaries and other learning programs throughout Israel, according to Rabbi Avi Shafran, spokesman for Agudath Israel of America. Their parents have not asked them to come home, he said.
“The people I know who have children there aren’t in the least concerned,” Rabbi Shafran observed. A spokesman for Volunteers for Israel said none of the organization’s 50 men and women, who work on army bases and kibbutzim, had left because of the missile attacks. The Reform movement’s National Federation of Temple Youth received phone calls from anxious parents of some of the 600 teenagers it has touring Israel, said Emily Grotta, a spokeswoman for the Union for Reform Judaism. But she said none asked to bring their children home early. About 80 youngsters from the Conservative movement’s United Synagogue Youth were in a kibbutz near Tiberias last Shabbat when Hezbollah missiles rained down on the city. A parent of one of the children said the youngsters could “hear the explosions and see the smoke.” He said some of the teens were so shaken that they began to cry. Jules Gutin, USY’s director, said the youngsters were directed to pack up and were quickly moved by bus to Beit Shean, several miles south, until the end of the Sabbath. They then traveled south to Jerusalem for the night.
“The kids were not in any danger,” Gutin said. “We were able to move them quickly to keep them out of danger.”
He said only two of more than 400 USYers in Israel had opted to cut their trip short and return home. Neither was from the New York area, he said.
Jessica Leifer, the University of Haifa student, said she is in Israel for the third time and that the hiatus from Haifa gave her a chance to see Jerusalem.
“I haven’t been to Jerusalem in eight years,” she said. “We don’t know what’s going to happen, which is scary. It’s scary, but I’m here. It’s kind of surreal.”
Leifer’s mother, Dr. Deena Harris, a Manhattan psychiatrist, says she supports her daughter’s decision to stay in Israel – as long as she is in a safe part of the country.
“She was loving Haifa; she was loving her program,” Harris said. “She was very afraid that they were going to cancel her whole program.
“I’m hoping she can find a way to have a safe summer experience in Israel,” she said.
Stewart Ain and Steve Lipman are staff writers.