The dozen American adults who participated in a recent weeklong tour of Israel sponsored by the Habonim Dror Zionist organization visited Jerusalem and Safed, viewed the Mediterranean from the heights of Haifa, ate a Bedouin-style meal and bathed in hot springs.
But for most, the highlight was on the bus: the armed medic who accompanied the group and the tour guide’s Global Positioning Satellite device.
The adults, parents of Habonim Dror teenagers who want to take part in summer programs in Israel this year, joined the January mission that was designed to show what the children will be doing in Israel and what security will be provided for them.
The tour included meetings with security officials, explanations of the guidelines that teens in summer programs must follow, and the presence of the armed medic and GPS-connected guide who similarly accompany all student groups.
It’s all part of a new public relations effort, especially among the non-Orthodox.
Wary parents are offered the opportunity, usually subsidized by the sponsoring organization or the Jewish Agency, to see the security situation in Israel firsthand before they give their children permission to go.
“It looks like it’s a trend … to reassure the parents,” said Haim Golan-Gutin, Israel tourism consul in New York. “It’s a nice initiative. [The parents] can be the best ambassador, to testify that the situation is safe.”
Besides Habonim Dror, which calls itself the “progressive Labor Zionist movement,” the Conservative movement’s United Synagogue Youth organization has sponsored such parents’ trips since Palestinian violence escalated more than four years ago and caused a drop in the number of Americans going to Israel as tourists or participants in study programs. USY runs educational summer programs in Israel.
Habonim Dror and USY officials say they have heard of other organizations sponsoring trips for parents, but a spokesman for El Al could not identify other groups.
“We found it a very effective tool,” said Jules Gutin, USY international director. “We realized that it would be important for parents [who are nervous about the security situation in Israel] to hear from other parents” who had recently visited there. “The credibility would be much higher” than assurances by representatives of the sponsoring organizations.
“The trips were an extremely important part of our efforts, which ultimately enabled us to continue our Israel programs without interruption,” he said.
Nearly all of the USY parents who took part in the trips let their children go to Israel for the USY summer programs, Gutin said.
“I think that sending the parents first is a really good idea,” said Marcia Schipper of Brooklyn Heights, who went with Habonim Dror.
“If they want kids to go to Israel, you have to talk the parents into it,” said Diana London of Hoboken, N.J., another member of the Habonim Dror group.
Julie Schipper and Annie Rose London, both 15, who have attended Habonim Dror summer camps in the United States for several years, had registered for the movement’s MBI leadership training program in Israel in July and August.
“I hadn’t given my final word,” London said. “I had some security concerns.”
Then she heard about the trip for parents during an educational meeting in Manhattan last fall.
“It kind of intrigued me,” London said. “The idea of being able to share with my daughter what she will be doing this summer was very powerful.”
Near the end of her seven days in Israel, her first time there, London called her daughter.
“Annie Rose,” she declared, “I’m in love with Israel and you’re going to have such a good time.”
“Mamele, I’m so happy,” said Annie Rose, who also has not been in Israel before.
“Parents went home excited about what their kids were going to experience,” said Sharon Waimberg, administrator of a Habonim Dror camp and parent of a son who will take part in MBI this summer. She was one of the parents on last month’s mission.
“Parents came to Israel with big security questions,” she said. “In Israel, the questions shrank.”
Like London, the parents on her trip — mostly women — went with reservations about safety. All, she said, returned and gave their children their blessings to go this summer.
“I was transformed,” London said. “We all felt that way.
“There are no guarantees” about safety, London said, adding, “They’re extremely careful. They explained the precautions they take.”
The Israeli army, Schipper said, “monitors wherever the kids go. It’s safer than being in Brooklyn.
“I’m extremely glad I went,” she said. “I’m grateful that Habonim Dror gave me the opportunity to go.”
Her daughter Julie is also glad.
“I would be really upset if she wouldn’t let me go,” Julie said.
With a waning of Palestinian violence and a perception overseas that Israel is becoming safer, tourism and the number of participants registered for many summer programs there reportedly is on the rise.
USY, recording an increase in the number of students signing up for its summer programs, did not offer a parents’ trip this winter.
“The atmosphere is better than in 2000. More and more people are going,” said Golan-Gutin, the tourism consul, who could not offer specific figures. “Last year it started to come back. People see that it is safer. The parents see that you don’t have to be afraid.”
London said she hopes her son Danny, a high school freshman, will follow his older sister within the next few years.
“I would love for him to go to Israel,” she said.
She acknowledges that some people still are afraid of going to Israel. Some still ask her why she would allow a child to go there.
“There’s a real stigma about somebody going to Israel,” London said. “Now I’m still going to get the reactions, but I’m much more equipped to explain.”