Sticking It Out In Israel

Sticking It Out In Israel

American Jewish students express commitment to staying put, while NYU suspends its Tel Aviv program.

Mitchell Nathanson’s calls to Israel increased when Ahmed al-Jabari died in Gaza.

Nathanson, an attorney from West Hempstead, L.I., whose daughter and step-daughter are spending this year in separate post-high school intensive Torah study seminary programs in Israel, realized that Hamas rocket attacks from Gaza would intensify after the Israeli Army last week assassinated al-Jabari, Hamas’ military commander.

Would the teens, both 18, be nervous, Nathanson wondered. Would they ask about coming back to the United States until the Hamas attacks, which expanded last week from southern Israel to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem further north, ended?

Nathanson needn’t have wondered.

In the days after al-Jabari’s assassination, as air raid sirens became the soundtrack for much of Israel, as Nathanson frequently called and texted and e-mailed Alexa Nathanson, his daughter, and Marissa Young, his stepdaughter, both said they wanted to keep on studying in Israel.

“You’re not going to tell us we have to come home?” Young asked her father when he called to tell her to “Please, be careful.”

It’s their decision, Nathanson said of his daughter and stepdaughter.

“They’re absolutely staying,” he said early this week, as the hostilities in Israel and Gaza continued. And, Nathanson added, “I wouldn’t bring then home unless they were afraid.”

Which neither was.

“I am definitely committed to staying in Israel despite the current circumstances,” Young said. “Naturally, parents are nervous … but I think many realize how important it is to be here right now.”

Based on an informal survey of students studying in Israel now, they are committed to staying, no matter what their parents say. And the parents are willing to let them, at least for now.

Not everyone made the same decision.

While most U.S. universities that offer programs in Israel have not yet announced if ongoing fighting will affect their activities, New York University announced that it has suspended its Tel Aviv program for the rest of the semester, and evacuated its students and faculty to London.

The university is considering whether to reopen for the spring semester, JTA reported, and the 11 students may transfer to NYU overseas campuses in London, Prague or Florence, or return to New York.

Some yeshivot and seminaries that cater to gap-year Americans have curtailed the students’ travels away from the schools as a safety precaution, according to people familiar with the Israeli programs.

The Masa Israel program, sponsored by the Jewish Agency for Israel and offering long-term gap year study and volunteer work for young adults, reports little change.

“We had very few participants returning to their home countries, and we got a few phone calls from concerned parents, naturally,” said Yonatan Barkan, direction of external relations for Masa Israel. Of the approximately 7,000 Masa participants in Israel now, a little over 500 were in programs near Gaza, all of whom were moved to programs in other parts of Israel, Barkan said. “Those participants who had to relocate are taking part in various volunteering opportunities throughout Israel, among them: packing medicine for residents of southern Israel, [and] collecting toys for kids.

The Reform movement has not scaled back its educational programs in Israel — for high school- and college-age participants, and post-college students — and none of the American students had left the country because of the fighting so far, according to Robert Kern communications director of the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA).

None of the two dozen Americans enrolled this semester in the Reform movement’s high school and gap-year programs have asked to leave the country, said Paul Reichenbach, director of the Union for Reform Judaism’s camping in Israel programs. He added that no change is expected in the upcoming high school programs and Birthright Israel programs, which are expected to bring 90 and 800 participants, respectively, to Israel in the next few months.

The Reform movement would be reluctant to cancel such programs, doing so only, he said, “if we felt we could no longer provide a high level of safety and security.”

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism during the intifada in Israel in 2001, drew criticism for cancelling the Reform movement’s youth programs in Israel that summer. At this point, Kern said, the movement has no plans to cancel upcoming programs in Israel.

An Israel Fair sponsored on Sunday for high school seniors who plan to study in Israel next year, and their parents, attracted a large crowd, said David Lenik of Suffern, who went to the event with his17-year-old son Zak. The fighting in Israel has not changed Zak’s year abroad plan, Lenik said, “Today, it’s not an issue.”

He said he did not sense any “special concern” among the parents and teens at Sunday’s event. Few raised security issues in the group discussions. “It seemed to me business as usual,” Lenik said.

A spokesman for Birthright Israel said “a minimal” number of participants in the upcoming December tours of Israel — about 20 out of 8,000 – have cancelled their registration so far because of the fighting. In its 13 years of operation, including times of security alerts, no Birthright tour has been cancelled for security reasons, the spokesman said, adding that the tours adjust their itineraries according to regular consultation with security officials.

Anecdotal reports suggest that some American tourists have cancelled their plans to visit Israel since last week, but Margaret Morse Tours, one of the country’s largest organizers of tours to Israel, said no one has backed out of family tours set for next month.

The State Department website early this week carried the same travel warning it issued on August 10. “The Department of State warns U.S. citizens of the risks of traveling to Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip,” the advisory stated. But the State Department did not warn against travel to Israel, or advise Americans to leave the country. And a similar advisory issued by the British government discouraged travel to the area near Gaza, but did not otherwise warn its citizens to avoid Israel.

“None of our participants are leaving,” said Brianna Fowler, programs director of Habonim Dror North America, which runs a gap year program in Israel.

“Students are certainly concerned about the situation but they are calmly going about their day-to-day learning,” said Rabbi David Katz, director of the Michelet Mevaseret Yerushalayim girls’ seminary in Jerusalem. “No one has chosen to return home [to the U.S.] nor have any parents requested this.”

Rochelle Brodsky from Elizabeth, N.J., whose daughter, Paige, is studying in Jerusalem, said her “first impulse is to say ‘come home,’ but I wouldn’t say that. Even if I told her to come home, she wouldn’t. My daughter is committed to staying for the year, and living in Israel. Living in Israel includes tolerating military situations.”

“I want to stay as long as I can,” Paige said. “By [us] being scared, the terrorists can win that much more easily.”

Rose Jacobs from Atlanta, who is taking part in a Young Judaea Tochnit Shalem program, said she too is staying in Israel. “No one from my program is planning on leaving Israel. I want to stay in Israel, because I love it here, and who knows when I will be able to come back.”

Mitchell Nathanson said he plans to visit his daughter and stepdaughter in Israel in a few months.

And Nathanson’s 17-year-old son Max, a high school senior, is planning to go to Israel for study in a yeshiva later this year. The military situation is Israel has not dissuaded Max, or his parents.

“I have no reservations,” the father said. “I look forward to it.”

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