Jerusalem — Diana Normatov, a Queens College junior, signed up last summer for her first visit to Israel this month. Then she had second thoughts about taking part in the program sponsored by birthright israel. The intifada raged, in Israel and on CNN. Scenes of Palestinian carnage throughout the country scared her and other prospective tourists.
“I was almost not going,” she admits.
Her mother had an opinion. “My mother said ‘no.’ ”
But Diana’s father had the last word; he told her to go.
“Everything comes from God,” Rafael Normatov said. “God will protect.”
Diana Normatov came here last week, one of more than 5,000 Jews aged 18 to 26, for birthright israel’s third year of tours, lectures and cultural programs. Her first day in Israel was an introduction to Israeli-style security, normally more visible than in the United States, and upgraded this year on all birthright trips in the wake of the Arab uprising that began in September 2000.
image3goeshere She saw soldiers walking on the street with rifles. “Cool,” she thought.
“In New York you don’t see people walking with guns,” said Normatov, 18, of Kew Gardens Hills. “In a way I feel very safe. I don’t feel it’s dangerous. Israelis say this is the way it’s done.”
Near the end of her 10 days in Israel, riding a private tour bus accompanied, like on all birthright buses, by one and sometimes two armed guards, Normatov still wasn’t totally accustomed to ubiquitous firearms, but she had taken to wearing a fatigue-green Israeli army cap.
“I like the army,” she said.
Operating in the shadow of the intifada, with decreased violence in the last month following a call by the Palestinian Authority for a cease-fire, birthright participants traveled to Jerusalem and Masada and other landmarks. Israelis everywhere thanked the young people — the largest single group of foreign visitors here in more than a year — for coming.
“It’s really heartwarming,” said former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who addressed a VIP welcoming reception at the International Convention Center here before a “mega-event” that featured an address by President Moshe Katzav. “People are really making the choice to come here.”
Birthright was created three years ago with an initial five-year, $210 million commitment by Charles Bronfman, Michael Steinhardt and other prominent philanthropists to offer 100,000 young Jewish adults from around the world their first taste of the Jewish state.
To protect this year’s participants and assuage nervous parents back home, the program instituted stricter safety procedures: no travel in East Jerusalem or the Palestinian territories; elongated routes through the land to avoid possibly dangerous roads; no group events in often-crowded locations like malls and popular restaurants.
There were security briefings for the participants and a 24-hour “mentoring program” with limited free time for wandering around. Itineraries were revised constantly on the advice of security authorities.
The program’s Web site had assured participants “we are constantly reviewing all security measures and will implement the most stringent security measures. … birthright israel trips do not use public transportation and you are advised to avoid the use of public transportation at all times.”
“This is not an easy time to travel,” acknowledged Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman, birthright israel executive vice president.
The original goal of 10,000 for this year’s December-February tours, roughly comparable with the two previous programs, was scaled down as the effect of the intifada became apparent. “It really hurt the numbers,” Rabbi Zimmerman said.
Birthright promoted its trips heavily on-line and through “lots of personal contact,” he said.
Rabbi Zimmerman said he was surprised that the final total of participants — half from the United States — during the current winter college vacation still was several thousand.
“It’s an older group” than in the past, he noted. “There are more post-university youths, who don’t require their parents’ permission to come.”
Deputy Foreign Minister Michael Melchior, who chairs the birthright steering committee, warned in November that Israel would halt its participation in the program unless the government could guarantee adequate security. In the end, Rabbi Zimmerman said, Rabbi Melchior “was satisfied” with the safety arrangements.
Birthright proceeded with no security problems. “It makes me feel terrific,” Rabbi Zimmerman said. “We all would have wanted [the youngsters] to be able to ‘float’ around Jerusalem. I don’t think the restrictions diminished the experience.”
“I understand” the limitations, said Esther Reznick of Queens College. “I think most people understand. Some feel they’d like to have more free time.”
Robert Ayzin of SUNY Stony Brook on Long Island withdrew his application from last year’s birthright program “due to safety concerns,” but reapplied this year. “This year I simply said [to his parents], ‘I’m going.’ ”
Ayzin’s parents supported his decision. “Look what happened to New York,” they told him, alluding to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
He said he felt safe during his travels around the country. “If we wouldn’t have been able to come here [safely], birthright would have canceled the trip.”
“The trip has been quite secure,” said a Queens College student who asked that his name not be used.
He walked with an Israeli-born college student through the streets of the Jewish Quarter in Jerusalem’s Old City one rainy morning this week, turning his head when he heard Arabic spoken behind them by a pair of men hawking umbrellas.
The student group was trailed by an Israeli woman with a rifle — the group’s security force.
“It’s a little disheartening that she has to be here,” the Queens College student said.of a soldier. “I’d rather not have people with a gun walking with us.”
By early this week, Diana Normatov saw the measures everywhere she traveled.
“They always make you feel secure,” she said, adding that she heard no complaints from her fellow participants about the restrictions on their time and travels.
“They feel privileged to be here now,” said Rabbi Binny Freedman, educational director of Isralight International, the Jerusalem-based organization that sponsored Normatov’s birthright group.
“The parents feel a lot safer that the kids are not going to the places” that might serve as terrorist targets, said the rabbi, who accompanied the 29 young adults in the Isralight group.
Normatov’s favorite parts of Israel were the Western Wall tunnels, a series of narrow passages under the Kotel. “I didn’t know about the tunnels. I just thought there was a wall there,” she said. And Masada. “The view is gorgeous. The history — it was just amazing.”
In her little free time, she followed a personal safety code, avoiding Arab areas, always walking in groups. “I make sure I’m hanging out with someone who knows their way around,” Normatov said.
Normatov, who moved with her family to Queens from Tajikistan in the former Soviet Union 11 years ago, while half her relatives made aliyah, is staying 10 days beyond the birthright israel program for reunions with mishpocha around Israel. She’ll stay cautious, she says. “I’m going to ask detailed questions before I go somewhere.”
During birthright, she called her parents daily. “They want to know that everything is fine,” Normatov said.
She wants to return here someday.
“If I had not gone and my friends came back and everyone told me what a great time they had here, I would have regretted it,” Normatov said.
Back home, she will give her family a glowing report. “I’m just going to tell them how great Israel is.”
And she will thank her father for encouraging her to visit Israel this month.
“This is what happens,” Normatov said, “when you listen to your parents.”
Next week: How the birthright trip touched the lives of its participants.