William Friedlander, a junior at Upper St. Clair High School, is getting excited about his upcoming trip to Israel with NCSY, an Orthodox Jewish youth group. He leaves for Israel next week, and it will be his first time there.
He said he has no hesitation about traveling to the Jewish state, even in the midst of the rising tensions and violence there.
“I feel fine,” he said. “I’m not worried about it whatsoever. About a week ago, NCSY explained to us in depth about their safety policy and that our safety will always be their No. 1 priority. I think my mom might be a little bit concerned, but my parents seem to be hiding it from me if they are.”
Friedlander’s feelings about visiting Israel amidst some of the worst violence to strike the region in years reflect the general mood of many Pittsburghers who will be traveling there on planned summer trips. Tensions spiked after the recent kidnappings and murders of three Israeli teens and one Palestinian teen, and culminated in volleys of rocket fire from Gaza.
As of Wednesday morning, with reports of Israel launching its counteroffensive Operation Protective Edge in response to to the Hamas rockets, no local group trips to Israel had been canceled.
About 40 adults from Temple Emanuel of South Hills and Rodef Shalom
Congregation arrived in Tel Aviv on Monday, July 7, ready to begin their first joint tour of Israel.
“I think our mission to Israel becomes all the more meaningful and important because it demonstrates our support for Israel at this sad moment,” said Rabbi Mark Mahler, spiritual leader of Temple Emanuel, in an email before his departure.
“We arrive in Israel on the day shiva concludes for the three teenagers,” he noted.
For Marian B. Allen of Rodef Shalom, who was eagerly anticipating the joint mission, her first visit to Israel, recent events changed the nature of the trip but did not diminish her enthusiasm.
“Now it’s a different trip, because of the events of the day,” she said. “It makes us a little more anxious. But also, it makes us feel like we’ll experience what the Israelis experience in their daily lives.”
A day after the group’s arrival, its members were aware of the increased threat level, which as of Tuesday afternoon included parts of Tel Aviv, Rabbi Aaron Bisno, spiritual leader of Rodef Shalom, wrote in an email. But as of press time, the group was not making any changes to its itinerary.
“Our trip has not been affected, but we have been advised that all caution will be taken,” Allen wrote in an email on Tuesday. “We spent the day in Tel Aviv and Jaffa, and here it seems to be business as usual, though a young Israeli guide today at the Ayalot secret munitions factory dropped her guard when she talked about the heroes of that endeavor. She said, ‘We think about these people, especially today, as there would not have been an Israel without them.’”
Jan Levinson, co-chair of Partnership 2Gether — a program that creates a “sister-city” pairing between Pittsburgh and the Israeli city of Karmiel and the Misgav region — said he had “zero concerns” about traveling to Israel for steering committee meetings and Jewish Federations of North America fundraising symposiums.
“There’s always something going on in Israel,” he said. “I have no concerns at all.”
Youth trips to the Jewish state were scheduled to proceed as usual.
Eighteen Diller Teen Fellows and two junior staffers will be leaving from Pittsburgh for Israel as scheduled on July 16, according to Chris Herman, Pittsburgh Diller Teen Fellows program coordinator.
“We created an itinerary to maximize the teens’ experiences while we’re there,” Herman said. “At this time, there is no change to our itinerary, but it will be under constant review.”
Herman has received no calls from parents concerned over the trip, he said.
“We have a full staff of Diller International on the ground,” he continued. “We’ll have our final preparation with our tour providers about safety procedures that are in place. If something needs to change, it will. And we will have real time communication with parents.”
While the teens will not be traveling near Gaza or the West Bank, they are scheduled to visit the Golan Heights, although “that may change,” Herman said.
Discussions regarding the Israeli murders that set off the recent spate of violence may occur with the teens “where appropriate,” Herman said. “But that’s not the only reality in Israel.”
Sharon Ackerman, whose son, Micah, will be traveling to Israel as a Diller Teen Fellow, said she has “no apprehension” about the trip.
“I know they’re in contact with the appropriate people in Israel, and I know they will cancel the trip if there’s any danger,” she said. “I was worried at first that the situation would impact his trip, but I’m no longer concerned about it. Look at the U.S. and all the shootings here. How do I know that a kid won’t walk into Mount Lebanon High School and start shooting?”
A group of 46 high school juniors from Emma Kaufmann Camp have been in Israel for three weeks and return home on July 10, said Sam Bloom, director of the camp.
“They continued their schedule as planned,” he said, adding that they were not near the areas where violence erupted.
“They come back the following year to be on staff,” noted Bloom, adding that the trip to Israel is an important part of EKC’s staff training. “Eighty to 85 percent of our staff has been through our Israel training program. It’s important in terms of spirit and understanding and leadership.”
Lanny Seed, who traveled to Israel for the first time with Temple Emanuel and Rodef Shalom group, said he had no apprehension about traveling to Israel, even in the shadow of violence there.
“It’s one of the things the population lives with there every day of the week, and they seem to thrive,” he said. “It’s safe or safer than staying here.”
Seed said that he and his wife, Sally, could relate to what the parents of the murdered youth were going through. “Unfortunately, our son died in October,” he said. “We are going to be dedicating a JNF grove to him. We have ties to that kind of grief. But it’s part of what goes on in life.”
Condemnation of the murder of the Palestinian teen, Mohammed Abu Khdeir, has been expressed by Jewish organizations throughout the world.
“The Jewish Federations of North America condemn the brutal murder of 16-year-old Palestinian Mohammed Abu Khdeir and is appalled by the heinous nature of this crime,” the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh posted on its Facebook page. “We commend the Israeli Police for the swift arrests, and have full confidence that the Israeli justice system will ensure that those responsible will be punished to the full extent of the law.
“Jewish Federations endorse the sentiments expressed by Israel’s leaders rejecting all forms of violence and calling for new efforts at achieving peaceful coexistence,” the statement continued. “We echo the strong words of Rachel Frankel, mother of murdered Israeli teen, Naftali, who said: ‘If a young Arab really was murdered for nationalist reasons, this is a horrifying and shocking act. There is no difference between blood and blood. Murder is murder. There is no justification, no pardon and no atonement for murder.’”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.)