Summer Camps for Diaspora Kids Escape Swine Flu Panic Unscathed

Fears that swine flu would devastate summer programs for Diaspora youth have proved unfounded, say local organizers. Some 140,000 young people will have visited Israel this July and August - equaling last year's total - the Ministry of Tourism estimates. Any decline due to the global financial crisis, they say, has been offset by the draw of the Maccabiah Games.

Camp administrators who do report an ebb in participation cite economic factors, rather than swine flu, the mutated strand of influenza H1N1, which they say had a negligible effect on their programs.

"We weren't going to let it take over our summer," said Adam Jenshil, director of Zionist youth movement Young Judea, which brought 700 American and British high school students to Israel for month-long tours of the country.

Jenshil had no firm figures as to how many participants have been infected, since sick teenagers were not tested for the specific illness, in accordance with the most recent Ministry of Health guidelines for those who are not seriously ill. Due to this policy of non-testing, it is impossible to estimate the total number of youth who have contracted swine flu this summer.

"These things can spread like wildfire," said Jenshil, referring to the pandemic that has infected a confirmed 2,000 cases in Israel and an estimated 10,000 more. Whenever teenagers on Young Judaea tours showed flu-like symptoms, such as a high temperature, they were isolated, as per traditional treatment of influenza. "There's no difference between this summer and any other summer," he added.

Participants at Camp Kimama in the north of Israel were tested for the flu strain, according to the camp co-director Avishay Nachon, who said that 15 campers out of 240 tested positive during the first of three sessions; as a result, nearly 30 were sent to stay with family or friends in Israel. The camp reimbursed nine people who canceled for the second session due to the flu panic, he says, and they began to test all participants upon arrival.

Managing parents' fears was no small part of the task, said Nachon, who hired four additional staff members to deal with a potential reoccurrence of the flu.

"It's not a big deal," he recalls telling them. "It has a bad name, but it's only a flu."

It was of paramount importance to keep parents of participants informed, says Nachon, to calm those "yelling and screaming" about their children and to prevent others from, as he put it, "getting crazy." (See Box)

"The message we have been giving is not to worry," says Dr. Itamar Grotto, Director of Public Health Services, the branch of the Health Ministry that designs and recommends medical policy. "They should be prepared."

World Bnei Akiva, which hosted 1,000 teenagers in Israel this summer, saw their first flu-stricken delegation in France, where frantic parents learned from media sources that their kids had gotten sick before the program coordinators contacted them.

Learning from the fallout, the organization made a greater effort "to be in touch with parents to update them as much as possible so they aren't pressured and nervous," World Bnei Akiva spokesman Zvika Klein told Anglo File this week.

Later in their summer, one infected group brought about the closure of an Israel Defense Forces base, used for the Gadna pre-military program for teens. This time, Bnei Akiva staff preempted any media-fed hysteria by sending word to parents.

Taglit-Birthright Israel - which has brought nearly 12,000 mostly American 18-27 year-olds to Israel this summer - did make headlines in mid-June when some 20 American students were confirmed to have infected an equal number of accompanying IDF forces with the H1N1 virus. In order to prevent further infection within the army, "any soldiers who were in contact with Birthright groups were sent home for a week," an IDF spokesman said.

Gidi Mark, CEO of Birthright, says his administration was concerned, but that the fear of swine flu did not result in any cancelations that he knew of.

"The numbers on the buses were very close to 100 percent, " he said. "The intifada really taught us how to deal with emergencies," he added.

Mark echoed the policies of other administrators, saying the organization closely followed the Ministry of Health's guidelines for managing the flu, including encouraging participants to wash hands and spend time as much as possible outdoors. He said their policy was to address the issue frankly and openly. "Hiding it would lead to panic," he added.

Two additional youth organizations, NFTY and Noam, were unwilling to respond to inquiries concerning outbreaks of the sickness, which has claimed nearly 2,000 lives and is believed to have infected millions worldwide.

"We're in the middle of a summer camp. I'm not sure I want parents to see our name in the papers," said one high-level figure from the Conservative movement's Noam summer camp. A counterpart from NFTY, the youth arm of the Reform movement, also opted to give swine flu the silent treatment: "We dealt with it, but it's not something we want to be associated with."

MASA, the umbrella organization for long term programs that brought 8,000 Jewish youth to Israel this academic year, also refused to comment. "We fear miscommunication," a spokesman said.

The reticence of these organizations to talk about the pandemic, however, belies the fact that the summer programs have escaped relatively unscathed. Liana Rothman, a 14 year-old camper from Ohio at the Noam camp in Neve Hadassah, said "I loved it, it was so much fun. It didn't seem like anyone was thinking about flu at all."