As Rockets Rain on Israel, Camps Cope With Worried Jewish Parents

At Israel summer programs, the message to parents abroad is 'keep calm.’

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It was Color War this week at Kimama, the Israeli overnight camps that bring together children from Jewish communities abroad with young Israelis. But with rockets flying all around the country, camp counselors and directors felt nervous about holding the planned water sport competition. What to do, they feared, if the sirens go off while the children are in the water?

So they came up with an alternative plan – a scavenger hunt. The scavenger hunt would be held close to the shelter on the camp premises, and one of the tasks the children would be asked to perform was to get into the shelter, without running or making any noise, in less than a minute. “It was a good way for us to get them familiar with the procedure while having fun,” said Kimama Executive Director Avishay Nachon, “and most of them had no idea we had cancelled the water sports competition.”

With three camps in Israel, Kimama serves a total of 550 Jewish children from overseas, aged 7 through 17, the majority from the United States. Like directors of many other programs that cater to children, teens and young adults from overseas, Nachon found himself besieged this week with phone calls and emails from concerned parents who hadn’t intended to send their children to a war zone when they signed them up.

“We let the parents know that we have lots of experience in dealing with things like this,” he noted. “We also had the camp running during the second Lebanon War, and we know exactly what needs to be done at times like this. I would say that the biggest sign of our success is that no parents have requested that their kids come back home.”

Kimama is now holding its first session at two camps, and the second session opens next Tuesday at a third camp, with a third session opening at the end of the month. About 20 parents who had children scheduled to participate in the upcoming sessions called Nachon earlier this week to inquire about the possibility of cancelling, he reported. “Only five have cancelled to date, which is marginal when you consider the total,” he said.

In a letter he sent out to the parents earlier this week, Nachon wrote: “We can promise you, that the entire war buzz is far away from the campers. They continue in all of the daily activities and are not exposed to the radio, television, or newspapers. In doing so, they are all having fun making lifetime friends, good memories and not worrying about anything else.”

B’nai B’rith Youth Organization currently has 325 teens participating in its Israel bus tours, based mainly in the Galilee and the far south of the country. “We had no thoughts about bringing them back early because of what’s going on,” said BBYO executive director Matt Grossman.

But two BBYO groups, with a total of 60 participants, had their trips cancelled at the last minute earlier this week just when they were about to take flight. “It was on the day when everything got started,” explained Grossman, “and there was talk of Hamas targeting Ben-Gurion airport. The groups were supposed to change flights in Europe, and we were concerned that they might get stuck in Europe if Ben-Gurion were closed. We’re right now working with these kids and their parents on other options for later this summer.”

The Ramah camping movement currently has 250 teens participating in its Israel program based on a kibbutz near Tiberias. According to Rabbi Mitchell Cohen, the national director of Ramah, the program has been running since 1964 and never been cancelled. “We would only cancel if the Israeli authorities told us it wasn’t safe for them in Israel,” he said, adding that “the situation always sounds bleaker in the press.”

For Taglit-Birthright, the program that brings young Jewish adults on free 10-day trips to Israel, this was meant to be a record-breaking summer in terms of participants. And it could very well still be as cancellations, according to the organization, are rather low. “Among the eight groups that arrived today and those scheduled to arrive in the comings, we have about 1-2 participants cancelling in each group,” a spokeswoman for the program said. Currently, Birthright has 90 groups, with a total of 3,500 participants, in the country, and according to the spokeswoman, not one of them has requested to leave because of the security situation. “The safety and well-being of the participants is our primary operating principle and our foremost concern,” she said. “With this, we closely monitor the conditions and implement the most stringent security measures. This includes approving the itineraries on a daily basis and monitoring them on an hourly basis with the ‘Situation Monitoring Room’ administered by the Ministry of Education and coordinated with the army, the police and all the other authorities.”

Among the most popular destinations for Birthright participants in recent years has been a hands-on farm near the Gaza border known as “The Salad Trail.” Out of security considerations, the spokeswoman said, Birthright tour organizers had been instructed to refrain from bringing groups there in the meantime.

Masa, a joint venture of the Israeli government and the Jewish Agency, which brings young Jewish adults to Israel on longer-term educational, volunteering and internship programs, has close to 3,000 participants in the country today, ranging in age from 18 to 30, most of them from the United States. “We’ve had only had two who’ve gone home because of the situation,” reports Masa Chief Executive Liran Avissar, “and another four have inquired about the possibility of leaving.”

Two days ago, she said, Masa opened a special 24-hour-hotline to address concerns of participants and their family members abroad. Thus far, according to Avissar, no cancellations have been registered for upcoming programs, “but there are concerned parents who’ve been asking questions.”

About 500 international students are currently participating in programs at Tel Aviv University, where according to Maureen Meyer, the woman in charge of them, “things are surprisingly under control.”

“I don’t know of a single student who’s left,” she said. “We’ve been communicating with them on a regular basis, and our counselors check in on them after every siren.”

As for upcoming programs due to begin in the fall, she said, “for now we’re only getting questions – not cancellations.”

The main casualty of the conflict at Ben-Gurion University was the international month-long summer program on global health. Of the 18 students originally registered for this program, all but seven have left Israel, reported Faye Bittker, director of the department of media relations at the university. The remaining students, she said, were moved to an alternative location for the meantime. “Needless to say we are monitoring the situation and adjusting the program and location as needed,” she said.

As for the regular summer courses that start in late July-early August, Bittker said: “Obviously this is a fluid situation that is being closely monitored.”

Saundra Schwartz’s 16-year-old daughter Libby arrived in Israel a little more than a week on a Reform movement program that focuses on social action. Thus far, the most dangerous thing the group experienced, Schwartz relayed, was having their plane hit by a bird in New Jersey. Asked how she felt about having her child in Israel at such a time, the University of Hawaii professor said: “I think it’s an important learning experience. This is the reality, and this is her world now, and it’s important that she see it first hand and know the reality. I hope she doesn’t get hurt of course, but it’s a big country and millions of people live there.”

She hasn’t received any panicky phone calls from her daughter in recent days. In fact, she’s hardly heard from her at all. “We bought her a sim card - but surprise, surprise she’s too busy to call, having fun with her friends. She’ll have interesting stories to tell when she gets home. I can’t wait to hear what she has to say.”