Blizzard in U.S., Not Terror in West Bank, Disrupts Birthrighters’ Israel Visits

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From left, Rivky Wigder, Racheli Shafier  and Jamie Gutt camping out at Ben-Gurion airport while waiting for flights to the U.S. to resume.
From left, Rivky Wigder, Racheli Shafier and Jamie Gutt camping out at Ben-Gurion airport while waiting for flights to the U.S. to resume. Credit: Courtesy

The massive blizzard that paralyzed most of the East Coast of the United States this week added an unexpected adventure to the Birthright trips to Israel of a number of college students who chose to tour Israel over their winter breaks.

Rivky Wigder, Jamie Gutt and Racheli Shafier, all college freshmen, had expected to climb Masada, hike in the Galilee and visit the Western Wall - but they hadn’t counted on an overnight campout on the floor of Ben-Gurion airport to be part of their Israel experience.  

But that’s where the three students found themselves on Sunday, weary, stressed about missing the first day of classes of spring semester, but still in good spirits as they waited for El Al Airlines to get them on a flight home. Their destination, Newark Airport, had been shut down Saturday because of the blizzard and their 12:30 AM flight had been cancelled.

Wigder, 18, from Monsey, New York, had extended her stay in Israel after an “amazing” Birthright experience. She said she had known ahead of time her original flight would not leave as scheduled, but that she had received a text from El Al that she was on a 7:30 AM flight, and so had headed for the airport anyway, “because I really didn’t have anywhere else to be.”

But the morning flight was cancelled, as was a subsequent afternoon flight at 2 PM - and so she and her two friends, all students at Yeshiva University and Stern College, who had been on the same Birthright trip, were waiting to see if there was a chance that the next night flight would take place. “We are hanging out in the airport, we don't have anywhere else to go and we don’t want to miss our chance to get on a flight,” she says. “Our first day of class is on Tuesday. If this flight doesn’t happen, we will miss the first day of classes and probably the second day.”

Like Wigder, Gutt, 19, a Yeshiva U student from Miami had extended his stay in Israel for several weeks after his Birthright trip to visit with family and friends. He said it had been “frustrating” to see friends who had been booked on El Al flights to JFK move smoothly through the airport and take off - unlike Newark, JFK was not completely shut down because of the storm.

“I’m doing good, I’m just very tired, I didn’t sleep last night - I’m having a very long day,” he said.

Shafier, 19 said she was also “really tired” but “we are trying to make the best of it and have some fun camping out on the floor of Ben-Gurion. It’s a little bit of an adventure for me. I’m just nervous about missing school and being ready.”

All three acknowledged the irony that it was the weather back home, and not the security situation in Israel that was disrupting their trips. They stressed that their situation had not dampened their positive overall feelings about being in Israel. “We’re annoyed at El Al and the weather, but the overall experience was still an amazing one.”

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