(March 23, 2016 / JNS) By Maayan Jaffe-Hoffman/JNS.org
Every summer has a story, and the best stories often happen in Israel. Whether it’s through Ramah, NCSY, NFTY, the Jewish Agency for Israel, Birthright, your local synagogue, or plenty of other trip providers, a summer in Israel can mean a lifetime of memories for Jewish teenagers.
But what happens to those memories of sunrise of at Masada, floating in the Dead Sea, hiking the springs of Ein Gedi, or taking a camel ride through the Negev desert when there is a heightened security situation, Palestinian intifada, or war in Israel?
Amy Cooper—national associate director of Conservative Judaism’s Ramah Commission camping arm—says the itinerary might change, but the trip goes on.
“The kids have been hearing about this Israel experience since they started camp, whether it be day camp at [age] 5 or overnight camp at 8,” Cooper tells JNS.org. “We have never cancelled one of our trips during any summer, including any of the recent intifadas.”
Even during the 1987-93 and 2000-05 intifadas, as well as the Gaza war of 2014, Ramah’s number of campers visiting Israel remained “fairly consistent” with any other year, according to Cooper. The camp has brought about 300 youths per year on summer trips to the Jewish state since the mid-1960s. This year, that consistency might be tested again due to the ongoing wave of Palestinian stabbing, car-ramming, and shooting attacks in Israel.
Cooper says that Ramah handles security through its Israel office and in conjunction with Israel’s “situation room,” which is set up to help inform tourist groups of any potential dangers. She says the team checks daily to see if there are any changes to the pre-planned itinerary that should be made to ensure campers’ safety. The summer of the latest Gaza war, for example, Ramah spent two weeks in northern Israel, further away from Hamas rockets in the south.
In addition, Ramah is particularly cognizant of communication with parents. A daily email lets parents know where their kids are and what they are doing, and informs them of any safety precautions that are being taken. Cooper calls this communication “direct and honest.”
Amir Halevi, director general of the Israeli Tourism Ministry, tells JNS.org that he does not expect more than a 5 or 10 percent decrease in tourists visiting Israel this year, despite the current wave of terrorism. According to the Israeli Foreign Ministry, more than 30 Israelis have been killed in terrorist attacks and more than 400 have been injured since last September. There have been more than 200, more than 80 shootings, and more than 40 vehicular attacks. Of particular concern to Americans considering trips to Israel, including prospective campers and their parents, are the recent murders of 18-year-old American gap-year yeshiva student Ezra Schwartz and 29-year-old American graduate student Taylor Force in Palestinian terror attacks.
Yet “even with the situation we have now, Israel is much safer than many other places in the world,” Halevi says. The director general cites a statement by former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, who visited in Israel in March 2016, that “with all the terrorism, you’re still safer in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem than in Chicago.”
Halevi also notes that with terror growing worldwide, most recently with massive attacks in Istanbul and Brussels in March, many believe that Israel is better equipped to handle the situation than other countries.
Israel enjoys between 150,000 and 200,000 visitors per day, mainly in Jerusalem, which accounts for roughly $12 million in tourism revenue annually, according to Halevi. He does not know how much of the revenue comes specifically from summer camp travelers, but says that the camp revenue generates more than the “average” tourism source.
Cooper says the Ramah students explore Israel from north to south and enjoy hikes, creative arts, an army experience, and more. The program brings together campers from across the U.S., and campers who participate in the Israel experience tend to return to Ramah for additional summers as counselors. She adds, “We have such a commitment to Israel among our families.…Every camper anticipates the Israel summer as part of their Ramah experience.”