US camps in Israel face unfamiliar situation

Most teens in summer programs expected to be looking for best falafel stands, not nearest bomb shelter.

hike in north 88 (photo credit: )
hike in north 88
(photo credit: )
Most teenagers on summer programs throughout Israel this summer expected to be looking for the best falafel stands, not the nearest bomb shelter. But as the conflict in Northern Israel and Lebanon progresses, nearly all summer programs have had to alter their itineraries and take extra security precautions. On Machach Ba'Aretz, a summer teen tour through Israel led by Bnei Akiva, some campers in Northern Israel were recently forced to seek safe haven in a bomb shelter. Group Rabbi Shaul Feldman was with the campers when they heard the siren signaling they had to enter the shelter. According to Feldman, the kids were only in the shelter for about five minutes, after which they told to remain indoors. "The atmosphere of the shelter is not pleasant; it's very tense. The fact that it was Shabbat also made it harder because there isn't a lot of information available. You don't know why you are in the shelter and that made it very, very difficult," said Feldman. According to Feldman, the campers' immediate reactions varied, but all were calm after the ordeal. "We made sure our staff was very close with them and giving a lot of emotional support," said Feldman. "Twenty minutes later, we had everyone under control and relaxed. Knowledge saves a lot of fear and that's why we informed the kids of what had happened." The United Synagogue Youth (USY) Classic Israel Pilgrimage was also in Northern Israel when violence broke out. According to Stephanie Mazer, Group Leader of one of the groups in the program, USY gradually took their kids out of Northern Israel. "Three USY groups were in the North in different areas, but they are now all in Jerusalem. At first, they just canceled certain trips like going to Rosh Hanikra, which is near the Lebanese border…now, pretty much the rule is no where north of Tel Aviv," said Mazer. Campers in the North were quickly affected by the violence, as much of the scheduled programming was altered or canceled. "We were supposed to do a hike, but it was canceled," said Shira Moer. "In order to keep us from panicking, they told us that the hike was canceled because it was too hot outside. But once we were on the bus, they told us what really happened." According to Steve Frankel, Director of Machach Ba'Aretz, the program has taken, and will continue to take, all necessary precautions to keep the campers safe. "First of all, we, like everyone else, have been following the instructions of the Ministry of Education and doing whatever they tell us to do. It has caused us to move people around, and at this point, all of our groups are at, or south of, Beit Shan," said Frenkel. Most, if not all, summer camps throughout Israel have removed campers from dangerous areas and have relocated the kids to safer locations. But while the summer tours continue, some campers are slightly disappointed that they are not able to see the northern part of Israel. However, most agree that safety is the top priority and they are glad that camps are taking all necessary precautions. Campers have had mixed reactions to the recent course of events. "We are still having fun, but we have to deal with the situation," said Moer. "Still, it was very weird hearing the rockets exploding and having the camp tell us where the nearest bomb shelters are." "It's harder for me to have as much fun as I should be having because I am thinking about all the trouble. The whole Israel experience is different at times like these," said Ester Hindin, another camper. Mazer expressed concern that some of her campers were having a difficult time dealing with the situation. "When the rockets hit in Tiberias over Shabbat, one of my girls who has family there freaked out. For the most part, they [campers] are calm here and they aren't worried about their own safety, but the safety the State and the soldiers," said Mazel. "They know we are keeping them safe. We reassure them we would never put them anywhere near anywhere dangerous." According to Frankel, Machach Ba'Aretz has "augmented the communications we have with parents, updating them with emails at least once, usually twice, a day." USY has been updating parents through an email system as well, letting parents know both about the news in the region and what precautions USY is taking. Some parents have expressed interest in their children coming home, but Frankel says that the overall mood of parents is one of "support and concern". "We assure parents that we are getting good information about the situation, and that we will be able to adjust in order to have fun and educational programming while maintaining the security that we have always had," said Frankel. Frankel doubts that the trip will be canceled and the campers sent home, but says he will follow the advice of the Ministry of Education. As for now though, he stressed that there is "still plenty to do in Israel, and plenty of places to be".