Travel

Free birthright youth tours to Israel carry on amid shelling

July 25, 2014 at 3:35 PM ET

El-Al flight
Gil Cohen Magen / AFP - Getty Images
A plane belonging to Israel's national airline El Al sits on the tarmac of Ben Gurion International airport, near Tel Aviv, on July 23, 2014.

An all-expense paid international trip sounds enticing for any young adult, until the rockets start falling.

As Israel shells Gaza, Hamas has targeted the Ben Gurion International Airport, prompting a temporary flight suspension by major airlines earlier this week and one aborted landing Friday. Meanwhile, some young Jewish Americans drawn to visit their homeland on free 'Birthright' trips are getting a close view of the conflict.

"Who else gets to say they had a bomb fall two blocks in front of their hotel?"

“Who else gets to say they had a bomb fall two blocks in front of their hotel?” said Maya Argano of Towson, Md., who is currently traveling in Israel. “It was the scariest moment of my life.”

Even so, she says she has no regrets about going, adding that the trip has opened her eyes to new adventures and historic events and brought her together with people who have quickly become family: “With everything that has currently been going on in Israel, I wouldn't have wanted any other people by my side.”

Most of those people, it turns out, were fellow participants on a group tour organized by Taglit-Birthright, a Jerusalem-based organization that offers free 10-day trips to Jews ages 18–26. Launched in 1999, the group seeks to “strengthen Jewish identity, Jewish communities and solidarity with Israel” and has organized trips for more 400,000 people from 66 countries.

Recent events have added a layer of complexity to the operation.

“It’s been a time of great challenge,” said Gail Hyman, Taglit-Birthright vice president for communication and marketing. “We have lots of young adults on the ground in Israel or about to fly there. Like anybody else traveling to Israel we’ve had to make some adjustments.”

Taglit-Birthright group
Taglit-Birthright Israel
A Taglit-Birthright group hikes the Masada fortification in the Southern District of Israel overlooking the Dead Sea earlier this summer.

According to Hyman, the group currently has approximately 2,500 participants in the country with roughly another 2,500 due to fly in. She expected the things to go more smoothly now that the FAA’s ruling prohibiting U.S. carriers from flying to Ben Gurion International Airport has been lifted.

“All the participants that were planning to leave Israel or return from Israel are now all booked on flights,” she said. “By [Friday] afternoon, everybody will either be in Israel as scheduled or back home from their trip.”

Those, that is, who weren’t dissuaded from going by the continuing violence in the area. Since hostilities began almost three weeks ago, says Hyman, roughly 30 percent of the participants who signed up for July trips have canceled.

"I feel heartbroken...I wasn't sure if this was a risk I was willing to take."

They’re people like Hailey Desormeaux of Ottawa who told CTV News, “I feel heartbroken I can't be there at this time but given the past events with Air Malaysia, and the rocket that landed there (in Tel Aviv) a kilometer away, I wasn't sure if this was a risk I was willing to take.”

“We understand that some people are not prepared to travel under these conditions,” said Hyman of other participants who have contacted the organization to cancel their trips.

Nevertheless, she believes the organization’s 14 years of experience — “sometimes in good times, sometimes in not-so-good times” — has allowed it to develop systems to keep its participants safe.

“The security systems that are in place are meticulously monitored throughout,” she said. “We have a real-time system that’s hooked into Israel’s security mechanisms and we move buses when we have to.”

That’s what happened to Alex Jaffe, a college student from Bloomington, Minn., who returned from a Birthright trip on Monday.

“When there were attacks near where we were, we’d go somewhere else,” he said. “We were supposed to go to Tel Aviv one day but we went to Sfat instead.”

Needless to say, such options aren’t open to the residents of Gaza or Southern Israel but with U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Antony Foxx telling reporters on Thursday that additional steps have been taken to ensure travel safety, travel to Israel will likely pick up again.

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