Tourism drops after bombings Jewish groups reassuring travelers

For months, Dr. John Stephens had been trying to recruit other families to join him and his preteen son for a summer kibbutz program in Israel.

After the recent series of suicide bomb blasts, however, he is reconsidering his plans for a "pre-bar mitzvah experience" for his son.

"I have serious reservations," said Stephens, who lives in Palo Alto. "I think I'll wait a year."

Referring to the March 4 attack outside a shopping mall in the center of Tel Aviv, he noted that "you can stay off buses [but suicide bombers] roaming the streets in a major city is something else."

Stephens' concern is widespread.

Although airlines reported that some new bookings have been made for trips to Israel since the bombings, Israel's Tourism Ministry last week cited 2,000 cancellations — a bad sign for a tourism industry that last year handled a record-breaking 2.5 million visitors.

The crushing blow was the bombing at Tel Aviv's Dizengoff Center, where shoppers and children in Purim costumes were killed.

At the same time, American Jewish leaders have been urging Jews not to yield to fears and not to cancel scheduled trips.

"To do otherwise would be to give the terrorists a victory," said Leon Levy, chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

In addition, several American Jewish organizations have organized missions to heed a call for support sent out last week by Israel's ambassador to the United States, Itamar Rabinovich, and others.

A delegation of the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council headed for Israel last weekend, for example, to express solidarity.

In addition, a group of 15 college students, all of whom are past participants of Nativ, a United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism program for college study in Israel, left for Israel Tuesday to show solidarity with fellow students studying in Israel this year.

Nonetheless, many Bay Area residents who had planned to travel to Israel last week have canceled their plans, according to David Parnes at International Travel Bureau in San Francisco.

"People were obviously concerned," he said, observing that most airlines have waived all usual cancellation penalties."That way people can wait until the last minute to decide whether or not they want to go" to Israel, Parnes added.

Meanwhile, those involved with youth programs in Israel were being deluged with calls from worried parents whose children are currently enrolled or are registered for summer experiences.

Program heads say they are reassuring parents that security has been tightened in the wake of the attacks and that the youngsters are safe.

For instance, none of the 50 high school juniors and seniors studying abroad and living in the heart of Jerusalem through the Union of American Hebrew Congregations Reform movement program has returned home.

Locally, Mickey Naggar Bourne, director of the Israel Program at the S.F.-based Bureau of Jewish Education, reports receiving "about 20 calls of concern but so far no cancellations" for either the six-week Summer in Israel trip or next month's March of the Living trip to Israel and Poland.

To date, 23 teens are registered for the former trip, 175 for the latter. Naggar Bourne sent a letter to the parents of all those teens, "reassuring them of the precautions being taken by the state of Israel and the program itself," she said.

In the East Bay, Israel Center associate Elisha Wolfin has been similarly calming parents of teenage travelers.

He expects 90 youngsters will participate in the six-week Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay-sponsored teen trip to Israel, and another 40 to take the new Koret Foundation-sponsored 24-day trip to the Jewish state this summer.

Like Naggar Bourne, Wolfin has "had calls of concern but no cancellations. Either people are viewing this in perspective or we've been successful [in quieting people's fears].

"Terrorism is not new to Israel. Safety has always been our top priority."

Still, programs have been adjusted.

For example, the usual cancellation fee has been waived for all three trips.

"We're urging families to hold onto their places. But the bottom line is each family's own comfort level," Naggar Bourne said.

In the past, Bay Area teens taking the trips have always traveled within the country by private shuttle rather than riding public transportation. Participants of the S.F.-based program, however, used to travel independently during home-hospitality weekends. According to a new protocol, hosts must pick up students at a prearranged location.

In addition, a private security firm has been hired to post guards who will accompany March of the Living travelers in both Poland and Israel.

"We've beefed up all our security arrangements, and we are in constant communication with Israel's State Department to assess the safety," Naggar Bourne said.

In the meantime, Reda Mansour, Israel's consul for the Pacific Northwest region in San Francisco, also has received many calls regarding safety concerns. He has told anxious callers Israeli police are currently working 12-hour shifts and "are visible everywhere."

Israeli cities are "still as safe as other big cities in the world," he said, noting that "we remind travelers that this is more than tourism: It's support for the people in Israel during tough times."

He added that "terrorists don't target tourists. Quite the opposite. They are not attacking the tourism industry. They want citizens. This isn't good news for Israelis, but it's a point of consideration for travelers."