Bay Area visitors to Holy Land: heavy emotions, anxious parents back home

With Hamas rockets falling, a military operation in Gaza underway, and lingering anguish over the killings of four teenagers, one might expect Bay Area Jews to steer clear of Israel.

They’re not.

Several Bay Area–sponsored youth trips, congregational missions and Birthright excursions are either taking place in Israel now or soon set to begin.

Though heightened tensions have caused some safety concerns, no one has canceled trips or drastically altered itineraries.

Near the port city of Ashdod, residents take cover from rocket fire. photo/ commons

“Israelis go about their lives, and you end up going about your life with them,” said Sam Lauter, a San Francisco political consultant who has been in Israel since June 27, in part to celebrate his son’s bar mitzvah in Jerusalem. “Being in Israel is really important for Israelis, to show them that we’re not going anywhere.”

The June 12 kidnapping of three Jewish teens — Gilad Shaar, Eyal Yifrah and Naftali Frenkel — dominated the news in Israel for more than two weeks. When their bodies were discovered after 18 days of searching, the mood in the country darkened.

It worsened with the subsequent kidnapping and murder of 16-year-old Mohammed Abu Khdeir, whose burned body was found in a wooded area near Jerusalem last week. Six Jewish Israelis were arrested and three confessed, according to news reports.

Visiting Americans couldn’t help feeling the mounting tension.

Abby Michelson Porth, who serves as associate executive director of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council, arrived in Israel on June 28 for a short study course at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.

Immediately she found herself glued to TV news, checking updates between classes and feeling “heartsick over the escalation of rockets coming into southern Israel from Gaza.”

When the news broke about the murdered Arab teen, Porth remembers thinking, “Please, God, don’t let this be the act of revenge by a Jew.” She also contemplated “all that would be derailed, the enormous stakes and investment that would be lost if there were that kind of knife stabbed into the peace process.”

Once riots broke out in eastern Jerusalem and other Arab neighborhoods, Porth felt unsafe taking her nightly walks around the Old City and the Mahane Yehuda market. “I had trouble sleeping at night because of the constant hum of the helicopters all night overhead,“ she said.

Nevertheless, when the Pardes course ended, Porth’s husband and two young children joined her in Israel for an extended family vacation. She had no second thoughts about it.

“We haven’t thought for a moment to cancel our trip,” she said from a moshav near Rishon LeTzion. “Our family and friends are here. We want to enjoy the country, the people, the land, and share that experience with our children.”

One morning, Porth took her kids to the moshav farm, where her children petted goats, dwarf horses, chickens and peacocks. But was the calm deceptive? That evening, she received air-raid alert advice in a text from her Israeli cousin: “Abby, if you hear an alarm, go to the basement for five minutes.”

Other Bay Area parents sent their teens off on educational trips. With the escalating hostilities, the kids might be getting more of an education than they bargained for.

Nathalie Landesman, an Israeli living in Cupertino, has two children in Israel. Her daughter, Rotem, 20, is an officer in the Israel Defense Forces and her son, Roee, 16, is taking part in a three-week trip, I Speak Israel, co-sponsored by Young Judaea and Write On for Israel.

She admitted, “As an American, I would completely freak out because it sounds so scary. But having lived there I understand this is the reality.”

Landesman said Young Judaea has been sending her regular security updates, reassuring parents that all is well. She is not worried for her son’s safety.

“You want kids to be safe, but you also want their opinions based on fact,” she said. “You want kids as Jews to understand the value of Israel. There is something about Israeli resilience you can’t read about in a book. You need to experience it.”

Such an experience will soon become a reality for the 2014 Diller Teen Fellows, who are scheduled to depart Wednesday, July 16 for three weeks in Israel.

Program coordinator Gabi Lazar will accompany the students, including 20 from the Bay Area. She said nothing on the roving itinerary has been canceled, and that the only tweak was switching a beach excursion from Ashkelon to a town north of there.

She thinks parents need not worry about their children.

“[Organizers] require a tour guide, a medic and GPS,” she said. “They know where we are at all times. We also call every morning and clear the schedule for the day. In 2006 we were there during [the Lebanon War]. There was no risk. We had phones and the teens called home every day. It taught me you can go through anything, even a war, and make sure the teens have the best trip possible.”

Not all parents are as sanguine as Landesman and Lazar. Laurie Earp of Oakland recently saw her 16-year-old son Dylan off on a five-week Israel trip run by Habonim Dror, a progressive Zionist program of camps and activities.

While she is confident trip organizers will keep her son and his 114 fellow travelers safe, she isn’t afraid to admit to her fear.

“I’m scared,” she said. “The scariest thing is having sirens go off and knowing kids may have to go to bomb shelters, and that’s foreign to them.”

Though Earp hadn’t heard from her son via phone or email as of July 8, trip organizers did send out a detailed safety update by email that day. “A few minutes ago, sirens sounded in Jerusalem just after the group left the 3-D light show they went to see,” the email read. “This was while the group was on the way back to the hostel. All three buses are now arriving at the hostel and the leadership staff is assessing the next steps for the group. The hostel they are staying at is equipped with bomb shelters.”

Meanwhile, Hali Croner, a board member of Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael, was in Israel as part of a 10-day congregational trip that included more than 100 people. She was there during an emotionally wrenching time in Israeli history, first as the nation searched for its three kidnapped teens, and then when they were found dead.

“We were very subdued,” she recalled. “For us it was a terrible trauma, but part of an ongoing conflict everyone balances over there. It’s not something we live with, but the Israelis do all the time.”

Arriving in Israel this week was Rabbi Menachem Creditor of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley. There to help lead an AIPAC mission for rabbis, Creditor said the schedule may shift due to security concerns, but that it’s an important time to be in Israel.

“We have healing to do as a people,” he said. “The universal Jewish and Israeli condemnation of the Jewish terrorists’ murder of  [Khdeir] is necessary and correct. The contrast between that and the [Palestinian Authority’s] distribution of candy when Eyal, Gilad and Naftali were murdered is staggering. This trip is one of redoubled urgency, demonstrating that progressive American rabbis stand with Israel.”

As the Israeli military ratchets up Operation Protective Edge, visiting American Jews, as well as Israelis, intend to stay put.

“The beaches are full, the restaurants are full,” Lauter reported. “People are saying ‘We’re not going to let our lives be destroyed. We’re not going to hide.’ Every time I come to this country and witness these people, they amaze me.”

Dan Pine, senior writer for J., was in Israel from June 25 through July 5, helping lead a trip for the Write On for Israel and I Speak Israel programs.



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Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.