Minnesota Jewish organizations and parents of students studying abroad say they will not end pilgrimages to Israel despite raging conflicts that caused U.S. and European airlines to halt flights to the country for safety reasons.
Birthright tours, which provide free educational trips to Israel for young Jewish adults, will continue to operate and families are still encouraged to travel.
“Israel takes very seriously their safety precautions, as well as its citizens and residents’ safety,” said Steve Hunegs, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas.
Delta Air Lines and United Airlines canceled flights to Israel indefinitely Tuesday after a rocket landed near Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport. Many European airlines are following suit after a Malaysia Airlines jet was shot down over Ukraine and all 298 aboard were killed.
Fighting between Israelis and Hamas militants has killed more than 600 people.
‘Outstanding civil defense’
Hunegs, whose 17-year-old daughter is now on a six-week trip in Israel, said he places his faith in the nation’s “outstanding civil defense” and military presence. He said he does not fear for the safety of his daughter, an incoming senior at St. Louis Park High School.
Parents are notified almost daily with updates on the group’s safety. Other airlines, such as Israel’s national air carrier, will continue transporting students and tourists abroad.
“We will find alternative flights, and people are still going to come on the trip,” said officials from Taglit-Birthright Israel, an organization that has sent more than 400,000 young Jewish adults to Israel since 1999.
Birthright tours and Israeli pilgrimages are of “terrific importance” to Jewish people throughout the world, no matter their age, said Rabbi Michael Latz of Minneapolis.
It is a trip he prays everyone is able to make in their lifetime and said he hopes the ongoing conflict does not prevent people from doing so.
Rabbi: Judgments on safety
Latz and his family recently returned from Israel on a trip where his daughters attended camp and he studied. One day, sirens sounded in the area, signaling residents to take shelter, he said.
Latz asked an Israeli friend how they coped with the situation and she replied with a question: “How do you deal with sending your children to public school when there have been 75 shootings in the last 18 months?”
Latz said that helped put the situation in perspective for him.
“Every community makes judgments about who is safe where and what safety means,” said Latz, senior rabbi at Shir Tikvah Congregation. “Everybody has to address violence everywhere.”
University of Minnesota’s study-abroad program sent four students to Israel this summer, communications director Jennifer Schulz said.
The university released a statement on its Emergencies Abroad webpage last week updating family members on the situation in Israel, saying all students are safe and accounted for.
Eli Skora, executive director of the Jewish Federation of St. Paul, worries that locals have a false picture of the conflict abroad. Israelis are well-prepared, with bomb shelters outfitting almost every home and building, and a siren warning system, he said.
After speaking with several tourists who recently returned from the area, Skora learned that travelers did not miss a single stop due to the conflict. As long as guests stay away from the Gaza Strip, travel plans should continue, he said.
“For somebody who’s never been there, I can understand how they’d be concerned,” Skora said. “People don’t realize that it’s very safe there.”