WESTON, Connecticut — In Bar Harbor Maine, a pre-dawn text message pings; attached is a picture of a gas station in Ashdod in flames after a Hamas rocket hit. In Maplewood, New Jersey an email announces the number of rockets so far fired from Gaza into Israel.
This summer an American teen’s message home might not just include a picture of a waterfall in Ein Gedi. It might also include pictures of a missile over Jerusalem intercepted by Iron Dome or news that their tour guide was one of the 40,000 reserves to be called up.
As thousands of American Jewish teens travel through Israel this summer on various programs, parents back home are watching – wavering between worry and calm – as violence between Israel and Hamas escalates.
“Yes, we are obsessively following the news. I spent the entire Sunday morning reading everything there is about Iron Dome,” said Deborah Gaines, whose daughter Lila Faria, 19, is on Taglit-Birthright Israel, which sends scores of American Jewish youth to Israel each year.
Groups such as Birthright, the North American Federation of Temple Youth and the Dor L’Dor Israel Leadership Program, based in Wellesley, MA, are just some of the groups in Israel this summer.
Each parent is reacting to and dealing with unfolding events in different ways. Some, like Gaines, obsessively follow the news, while others are keeping their exposure to a minimum. A handful of parents decided to bring their child home before their tour is scheduled to end. Still most remain confident.
Connecticut resident Paul Moriber’s daughter Lydia is on the Cohen Camp Dor L’Dor trip. The 5-week trip through the country includes hiking and camping in the Negev, Tikkun Olam, history, and time in cities and Kibbutz.
“I spoke with her yesterday and she doesn’t feel concerned at all. She feels safe. She told me there’s no reason to be overly concerned,” Moriber said.
Moriber thinks this is partly because as teens there is the feeling of invincibility, but also because she and her fellow teens understand this is real life in Israel.
When the situation with Gaza began Moribe joined the IDF Facebook, follows the IDF on Twitter, and reads Israeli media.
Gaines’ daughter chose to go on Birthright, a 10-day, free tour for teens 18 years and older. So while the news might set her on edge, she wouldn’t dream of having her daughter leave early.
“I can’t tell her to come home. I wouldn’t tell her to come home,” Gaines said. “She’s 19, the same age as the soldiers on her bus. What my daughter is seeing is kids her age taking their place in the world. She’s doing the same. The trip isn’t just about riding a camel and eating a lot of falafel. It’s about so much more. It’s what real life is like there, this is our birthright.”
Most teens on the various programs have limited access to electronics and Wi-Fi during the day. It’s later, in the evening, when they turn on their phones and find several messages from friends and family asking whether they are safe, or if they are coming home early that anxiety mounts.
Gaines and her daughter Skype every couple of days and that allays her anxiety; she’s just determined not to let her nerves get the best of her.
“I definitely share everyone’s concern. I’d rather keep her home in her nice pink bedroom and feed her. But that’s my problem; this has been a time for me to learn to let go,” Gaines said. “Whatever anxiety I have about this I need to deal with it. It’s our job.”
Email updates to parents of children on Dor L’Dor alert parents about sirens in Jerusalem and acknowledges that news reports will be more intense as Israeli ground troops move into Gaza.
‘I’d rather keep her home in her nice pink bedroom and feed her. But that’s my problem’
Israeli law requires travel groups to have the Jewish Agency for Israel’s security desk vet their itineraries and routes. As such updates also include changes made to the itinerary for safety and security while reassuring parents that activities remain meaningful and fun.
Moriber said he finds this reassuring.
“I have 100 percent confidence in DLD,” he said. “We’ve been down this road before with our older kids. I’m very positive and not losing any sleep over it. Being in Israel, this is a way of life.”