Rocket fire from terrorists in Gaza may have scared off U.S. and European airlines, but Taglit-Birthright Israel is still sending thousands of young Jews to their famed summer Israel experiences.
"There are seven trips arriving from North America tomorrow (Thursday)," says Gail Hyman, vice president for communications at Birthright, which has sent about 400,000 Jews ages 18 to 26 on free, 10-day educational junkets to Israel. About 36 people are on each trip.
"We've sent 6,000 in this period since the conflict began, and only had 10 people leave early, which says something about what it must feel like to be there," Hyman said.
Israel says more than 2,000 rockets have been fired at Israeli communities since July 8, when the fight with Hamas and other Palestinian factions began. Israel's Iron Dome missile defense system intercepted 420 of those. Yet rockets have killed at least three civilians, and a rocket that landed about a mile from Israel's Ben Gurion International Airport prompted the FAA and several European airlines Tuesday to suspend U.S. flights to Israel for the time being.
Hyman said the Birthright program has made adjustments to ensure the safety of participants. Flights were switched to Israel's national airline, El Al, which is still flying into Ben Gurion, and itineraries are being adjusted based on consultations with Israeli security officials, she said.
About 30% of the people who had signed up for the trip have dropped out because of the fighting.
Birthright provides heritage, religious and cultural trips free-of-charge to young adults who travel the country together with young people serving in the Israeli Defense Forces.
"Part of the mission of Birthright is to build relationships between people who would not otherwise be spending time together," Hyman said.
Many times they make life-long friendships, she said. The program's goal is to build a relationship between Israel and Jews who don't live there, and to develop a core of people who sustain Jewish communities that are supportive of Israel. Max Steinberg, a Taglit-Birthright alumnus who emigrated to Israel and joined the military, was killed in combat in Gaza on Sunday.
The program has run continuously since it began 14 years ago, even during the second Intifadah (uprising), when Palestinian terrorist attacks killed about 700 Israeli citizens and visitors.
The conflict provides the participants with a greater sense of what it's like to live in Israel.
"We certainly didn't look for it," she says. "But you can say we've had an extra layer of learning or experience that no one wanted or planned for, but people certainly told us it had an impact on them."