Isabel Young of South Orange had been looking forward to traveling to Israel with her best friends from camp. But rushing to a bomb shelter was not one of the experiences she expected to have.
The day before the scheduled departure date of New Jersey Y Camps’ annual month-long trip to Israel for rising 10th-graders, July 1, three kidnapped Israeli teens were found murdered. One family pulled out of the trip. The rest of the group, numbering just over 70, departed.
Rising hostilities and escalating violence in Gaza forced daily changes in their itinerary, heightened security, and unplanned ventures into aspects of Israeli life usually left unexplored. Three families brought their children home early.
But for those who stayed, the trip was a crash course in the Israeli reality, and an occasion for intense bonding.
NJY Camps completely revised the tour itinerary and had it approved by Israel’s Situation Monitoring Room, administered by Israel’s Ministry of Education, on a daily basis.
The camp also communicated daily with parents through a blog and photo pages. To help the teens process the situation on the ground, The Koby Mandell Foundation, NJY Camps’ partner in Israel, provided social workers and psychologists, while staff answered questions and kept campers informed.
With the exception of Tel Aviv/Jaffa, the group did most of the originally planned touring, including Masada, Tzefat, Jerusalem, the Dead Sea, northern Israel, the Red Sea, and Eilat. Along the way they floated in banana boats, took sunrise hikes, celebrated Shabbat on a kibbutz, and negotiated at the shuk.
“I didn’t feel patronized or babied — I felt like I was being trusted with adult information,” said Isabel. For her, the biggest challenge wasn’t fear — it was having to adapt to a constantly changing schedule.
A few days into the trip, just before a hike in Beit Shean, the Israeli trip leader was called up for army service. Buses that had departed for the hike had to turn around to take him back.
For Sophie Fox of Maplewood, that was a wake-up call. “I realized something was going on. We talked about it and asked questions,” she said. And while counselors explained the history of the conflict, she said, “I was thinking, ‘I hope I make it home. I just want to make it home.’”
The group was visiting with children at Camp Koby, created to help children who have lost family members to terrorism, when a siren sounded. “What is that?” Sophie recalled thinking. “In a split second, it came to me, and we started running. People were pushing and we ran to a road and people were shouting, ‘Go this way! Go this way!’”
Once inside the bomb shelter, she said, “I was saying, ‘Oh my God, Oh my God.’ I was sitting next to a friend who is always very calm, and she said, ‘We’re all going to be fine because we’re in the bomb shelter.’”
Isabel said, “I didn’t know what to think or expect, and it made me nervous and I was shocked. Everyone was holding hands. Everyone was comforting each other,” she said. “And then we could hear the Israelis firing back, and we could hear Iron Dome” intercepting rockets.
Isabel said the experience had an intense impact on the trip. “As twisted as it sounds, the bomb shelter experience brought us closer together.”
For several days afterward, Sophie said, she was “cautious” and “paranoid.” Still, she said, “I never felt like I was in danger because I saw people going about their normal lives.”
Isabel has two uncles and plenty of cousins who live in Israel. “I have a certain confidence in Israel and in the camp to keep us safe,” she said “We always had a security guard with us and he always had a gun.”
For parents, it was more nerve-wracking.
“It was a long month — the longest July ever,” said Jodi Fox, Sophie’s mother. “If the rockets had started flying before she left, I don’t know if we would have sent her.”
Her first reaction, she said, was a kind of paralysis. But speaking with people she trusts settled her nerves. “I realized that for Israelis, this is part of being in Israel. They’re eating, they hear a siren, they go to the bomb shelter in the basement, and 10 minutes later they come back and finish their meal,” she said.
But that doesn’t mean she wasn’t anxious. “Periodically, I had to remind myself to breathe,” she said. And at one point, she added, she was thinking, “What’s wrong with us? Jews don’t let their kids play football, but we send them into a war zone for summer vacation.”
“I had a knot in my stomach the whole time,” acknowledged Lorin Gaffen of Springfield, whose daughter Julia was on the trip. “I offered her the option to come home if she did not feel safe, but she never felt unsafe.”
At the time she spoke with NJJN, Gaffen was getting ready to join her daughter, who extended her trip, in Israel for a family bar mitzva.
Julie Young, Isabel’s mother — sitting with her daughter at the kitchen table in the afternoon after Isabel’s safe return on Aug. 1 — said, “There were plenty of sleepless nights, no question. And I was very happy to wrap my arms around her this morning.” Nonetheless, she said, her biggest concern was not her daughter’s safety but rather that the trip might “change her taste for Israel. I didn’t want her to come home in fear, because that’s when terrorists win.”
Although Fox calls herself “very pro-Israel,” she had some trouble digesting some of the photos of the war zone. “I’d turn on my browser and see horrible images of Gaza, and then I opened pictures of Sophie on a banana boat, or on a raft in Eilat. It was a hard juxtaposition to see our kids having a good time so close to where other kids were getting killed in Gaza.”
Despite the circumstances of the trip, or perhaps because of them, many of the teens did not want to leave Israel. As Sophie put it, “Can everyone I love just move to Israel so we can live in the country and never leave?” she said.