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August 31, 2015 | 16th Elul 5775
Trip Suspension

We Don't Make Political Statements With Children:
Remarks to the UAHC Board of Trustees
on the Suspension of Trips to Israel

by Rabbi Eric Yoffie
President, Union of American Hebrew Congregations
June 2, 2001

Rabbi Yoffie in Israel
See Press Release


When Israel is under attack, my personal response is to go there. I leave for Israel in two weeks, and I have visited regularly during the most recent troubles. As many of you know, I spent the Gulf War in Jerusalem, meeting movement leaders, political leaders, and our HUC students between the missile attacks.

In my remarks last night, I believed that I expressed, on my behalf and on your behalf, the deeply felt and universally shared feeling in our movement that we have a responsibility at all times, but especially now, to be supportive of Israel in every conceivable way.

But what I do as an individual or what we do as adult leaders of this movement needs to be separated out from what we do with children who travel under our auspices and in our care. I have an obligation to express my solidarity with Israel, and as an adult I have the right to make judgments about how my actions might impact on my personal safety. But as President of this organization who acts in your name, I must be much more cautious when it comes to making judgments about the personal safety of children other than my own.

Two weeks ago, I met with Rabbi Allan Smith and Paul Reichenbach and asked them to revise radically the itinerary for our summer Israel program. The numbers for our program, like the numbers for everyone else's Israel programs, are dramatically lower than they were a year ago. Nonetheless, at that time we still had a registration of approximately 350 participants, and I asked Rabbi Smith to make whatever changes had to be made to assure maximum safety for our children. He did so, and I came here with the intention of recommending that we proceed.

A number of things have happened, however, in the last 4 or 5 days.

Our officers, at their meeting on Thursday, after an in-depth report by Rabbi Smith, raised some serious and appropriate concerns about the trip.

We have had additional cancellations, and many of the parents who have not canceled have expressed to us their deep concern and serious reservations about proceeding.

The trip itself has now been so radically altered that many of the elements that we have always seen as central to its success have now been dropped.

And obviously, the latest terror attack in Tel Aviv cannot help but influence our thinking.

What is most important is simply this: after consultations with our staff here and in Israel, while I think that we can offer a safe trip, I simply do not have the degree of confidence that I normally have, and that I must have, in order to be able to tell our congregations and parents that they can trust us to keep their children secure. Yes, it is true, there are never any absolute guarantees. But it is also true that there are just too many questions and uncertainties at this moment for us to go ahead.

In a conference call last month, our officers indicated that a decision to cancel would rest with the Youth Division staff, and ultimately with me. After discussions with our Chairman, I am therefore announcing that the Union will not run its Israel programs this summer. We will inform all the remaining families in the program of this decision immediately, and will let them know that we will have other options to offer their children, both at our camps here and in Europe.

I consider this to be perhaps the most difficult single decision that I have had to make as President of the UAHC. I am heartbroken about the necessity of taking this step, and exceedingly angry at those whose murderous actions have threatened the lives of those who reside in or visit the Land of Israel.

I have discussed this issue with some members of our Board, and I know that many of you have strong feelings on this matter. Some of you have urged me to run the trips and to let the parents decide whether or not to subject their children to the risks. The answer, of course, is that once we determine that we cannot offer the level of safety and comfort that is required, it would be irresponsible of us to give them that choice. Others of you have expressed concern about the message that we would be sending, and about how others would see what we are doing. Here too the answer is an obvious one: The message we are sending is exactly and precisely the message that we have always sent, and that is that health and safety concerns take absolute priority over everything else. Our religious and Zionist commitments run deep and are known to all, but this movement never uses other people's children to make a political or ideological point.

What of the future? We have children registered for long-term programs next year, and we hope to run those programs. We fully expect to run Israel programs next summer, and we intend to recruit vigorously, as we always do. I remind you that ours has long been the largest of the summer programs; we had 1500 children last summer, and we are committed to having those numbers again. We believe that our sensitivity to safety issues will enhance our credibility with our congregational leadership, and hence our ability to attract participants.

Beyond that, our task is to do what we all know needs to be done, and what I discussed at length with you last night: our task is to embrace Israel, to hold it near, and to do everything that we can to assure her security and well-being. Reform Judaism, now and always, is committed to that task.

I will be pleased to take your questions.


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