(Cleveland, June 3, 2001) After weeks of painful soul-searching, the Reform Movement leadership decided last night to suspend its youth trips to Israel this summer.
Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, announced the decision at Saturday night's meeting of the UAHC Board of Trustees. "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," he said.
The decision to suspend the Reform summer Israel program-the largest and oldest of North America's teenage groups-came months after other large groups canceled, including the Cohen Foundation and the Houston and Dallas community trips.
Despite the significant adjustments that had already been made to the planned itinerary to insure the safety of the participants, the volatility of the situation in Israel made it impossible to project what might occur in the next three weeks.
Yoffie, who will be traveling to Israel in two weeks, said the decision to cancel the trip was perhaps the most difficult single decision he has had to make since becoming president of the UAHC five years ago. "I am heartbroken about the necessity of taking this step," he said, adding that he was exceedingly angry at those whose murderous actions forced the UAHC to make this difficult decision."
NFTY-the North American Federation of Temple Youth-has been sponsoring Israel trips for more than 40 years and historically has the largest group of youth traveling to Israel each summer. Last year, 1,500 high school students traveled in Israel under NFTY's auspices. While this year's registration was dramatically lower, and the number of cancellations and concerns expressed about the trip had grown over the past week, there were still more than 300 families who were prepared to entrust the safety of their children to the UAHC.
Rabbi Allan Smith, director of the UAHC's Youth Division, said the families of those who were registered for the program have been called and offered alternative programs, including trips highlighting Jewish sites and history in Europe and the United States. In addition, programs at the UAHC's camps have been created to offer high school students a meaningful experience.
Smith said the decision to suspend the summer trips for teenagers was not an indication of a lessening of the Reform Movement's commitment to Israel. "We will continue to expand our college programs, our participation in the Birthright program, and our programs for next summer. We will recruit very vigorously," he said. "We intend to be No. 1 in program, members, quality, health, and safety," he said.
The Union of American Hebrew Congregations is the central body of Reform Judaism in North America, representing over 1.5 million Reform Jews in over 900 congregations. UAHC services include camps, music and book publishing, outreach to unaffiliated and intermarried Jews, educational programming, and the Religious Action Center in Washington, DC.