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Jeremy Berger, 16, of New Rochelle, N.Y., sits atop Mount Arbel in Israel this week during his summer program in Israel. / Berger family

WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. - As Israel began a ground assault in the Gaza Strip on Thursday, American Jews are wrestling with whether to send their children to Israel - or bring back ones already there.

Marni Heller of Scarsdale checks her phone each morning for news from Israel. She has been anxious every day this month while her 16-year-old son, Ethan, is at a camp there. That anxiety has not ticked over, however, into buying an early plane ticket back to the United States.

"Alarms are going off, rockets are being fired. It's upsetting. But I never for a moment thought of bringing him home," Heller said. In large part, she added, "because he's not anxious. ... He's having the time of his life."

This summer, some programs, such as Birthright Israel, which sends young people on free, 10-day trips to Israel and has surged in popularity among Jewish-American college students, have made security adjustments but canceled no trips. Local Jewish leaders say such adjustments are routine even during times of relative peace.

This summer is not a time of peace, and security worries ?? even in a country that takes extraordinary measures to keep its people safe ?? feel different for many. Since July 8, after the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers and the revenge slaying of a Palestinian teenager, Hamas has launched more than 1,300 rockets into Israel and the Israeli military has carried out nearly 2,000 airstrikes in Gaza.

The latest rocket barrages have reached far into usually unthreatened Jerusalem and Tel Aviv in central Israel, prompting air-raid sirens and scurrying to bomb shelters.

Heller is experiencing the worry as a parent with a child alone there for the first time. She also takes calls from nervous parents in her role as director of New York and New Jersey recruitment for the Alexander Muss High School in Israel.

She tells parents that if they're going to have horrible anxiety, not sleep at night, and worry constantly, they should keep or bring their kids home. And they shouldn't feel guilty about it.

"Israelis understand. They would say, 'If you don't have to stay, why would you,' " Heller said.

Michael Koplen of New Hempstead, who served in the Israel Defense Forces and has children living in Israel, says he is unfazed.

"I don't see any movement to take people out or not go, and there shouldn't be. They're still swimming at the beaches of Tel Aviv and eating in the cafes in Jerusalem," he said.

There are frayed nerves but an overwhelming sense of security, he said. One daughter emailed about how annoying it was to have to wake up her children during the night to go to the bomb shelter, Koplen said. Another responded "Sleep through it."

Gary and Rachel Berger of New Rochelle wondered what they were doing sending their 16-year-old son, Jeremy, to Israel as tensions escalated

"We were terrified, but we spoke with people there who said things were OK and that he should go," Gary Berger said.

His son landed, and as soon as he walked out of the airport, sirens sounded for incoming rockets and he had to go inside to a bunker. Before getting inside though he saw the smoke from the Israel's anti-missile system knocking a rocket down near Tel Aviv.

"It's been a scary couple of weeks," his father said Thursday, while still feeling a strong sense of pride that his son is there right now.

Rabbi Shira Milgrom of Congregation Kol Ami in White Plains also sees special value in young people staying in Israel at this moment in time. Three teenagers from her synagogue are on programs currently, she said, and having an "extraordinary" experience while staying safe.

"The kids who are there now are knowing more of Israel's complexities and experiencing Israel's vulnerabilities," Milgrom said.

Some argue that a decision to cancel erodes Israeli morale and sends a negative message. But Milgrom said every parent has to be comfortable with decisions they make relative to their own children.

"It's not a wrong decision," she said. "Its hard enough to be a parent, you don't need to be told you made a wrong decision."

Michael Kay, head of school at Solomon Schechter of Westchester, said it's too early to know if any changes should be made to the school's student trips to Israel in February. Eighth-graders visit for two weeks and seniors take a longer trip to Poland and Israel.

"It's impossible to predict what the political and security (situation) will be next week, not to mention seven months from now," he said.

The trips are a crucial part of the school's mission and curtailing or canceling would be a drastic measure.

"It would be viewed as a substantive step because our commitment to the land of Israel, the people of Israel, the state of Israel is so great," Kay said.

Contributing: The Associated Press, USA TODAY



Copyright 2014 USATODAY.com

Read the original story: Jewish parents debate kids' trips to Israel

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