Birthright, other group trips to Israel, canceled for the coming months
COVID-19Community Day School among organizations affected

Birthright, other group trips to Israel, canceled for the coming months

Pandemic forces cancellations, postponements

Students from University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon and Duquesne University on a 2018 Birthright trip
Photo courtesy of Hillel Jewish University Center
Students from University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon and Duquesne University on a 2018 Birthright trip Photo courtesy of Hillel Jewish University Center

Morgan Lipkin has been dreaming about traveling to Israel since she converted to Judaism while getting a master’s degree at West Virginia University in 2014. Her love affair with the country only deepened when she started working in Holocaust education at the United Jewish Federation of Tidewater, in Virginia Beach, Virginia.

“I love Judaism and learning about it, and I really want to go to Yad Vashem,” said Lipkin, 31, a private English tutor living in Fineview. “To see Tel Aviv, I’m excited. And the Dead Sea. I’m excited for all of it, to take it all in.”

But Lipkin will need to wait for at least a little while. The special Birthright trip for adults over 26 from Pittsburgh has been canceled due to concerns over COVID-19.

Officials working with Birthright confirmed that spring trips have been indefinitely postponed. All the organization’s summer season trips, scheduled to begin in July, however, will continue as planned, as long as Israel lifts its mandatory 14-day quarantine for international travelers.

“The international impact of this pandemic is unprecedented, but along the way, we’ve taken the highest level of precaution to ensure the safety of our cherished participants and staff,” Noa Bauer, Birthright’s vice president of global marketing, told the Chronicle.

“We continue to closely monitor the situation both in Israel and worldwide, and remain in daily contact with Israel’s government health organizations,” Bauer added. “We look forward to welcoming our next group of participants to Israel with open arms as soon as it is safe to do so.”

The Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh confirmed that it, too, was aborting plans for travel to Israel.

“Really everything in the near term to Israel is canceled,” said Adam Hertzman, the Federation’s director of marketing.
Hillel Jewish University Center of Pittsburgh had 61 young adults — students from the University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon University, Chatham University and Duquesne University — pegged to attend upcoming Birthright trips, according to Dan Marcus, the Oakland-based organization’s executive director and CEO.

Outreach to those students has been key, he said.

Following the cancellation of the trips, “what we did immediately is we talked with each student individually to make sure they were getting the right care and support,” Marcus said. “Although this is deeply disturbing, we’re there for them to ensure they do get the chance to go on Birthright.”

About 40 Pittsburgh students were slated this year to participate in Onward Israel, a two-month Tel Aviv-based internship and learning program for Jewish undergraduates and young professionals. They also will not be going to the Jewish state due to concerns with COVID-19 and international travel, Marcus said.

“As you can see, we had more than 100 Jewish students scheduled to participate in Birthright and Onward Israel — which is, for us, a huge number of students,” Marcus said.

Another Jewish Federation official confirmed travel between Pittsburgh and its Israeli sister city, Karmiel and the Misgav region, has been grounded.

“We’ve had many, many trips for years going to Karmiel and Misgav,” said Debbie Swartz, the Federation’s overseas planning associate. The cancellations, she added, “have been very disappointing, to say the least. But we have to consider everyone’s health and safety.”

Younger travelers also have been impacted. Community Day School’s annual eighth-grade trip to Israel, for which some students’ families have been raising funds through the Federation since their children were in kindergarten, was canceled, confirmed Jennifer Bails, director of marketing and communications at CDS.

“For Community Day School and for both of us personally, the eighth grade Israel trip is an essential element of the CDS experience. It is because of that — and because we know that your children have been looking forward to this trip for literally years — that it has been so difficult to arrive at this decision,” Head of School Avi Munro and Head of Hebrew and Jewish Studies Tzippy Mazer wrote to families in a joint email. “This is the hardest and very last decision we ever wanted to make during this time of crisis, but we firmly believe it is the right one given the circumstances.”

Munro said that CDS explored rescheduling the trip but it appears that Israel’s policy to quarantine international travelers will continue at least through May.

“Summer isn’t practical given family plans, staffing needs and the continued uncertainty of the COVID-19 situation,” Munro and Mazer wrote. “The very outside-the-box idea of joining next year’s eighth grade while they are in Israel runs afoul of high school schedules and creates many social challenges … Details about trip refunds and credits will be forthcoming. We also look forward to providing you with information about Israel trips and programs (perhaps including a Community Day School alumni trip!) through the Pittsburgh Jewish community and will celebrate the participation of the CDS Class of 2020 no matter when they get on that plane in the future.” PJC

Justin Vellucci is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh.

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