NEW YORK – College junior Daniel Howard had no idea when he signed up for a summer youth trip to Israel that it would happen in the midst of a full-blown war in the region.
But when the conflict between Israel and militant groups like Hezbollah and Hamas escalated only a few days before the 20-year-old was to leave, Howard had no intention of backing out of the spiritual and educational excursion to the Jewish homeland.
"I was concerned some, mostly for my family and friends," said the University of Pennsylvania student in a phone interview from the south of Israel. "Now that I'm here, they asked us to write a couple of notes to our parents and I wrote, ‘Danger? What danger? I couldn't feel more safe.'"
Howard's 10-day trip was at no cost to him, sponsored by the organization known as Taglit-birthright israel (the words birthright israel are spelled in all lowercase letters for copyright reasons). The group takes thousands of young Jewish adults aged 18 to 26 through Israel twice a year in the hopes of connecting them to their cultural and religious heritage.
Birthright israel is one of several travel groups based on the three largest Abrahamic religions — Judaism, Christianity and Islam (the fourth is Bahai) — whose tours or stopovers through Israel, Lebanon and Syria have been affected by the current fighting.
So far, none of the birthright trips have been canceled, but those that began after the war swelled on July 12 have all been rerouted away from the northern stops near the violence and to southern places of interest instead. Other groups' trips however, have either been altered or canceled altogether.
During the birthright israel trips, participants learn about Jewish and Israeli history through activities like visits to the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem and national parks throughout the country, treks to archeological sites, snorkeling expeditions in the Red Sea and nature hikes. They also observe the Sabbath, called Shabbat in Hebrew, while they are there.
Because the excursions are funded in part by the Israeli government and in part by various philanthropic and private groups, birthright israel has a long wait-list, a rigorous application process and an inability to take everyone who is interested.
There are currently about 800 participants from around the world in the country right now, with another 1,000 going within the month through about Aug. 10, according to birthright israel President Jay Golan. Both groups have about 200 North Americans in them.
"For these trips, we have done substantial reconstructing of itineraries," Golan said. "No trips are going to Haifa or the north of the country. They're spending additional time in the Tel Aviv area and a little more time in the south, like in Eilat near the Red Sea. All of Israel is great to visit."
Haifa is the third-largest city in Israel, an industry-based town with Israeli Arabs making up 18 percent of the population. Bombs and rockets have been dropped there on an almost daily basis, and many of its residents and workers have fled to safer ground.
Though birthright israel is the largest Jewish youth tour organization of its kind in terms of the numbers of participants — this summer will see about 12,000 young adults from 50 different countries, according to the group — others like United Synagogue Youth take younger teens and adolescents and have also felt the impact of the war.
USY runs six-week summer programs for 4,000 to 5,000 kids between 15 and 18 from the United States and Canada. Attendees were already in Israel when the fighting started, and there weren't any cancellations or trips cut short, said USY International Director Jules Gutin. But there were alterations made in tour destinations similar to those birthright resorted to.
Gutin said that while the kids haven't gotten to visit Haifa and Tiberias as they normally would, they're still getting to hike and see other sights in the south. They also spend a full day volunteering with children whose families have been displaced by the war.
"They're just having a wonderful experience here," Gutin, who joined one trip of 420 teens last week, said in an interview from a tour bus in Israel. "I don't think they feel threatened in any way because of changes we've made in the itinerary ... but I don't think anyone would allow people to stay if we couldn't maintain safety standards."
A few kids from both the birthright and USY trips have gone home early at the request of their parents, organizers say. One father whose teenage daughter is at camp in Israel said tensions have been mounting among parents with children there now. Some mothers and fathers are calling for the groups to stay together in Israel for the duration of their trips, he said, while others want their kids home as soon as possible.
'It's Starting to Get Worse'
Pilgrim Tours runs biblical vacations — catering to an evangelical clientele — through sites considered holy to Christians, like Nazareth, where Christ grew up, and Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee. Galilee is where Christ performed much of his ministry and where many of his miracles are believed to have taken place, including calming a storm, walking on water and feeding a hungry crowd by multiplying the number of fishes and loaves. Jesus is also said to have delivered his famous "Sermon on the Mount" on a hill overlooking Galilee (which is actually a lake).
But many of those portions of the trip have had to be cut out, according to Pilgrim Tours President David Nyce.
"We had a tour that was there during the problems that occurred in northern Israel. That group left Tiberias the day the rockets hit," he said. "We will not go back to Tiberias or Nazareth until we're sure that southern Lebanon is under control. We probably won't go back to Israel."
Pastor Steve Abney of the North Highland Baptist Church near Birmingham, Ala., was leading that Pilgrim Tours group on its travels when the violence broke out. They were three blocks away from the Nazareth bombing the day before it happened.
"It seemed like the rockets were chasing us," he said. "But we were always one step ahead of everything. I believe the Lord took care of us. We had a great time and didn't feel afraid."
Another Christian organization called All Star Travel targets Catholics wanting to visit Israel, which they consider the Holy Land. Trips have been stopped until September, and cancellations could extend through December, according to All Star president Dan Silvia.
"I'm not too optimistic about having many more trips there for the rest of the year," he said. "It's starting to get worse. If I can't do the itinerary that I normally do, there's no sense. It seems all these religious places are very dangerous to go to."
His tours take participants on a boat ride on Galilee and visits to Cana, the Mount of the Beatitudes, the site of Christ's passion and crucifixion, and the River Jordan, as well as to Nazareth and other points of significance to Christians.
"I am very disappointed," Silvia said of the canceled tours, adding that his pilgrimages to Israel are his favorite of those he organizes.
Though there are Christian biblical sites in Syria too, it's even harder to convince people to travel there, according to Nyce.
Islamic pilgrimages known as Umrah that are smaller and separate from the major, annual Hajj to Mecca and Medina (but are still strongly recommended for observant Muslims) have also been diverted or changed if the travels involved Damascus and Jerusalem, both cities with shrines considered holy in Islam.
The so-called "minor pilgrimages" still take Muslims to both Mecca and Medina — where Islam originated in the 6th and 7th centuries — for a shortened version of the rituals they perform during the massive Hajj trek, which this year will begin on Dec. 30.
At Mecca, wearing only the same white cloths they wear during the larger pilgrimage, Muslims proceed in a circle seven times around the holiest place in Islam: the huge cubic structure known as the Kaaba inside the central mosque at Mecca. They perform other rituals while there, like gathering and washing 49 pebbles that they throw over a period of days at a monument representing the devil (whom they believe tried to tempt Abraham away from God while he was sacrificing his son).
They also routinely pray for their parents, grandparents and loved ones and pay homage to the Prophet Muhammad. They then proceed onto Medina for more prayers and rituals, after which they have the option of going to the shrines in Israel or Syria.
One group of 25 Muslim Americans who were to leave Aug. 3 for their Umrah have postponed the trip, according to travel agent Azhar Naqvi of Atlantic Travel, an agency in Washington, D.C., catering to Muslim Americans.
"We're waiting for the situation to normalize," Naqvi said. "We're not processing their visas until we get the clearance. It all depends on the passengers' consent. Some are shortening their trip. They're canceling their onward trip to Damascus."
Naqvi said groups that postpone or cancel their Umrahs will be refunded the $3,900 cost of the pilgrimage. About 50 to 60 people book such trips through his agency per month, he said, with between 200 and 300 a year using Atlantic Travel for the Hajj. Those reservations begin in September; Naqvi said he doesn't expect them to be affected by the war.
All spiritual tour companies have security measures in place, like avoiding using public transportation in favor of private chartered buses, traveling only on certain roads, following the news and giving participants daily updates, keeping in touch with people outside the danger zone and hiring knowledgeable, trustworthy local guides.
In the case of birthright israel, tour leaders are in constant contact with the Israeli government, and buses have GPS tracking and at least one armed guard onboard, according to the organization.
Depending on how long the intense Mideast warfare lasts, more trips by any group with a spiritual connection to the land could feel the impact.
But those who have been lucky enough to keep their plans will never forget their experience, this summer of all summers.
"We're getting more of a sense of the real Israel than we would otherwise," said Howard, the birthright student. "We do have to deal with diverting routes, changing itineraries, thinking about safety and security. It really is a true Israeli experience — as much as it can be for an American on an educational trip."