Summer trips to Israel for teens are still going ahead—but with fewer kids and revised itineraries

A participant on the March of the Living Toronto at the Kotel, in Jerusalem. (March of the Living Toronto photo/UJA Federation of Greater Toronto)

Teen trips to Israel are down, but not yet out, after the Oct. 7 attacks and the subsequent war in Gaza.

Organizers say the programs are still running, even with far fewer kids, and the itineraries have changed to reflect the new reality in Israel.

Overall, the number of high school students going to Israel has dropped dramatically, according to Risa Epstein, the national executive director of Canadian Young Judaea, who recently returned from a Jewish educators’ mission to Israel.

“The numbers have plummeted for teen travel,” says Epstein, who is leading her organization’s Biluim Israel trip again this year.

March of the Living’s Canadian contingent, run by UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, says this year’s trip to Poland and Israel counts only one bus of teenagers, along with one of university students and one adult bus. Six Holocaust survivors are also accompanying the trip.

In 2023, its first post-COVID year trip, the March fielded four buses of Canadian teens. (The March was unable to run trips for three years, from 2020-2022, due to COVID and the war in Ukraine.)

Camp Ramah in Canada says nine teens registered for its annual trip before Oct. 7, with 29 now registered, down from 40 last summer. The U.S.-based program says its overall numbers are at 65 to 70 percent of last year’s 280 teenagers.

NCSY Canada’s annual summer trip called The Jerusalem Journey, offered by the Orthodox Union, is an affordable program designed for Jewish students in public high schools, said Rabbi Shlomo Mandel.

This year, there are about 20 teens on that trip, down from about 150 in 2023, but Rabbi Mandel said he hopes to get to 30.

Hashomer Hatzair Camp Shomria will take five to seven Toronto participants, about its usual range, to join American students for its Yedid trip group totalling 13 to 19 teenagers.

The students preparing to travel, and the parents that signed them up, tell The CJN it’s more important than ever for Canadian teens to connect in and with Israel.

With 67 teens from around the country—Montreal, Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver, Saskatoon and Toronto/GTA—Canadian Young Judaea’s trip is at present the single biggest group going to Israel this year, Epstein said.

That’s a little more than half the usual 100 to 125 teens travelling on the camp’s summer trips, where participants spend a week in Poland and four weeks in Israel.

“We opened registration on October 4th, and within four hours, we’d sold out and we had a waiting list for 2024. And then the situation changed drastically,” says Epstein.

The camp’s trip lost about 50 percent of its enrolment after Oct. 7.

“What I’m finding is people who have their own very strong relationship with Israel or their kids have been there many times, are much more committed than those who don’t have a relationship with Israel,” she says.

“We’re extremely proud that we’re still at 67,” she says, and says numbers could even improve, barring a full-out regional war.

The fluid situation necessitated revamping the itinerary to add agricultural volunteer work on a kibbutz near Jerusalem. Campers will re-connect with two Israeli counsellors who worked at Canadian Young Judaea camps, and survived the Nova music festival massacre Oct. 7 before going on to serve in IDF units in Gaza.

“We’re going to have [them] come out and speak to the kids, because the kids know them, and we want them to have that one-on-one relationship with them,” she says.

She hopes the students absorb the unity and strength she perceives among Israelis and not focus on the sorrow.

 “At this moment I feel completely comfortable saying that we can run a safe, educational, fun trip to Israel,” Epstein says. 

Efrat Shapir, whose daughter attends Hashomer Hatzair Camp Shomria, says the conversations in her family shifted after the camp confirmed this year’s Yedid trip. 

“They’re going ahead with it,” Shapir said. “Are we going ahead with it?”

She knows that although the trip is confirmed, things could change.

 “Travelling to Israel is where you feel Jewish,” she said. She explained it’s not necessarily for religious reasons, but because even in Israel, Jews need to have a heightened awareness of security.

But she says she trusts the trip’s organizers, their safety protocols, and their programming focus. Students are scheduled to hear from both Jewish and Palestinian communities and activists about the situation post-Oct. 7.

“[Shomria’s] trip introduces the complexity of the situation and the diversity of the people of Israel,” says Shapir.

“Now it’s going to be limited. It won’t be the same as it was before, but I trust this organization to present the complexity of what is going on right now in Israel,” says Shapir.

“On that level, I feel safe sending my daughter to participate.”

Cheryl Wise has one daughter travelling with Biluim Israel, Canadian Young Judaea’s trip, this year, and one who went last year. Wise says while she didn’t hesitate to sign up, other parents reached out to her with apprehensions around sending their kids.

Wise is an educator with Canadian Young Judaea and Oakville’s Shaarei-Beth El Congregation, where her husband, Rabbi Stephen Wise, also works. She says the key is each family’s comfort level with being in Israel— she and her husband have both visited since Oct. 7, part of the family’s “long-term relationship” with Israel. 

“I say to the parents making a decision this year, there cannot be any judgement on anyone’s part. There is no right or wrong answer about whether or not you send your child to Israel this summer,” Wise says. 

For those less familiar with Israel, she says—especially teenagers expecting a specific summer trip experience, or families who haven’t been there together—a visit during wartime would be a major change in plans.

Wise says the team taking her daughter is on top of its security protocols.

“We are not scared. I trust that both on the Israel side and on the Canadian side the staff that are taking our kids,” she says. 

Wise says her daughter is enthusiastic.

“She doesn’t see going on any other trip as an option. She wants to go to Israel.”

The war will make the trip’s emotional tone “different this year than it’s been in any years past,” Wise says. 

With many Canadian teens struggling for the first time with fear and  antisemitism in Canada, the trip will help students find a positive outlook on current events, according to Wise.

“There is so much gratitude right now from the part of Israelis for any of these tours, teen groups that are coming to Israel,” she says.

“There’s so much fear and despair right now in terms of these kids’ Jewish identity. I think that going to Israel right now, and I say this to parents, will only help these kids look at Israel in a positive light.”

Rabbi Mandel who is organizing the NCSY trips says he has full confidence in the organization’s security measures.

“No one’s taking any chances,” he says. “If we’re going, it’s because it’s safe.”

While some families’ hesitations focused on security, he says others considered the trip’s overall quality. 

“They’re not uncomfortable with the security situation,” says Rabbi Mandel. “[Those parents] think it’s going to be fine, but the trip is not going to be the same itinerary [and] amount of kids going, [and] they want [their kids] to experience it in the full sense.”

NCSY is among the camps offering a North American alternative, with an excursion to California and Arizona.

Some Canadian Jewish high school exchange trips aren’t possible this year due to evacuations in the northern border region over security precautions. 

Vancouver’s King David High School normally plans a spring visit to its sister school in that area. Head of school Russ Klein told The CJN via email how the Grade 10 trip previously planned for late March became impossible.

“Our trip focuses on travel to the north of Israel, to our sister school, Har Vagai. The families in this region have been evacuated from their homes for the last five months,” he wrote. “It is our hope that we will be with them next year.”

Klein said he and the school’s Israel trip coordinator would be in Israel the week of March 25 “to visit with our sister school staff and students who are scattered in different locations and to share hugs and support.”

Meanwhile, March of the Living is among the spring trips taking Canadian teens to Israel this year. 

Director Witnee Karp will travel with other UJA staffers on the trip that spends one week in Poland and one week in Israel.

The Israel situation also gave teenage March participants a rare chance to give input before the trip.

“Usually, we don’t ask for feedback from the students in terms of itinerary or learning,” she says, noting the program’s robust pre-trip educational aspects.

Students said they want to meet both Israelis and Shoah survivors.

“What’s different [from] years prior is there were also comments about learning what life in Israel has been like for Israelis in these more recent months… getting to speak to Israelis, being appreciative of being in Israel,” she says.

And while Karp says some families felt it wasn’t the right year or weren’t sure, others felt that after Oct. 7, it became “even more important for their child to be going,” says Karp. 

“There was even a mother who signed up on October 7th and paid the deposit on October 7th because she thought ‘Wow, this is the year that my daughter needs to go on the March of the Living.’”