At 17, Isaac Cohen is on the brink of flying to Israel to continue his education and eventually join the army, and none of the mournful and scary news coming from that country in recent days has dissuaded him.
“In the last couple days, my parents have been telling me to be more cautious,” said Cohen, describing his family and friends as devastated over the abduction and killing of three Israeli teenagers whose plight riveted and alarmed many in the Jewish community.
“They’re a bit scared,” he said of his parents, who live in Silver Spring. “But they’re also proud.”
Tensions sparked by last month’s kidnapping of three teenagers hitchhiking home in the West Bank are escalating just as many Jewish teenagers from Washington and elsewhere in the United States are preparing to go to Israel for a gap year after high school.
In interviews with parents, students, school officials and rabbis, nobody said they were reconsidering their plans amid the daily clashes between Israelis and Palestinians. Nor had they heard of anyone who was in any way balking after an incident that struck the teenagers at the end of a school day, circumstances so commonplace they could easily imagine their own sons in their stead.
The determination to carry on reflects the deep affinity many American Jews feel with Israel, particularly when it is under attack. Theirs is an American example of a commonly held belief among Israelis: that they will not let their lives be dictated by the fear fostered by violent militants.
At the Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy in Rockville, Cohen is among 23 of this year’s 34 graduates who are heading to Israel for a gap year, most to study at yeshivas or universities. Not one parent has called to express concern, said Rabbi Avi Levitt, the upper school’s principal.
“There’s not been a reaction of fear,” he said. “It’s more, ‘We’re determined we’re going to go.’ We won’t be deterred by this, the same way an individual airline crash doesn’t prevent anyone from going on a plane for a vacation.”
Some argue that for a young adult to go to Israel now lends a deeper dimension to the experience. “It’s fair to say there’s a raised level of apprehension and tension,” said Rabbi Ahron Lopiansky, the rabbinical head of the Yeshiva of Greater Washington in Silver Spring.
“You’re taking a sheltered boy who grew up in suburban Washington, which, thank God, is safe and pleasant and isolated, and go to a place that’s very volatile. As a parent as well as a teacher, I understand their worries. But I do think it’s still valuable. Witnessing the hardships help them identify with the people of Israel. Seeing how Jews and others suffer in life adds something very meaningful. So they swallow their apprehension and send the kids off with a prayer.”
Certainly, people are taking added precautions since the West Bank incident. After the Israeli media reported that the abductors may have shot the teens in a moment of panic after one called police, 60,000 people downloaded a free app offering a more circumspect way to get help. With one swipe of the finger, the app notifies friends and family whose contacts are programmed in that they have been abducted and provides their GPS location.
“This is definitely on people’s minds,” said Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld of the National Synagogue, the oldest Orthodox synagogue in the District. “But people don’t say they’re not going to Israel anymore. If anything, it’s just the opposite. When these types of horrible attacks happen, many people in our community express their love for Israel by going there, showing solidarity.”
Behnam Dayanim, a partner in a District law firm, said his oldest daughter is leaving for Israel in August to study at a seminary in Jerusalem. She has expressed no anxiety, he said, and he has given her no special advice.
“It’s safe to say the likelihood of violence in Israel is lower than it is in large cities in the United States,” he said. “I don’t think my general advice is any different from my advice when she went to college in New York: Avoid dangerous situations and don’t behave recklessly. I really don’t think one tragedy, no matter how horrific, should impact the decision to send a child to Israel, or to visit it yourself.”
Bernice Cohen said that when her son, Isaac, goes to Israel, she will feel that he is surrounded by people who will look out for him and protect him. But that doesn’t mean she is free of worry.
The Cohen family members are dual citizens of Israel and the United States, and when they lived in Israel, their home was in a neighborhood not far from the high school that the slain Israeli teenagers attended. Her back yard, she called it.
“We can’t stop our lives because we’re afraid,” she said. “We wouldn’t even consider not sending our child there because of this. I’m proud to be Jewish. And I’m proud my son is going to be studying in Israel and eventually serving in the Israeli army to fight these terrorist groups.”
Isaac said he expects to be more cautious than he normally is when he arrives at a military school near Gaza. He plans to enlist in the Israeli army in another year.
“I’ve always been pretty street smart,” he said. “When I get into a car with someone, I’ll make sure I know the person and look around to see if anything looks suspicious. It’s been a dream of mine to join the Israeli army. But now I’ll have to be more prepared. It’s a little scary.”