By Felix Grudsky
Liliya Sirotin had the usual look of a concerned Jewish mother as she was the first parent to walk into the room for "Let My Children Go," the second annual program organized by Misha Zilbermint, senior JCSC fellow at Hillels Around Chicago: Multi-Campus Center, and Anna Polishchuk, Midwest regional director of USD Hagshamah.
"My daughter, Anna, registered for a birthright israel trip this winter," she announced with the worried expression of a parent who is signing a liability waiver for a child about to undergo an appendectomy.
Mrs. Sirotin is definitely not the only one. Many parents are afraid to let their sons and daughters travel to Israel right now, afraid that they will happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and will be victims of yet another attack of Arab terrorists. Even knowing that friends or relatives live in Israel does not diminish the fear and anxiety for the parents expected to go along with the globe-hopping dreams of their children.
Irina Iskayeva, who came to "Let My Children Go" with daughter, Regina, and niece, Lida, was worried almost equally about letting the two young women travel on a birthright israel bus and stay in Israel after the trip with their grandmother.
"Their grandmother will be so happy that her granddaughters are visiting that she'll want to take them everywhere," Mrs. Iskayeva said. "And that's what I'm nervous about the most."
I can certainly relate. Two years ago, I also registered for a winter birthright israel trip. My parents categorically refused to let me go. Half a year later, I signed up again for a summer trip. Reluctantly, my parents acquiesced. However, after I told them that I extended my stay in Israel for a week -- to spend time with my relatives -- they did not talk to me for a week.
The aims of the program were specifically to calm the parents of Russian students' fears about the safety of birthright israel trips and convince them to literally "let their children go." Wendy Keter, Midwest regional director of the Israel Aliyah Center, was the keynote speaker at the event. She talked extensively about the security measures that birthright israel providers take to ensure complete safety and security of the trip participants.
Mrs. Sirotin was curious about the medical coverage of the trip participants, the parents' ability to contact the trip chaperones from the states and the quality of the hotels where her daughter would be staying.
Three birthright israel alumni, Anatoly Bodner, Masha Dubinskaya and Olga Shalman, also provided first-hand accounts of their experiences in Israel and answered trip-specific questions.
"This is the one place in the world where you know that you are surrounded by your people," Bodner said. "The sights and the routes were specifically planned out to avoid any potentially unsafe areas, while being able to capture all of Israel's beauty and character."
By the end of the evening the parents' and students' anxieties about Israel subsided tremendously. Even Mrs. Iskayeva seemed more inclined to let Regina and Lida venture from the states.
"I am definitely not as worried right now," she said. "It seems like they'll be in good hands."
As for the students, they left feeling even more excited about their upcoming journeys. Their eyes sparkled as they eagerly anticipated such an experience of the lifetime.
"I have been waiting for a year to go on this trip, but because I wasn't 18 yet, I wasn't eligible until now. I've heard only the best responses from former participants, and I'm looking forward to going to Israel, meeting new people and seeing the land of my ancestors," Regina Iskayeva said.
Felix Grudsky is a graduate student at University of Illinois at Chicago and the Russian Israel Intern for Hillels Around Chicago: Multi-Campus Center.