But the paradigm of the trip quickly changed, as the country began communal mourning for the murders of three Israeli yeshiva students and then embarked on a military campaign to defend itself against a barrage of indiscriminate rocket fire from Hamas terrorists in the Gaza Strip. The itinerary of the trip had to be altered.
Witchel, a senior at Fox Chapel High School and BBYO’s Keystone Mountain Region’s godol (president), is far from disappointed that things didn’t turn out as planned.
“I loved the way it turned out,” said Witchel, one day after his return to Pittsburgh. “We did a lot of different things that no [International Leadership Seminar in Israel] trip has done before. No trip has experienced the Middle East conflict like we did.”
Witchel was one of 132 Jewish teens from around the world — including Serbia, Bulgaria, Turkey and Canada — to visit Israel as part of BBYO’s ILSI, a trip for the youth group’s “most promising leaders,” according to Avi Green, director of BBYO Passport, the organization’s global travel initiative. Haley Silverman, a senior at Mt. Lebanon High School, was also on the trip.
Rather than lament the restrictions on travel that were necessitated by the rocket attacks, Witchel remains enthusiastically appreciative of having had the opportunity to be thrust into the midst of Israel’s struggle against terrorism.
And while he didn’t get to see what he thought he was coming to see in Israel, he experienced a lot more.
“We were going to the [Western Wall tunnels], when they found the body of the Palestinian boy near the tunnels,” Witchel said, referring to the 16-year-old who was reportedly murdered in a revenge attack for the killings of the three Israeli teens.
The group’s tunnel tour was canceled, but the teenagers instead served as eyewitnesses to a country dealing with the senseless and cruel murder of children.
Instead of traveling to Tel Aviv, where rockets were aimed and sirens were sounding, the group headed to Safed, where the teens purchased snacks and Judaica, then assembled care packages that they shipped to Israeli soldiers in battle.
“It’s one thing when you’re sending care packages from home,” Witchel said, “and another thing when you’re sending them from Israel, when they are in the middle of an operation. It was very impactful.”
The group also visited the graves of Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaer and Eyal Yifrach, the three boys who were kidnapped in the West Bank in June, then shot and killed by suspected Hamas operatives.
“We had a service there, where we said the Shema and the Mourner’s Kaddish,” Witchel recalled. “Then we heard the bios of the boys. It was very emotional to say the least.”
Each morning, the teens were given updates on current events but also experienced the fluidity of the situation firsthand and from the perspective of Israelis.
“One of our security guards that was traveling with us got called to active duty in the middle of the night,” Witchel said. “And the husband of one of my Israeli educators got called to active service. She was really emotional. I never expected to get such a firsthand look at this. We were learning about the Middle East conflict, but it was so incredible because we were living it.”
As the situation in Israel changed, BBYO staff worked “literally 24/7” to shuffle itineraries and to keep the trip “safe, meaningful and fun,” according to Green.
First and foremost, that meant not traveling to areas where there was rocket fire, Green said, so trips to the Negev area and the northern coast from Tel Aviv to Haifa had to be canceled.
About one week into Operation Protective Shield, BBYO was able to re-evaluate its positions. After more than a week of quiet in Jerusalem, Witchel’s group was able to travel there for its final Shabbat before heading home.
“We spent the last Shabbat in the holy city,” Witchel said, “and on Sunday, a group of us went to the Kotel for a final Shacharit.”
Witchel, who said he intends to increase programming about Israel in his local BBYO chapter, as well as in the KMR region, was impressed with the resolve of Israelis to maintain a sense of normalcy while under terrorist attack.
“Israelis’ ability to maintain an average daily life while something like this is going on is absolutely astonishing,” Witchel said.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.