Participants on Israel trips organized through Taglit-Birthright will no longer be able to visit the Western Wall on Shabbat due to security concerns connected to the wave of Palestinian terrorist attacks, The Jerusalem Post has learned.
Organizations running trips under the Birthright umbrella have been told they can no longer allow their participants to walk to the holy site, sources familiar with the matter said.“I’m shocked,” one tour guide who works with Birthright groups and who asked to remain anonymous told the Post after being informed of the change.“That usually was one of the biggest highlights for the participants. The Kotel has so much security. They’ve already doubled our guards…Safety is an illusion. It’s a feeling. It’s not always based on facts or statistics. This is very upsetting both professionally and ideologically.”
Calling the move “excessive,” he said that “nothing will be able to replace the unique experience of Kabbalat Shabbat at the Kotel,” referring to the Friday night prayer service that ushers in Shabbat. According to Taglit-Birthright Vice President of International Marketing Noa Bauer, the free 10-day trips for Diaspora youth will still feature trips to the Western Wall during the week when groups can arrive in motor vehicles.
“They can’t take buses on Shabbat,” spokeswoman Margaux Stelman explained.“ All groups visit the Kotel. We make changes to the itinerary, if needed. The safety of our participants is our primary and foremost concern. Policy may change on a daily basis if friction points are identified. We prefer not to specify restricted areas for security reasons,” she said.
The Jerusalem Municipality declined to comment on the matter. Rabbi of the Western Wall Shmuel Rabinowitz was unable to comment due to health issues, his spokesman said, and Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett, who chairs Taglit-Birthright’s steering committee, did not reply to a request for comment.
The Jerusalem Post has been led to understand that recent events in the capital, including this week’s car-ramming attack at the Bridge of Strings at the entrance to the city, contributed to Taglit-Birthright’s decision. Eleven people were wounded in that attack, including a toddler.
Several organizations that run trips through Birthright declined to comment on the change. However, Rabbi Steven Wernick of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism did tell the Post that while his organization does not run any “Birthright-specific buses,” it does “run several other trips to Israel,” and that decisions on destinations, route selection and other issues are “reviewed on a daily basis in conjunction with the security desk of the Jewish Agency and itinerary decisions are made accordingly.
“There was never a time that we did not get to the Kotel, but as I like to say, ‘no itinerary is finalized until we return home,’” he said.
Jeff Daube of the Zionist Organization of America’s Israel office told the Post that his organization has no plans to cease allowing participants in its student leadership missions to Israel, which are unconnected to Taglit, to go to the Western Wall. As of now when they have free time we are allowing them to go to the kotel, and unless the situation changes radically for the worse we have no plans to change that approach,” he said.