Luanna Azulay's excitement about her first trip to Israel is laced with trepidation. Her family wishes she would have just stayed safe at home in Essex.
Azulay, a junior at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, is one of about 80 area students who flew to Israel on Sunday with a program that offers Jewish young people free trips to the country. When she signed up months ago, she had no idea that on the eve of her departure, Israel would be deep into an intense strike against Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip and that each time she opened a newspaper or turned on the television, she would be inundated with images of gunfire, destruction and death.
"It seems crazy. There's a war going on. My mother is pretty much freaking out about it," Azulay said before she departed from Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey with students from UMBC, the Johns Hopkins University, Goucher College and Towson University.
Even so, Azulay is thrilled to see the country that means so much to her culture and her faith, the place she's heard about since she was a little girl.
"In Jewish culture, you learn Israel is where you've come from and where you're supposed to be," she said. Going there "is something you always want to do in your life as a Jew at least once."
Thousands of American Jews are in Israel on trips sponsored by Taglit-Birthright Israel, an organization that since its inception in 2000 has brought nearly 200,000 young people to the country for free, 10-day trips. The group says about 14,000 students, mostly Americans ages 18 to 26, have reserved spots on its winter trips, which run from December through March.
However, since Israel launched its Gaza offensive Dec. 27, nervous students and more nervous parents have pelted Birthright and local trip organizers with safety concerns. While the vast majority have kept their reservations, 314 students had backed out as of Jan. 5, Birthright officials say.
The group recently sent an e-mail to every trip participant and their family, hoping that a detailed description of the elaborate security precautions would ease their minds.
"The safety and security of all participants on Taglit-Birthright Israel programs is our primary concern," the e-mail read. "All Taglit groups touring Israel do not travel anywhere near Gaza, and the current airstrikes pose no direct threat to the safety of our Taglit participants."
Carly Cowley, a staff member at Hopkins Hillel who is helping to coordinate the trip and went on it herself, has fielded calls and e-mails from a number of worried parents.
"Only one student has withdrawn," she said last week. "I have a feeling we're going to have a few more."
Cowley expressed confidence in the tour's safety measures.
"Two hundred thousand people have gone on this trip and no one's ever been hurt," she said. "I think this is probably the safest way to go to Israel."
Philanthropists and the state of Israel founded the Birthright program as both an avenue to promote Israel and a way to build unity and feelings of cultural identity among the world's Jews. The trips are paid for entirely by donations.
Though violence has broken out in the Middle East repeatedly since the trips began, the sustained intensity of the Gaza incursion and the firing of rockets from Gaza and Lebanon into Israel have heightened travelers' anxieties.
Because the seaport town of Ashkelon is Baltimore's sister city, the local contingent had planned to stop there. But when missiles started hitting Ashkelon, organizers changed the itinerary, said Ken Krivitsky, director of Towson University Hillel.
"We're not going to put our students in danger," Krivitsky said. "Any area that is getting rocket fire right now, we're not going to."
The students will stop in most of Israel's main cities and tourist attractions. They'll visit Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and the Golan Heights. They'll camp in the Negev Desert. At sunrise one morning. they'll climb Masada, a mountaintop fortress where Jews, fighting the Romans, committed mass suicide rather than surrender.
"We're going to really be experiencing a significant part of Israel," Krivitsky said. "I think that this trip is going to be extremely meaningful to the students that go. It's important for our community to show support for Israel, which is going through a significant time."
Gabrielle Matuzsan and her twin brother, Zachary, 18-year-old freshmen at Hopkins, planned to keep their reservations.
She signed up for it the day the application period opened. She'd been hearing for years from older kids about the "amazing" Birthright trips.
"As soon as there was an opportunity I signed right up," she said, adding that the violence there is "a little nerve-racking," but that her parents are even more uneasy.
"I think they want me to say that I don't want to go," she said.
Her father, Robert Matuzsan, who owns a beauty salon in Robbinsville, N.J., said he's been glued to the TV, watching for updates on the situation. Despite his unease, he said he thinks his children will be OK on the trip.
"If I thought there was any case of them being in danger, I'd say, 'Forget it, they're not going,' " he said. "It's a great experience that we really don't want them to pass up."
This year, canceling a Birthright trip is fraught with the real possibility that there might not be another chance to take one. The economic downturn has wreaked havoc on organization reserves, with philanthropists reducing their donations or canceling them altogether.
"As soon as the funding runs out," Cowley said, "then it's done."
While in Israel, Matuzsan planned to text her parents, maybe every other day, to let them know that she's doing OK. "I know they'll be worrying," she said.
"My son says, 'We're not kids anymore, we'll be 19," Robert Matuzsan said. "I said, 'You are kids; we have to protect you.' ... Though we're Americans first, we're also Jews and we believe in the state of Israel. One way to support Israel is to go there and not ignore it in times like this."
Hamas called hurt but dan- gerous as Israel presses offensive in Gaza. PG 14