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American Jews Feel Effects of War in Middle East

August 14, 2006 at 6:25 PM EDT

JIM LEHRER: Now, more perspectives from the war zone. Recently we aired the reactions of some Lebanese-Americans caught in Lebanon when the conflict began. Tonight, the views of American Jews who were in Israel during the fighting. NewsHour correspondent Spencer Michels reports.

JEWISH-AMERICAN FATHER: There, Newark, on time.

SPENCER MICHELS, NewsHour Correspondent: It was a scene repeated many times in the last few weeks. At San Francisco International Airport, the parents of a 16-year-old girl prepared anxiously to greet her on her return from Israel. High school junior Arielle Sherman, from Marin County, California, stepped off the plane a little weary but entirely upbeat about her trip to the Middle East.

LORRAINE SHERMAN, Mother of Arielle Sherman: Oh, it’s nice to have you here. You look great.

JEWISH-AMERICAN FATHER: Oh, you got a tan. You look wonderful.

SPENCER MICHELS: She had spent six weeks in Israel, the first part on a summer program called “Let’s Go Israel,” designed to infuse young American Jews with enthusiasm for the Jewish state. Like many American visitors, she found herself unexpectedly and suddenly in a war zone. But unlike many of them, for Arielle, the war seemed remote, and that was by design of the program organizers.

ARIELLE SHERMAN, Traveler to Israel: They didn’t say it was a war, but they said a problem had broken out in Israel and they started — each night they would tell us what is going on. But the way they made it sound, it didn’t sound really bad and we were always in a safe area.

SPENCER MICHELS: Even Arielle parents weren’t overly worried about her, although they feared for Israel.

LORRAINE SHERMAN: Being an American Jew, a Jewish American, one is aware of the vagaries of Jewish existence and its history. And you have to seal yourself a little bit to be defensive.

Birthright trip to Israel

SPENCER MICHELS: Arielle was one of nearly two million North American Jews, including 17,000 students, who planned trips to Israel this year, higher than in previous years. But some of those trips were postponed when the war broke out.

Twenty-year-old Olga Bergelson and 22-year-old Michelle Zotman took off for Israel just after the fighting began with a group called "Mayanot Birthright," and they saw more of the war than Arielle. Besides a stop at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, the Birth Right group went to Tiberius, where a Karimov rocket landed not far away.

OLGA BERGELSON, Traveler to Israel: When we woke up, we saw people running down the stairs, children in bathing suits, and all of us were gathered in one single room. And it was supposed to be the safest room, something like a bomb shelter. We were told to get away from the windows. We were not allowed to go back into our rooms to have lunch. And we sat there for a couple -- I think two hours.

MICHELLE ZOTMAN, Traveler to Israel: When I heard the missiles had landed within a mile of us -- there was five Katyushas that had fallen -- and almost instantaneously, I got a phone call from my mother. I swear that we have a sixth sense between one another.

And she's like, "Is everything OK?" And I didn't know what to tell her, but I knew she knew where I was, and I knew I had to tell her before she heard it off of CNN, because then my father's hair would fall out and she'd have a heart attack. And I told her everything was fine.

SPENCER MICHELS: The group of 40 left the area immediately after the all-clear. Their experiences strengthened their commitment to Israel which was a major aim of the trip.

MICHELLE ZOTMAN: We have maybe five, six countries surrounding us that do not want us. They don't want us to exist. They want to obliterate us. And they take every measure that they can to do so, and we fight back, and we fight back. I'm getting all teary-eyed, but it's just -- it's very powerful to be there.

A reason to go to Israel

SPENCER MICHELS: The war with Hezbollah took some American Jews visiting Israel completely by surprise. Grant writer and long-time Israel supporter Deborah Mintz had planned a vacation in Jerusalem away from husband and kids, but the mood of her trip turned grim when her friend took her north to a center for refugees.

DEBORAH MINTZ, Traveler to Israel: Many of whom had elderly relatives or friends who couldn't be moved from places like Kiryat Shmona, places like Haifa. And I began to understand that a half-a-million Israelis were living in refugee -- you know, as refugees, in schools, hotels, friends' and relatives' homes, and that many were living in bomb shelters. And at that point, I began to realize that something very serious and very frightening was going on.

TRAVEL GUIDE: You can see the northern wall...

SPENCER MICHELS: For several groups of American Jews, the fighting was actually a reason to travel to Israel, to provide what help they could, financial, material or even simply moral support. Berkeley mortgage broker Samuel Fishman is an official of the pro-Israel group the American Jewish Committee and decided on the spur of the moment to join a mission.

SAMUEL FISHMAN, Traveler to Israel: I knew Israel was the place that I needed to be. I needed to offer my moral support. We went to visit a family whose home had just been bombed the day before. We, I think, all came to recognize how hard it is for us to even begin to imagine from the tranquility of our homes what it must be like to have bombs facing us and our families.

SPENCER MICHELS: Fishman's group visited a refugee camp on a beach and met with high Israeli officials. They were in Haifa when they saw bombs go off.

SAMUEL FISHMAN: We ourselves had to be escorted into bomb shelters at least three times just in one afternoon. It's a city where both Israeli Arabs and Israeli Jews have lived in harmony for many, many decades, and yet it's essentially a ghost town.

TRAVELER TO ISRAEL: And we were in the north...

SPENCER MICHELS: Such stories from American Jews of all ages have spurred on fundraising efforts across the country. This event was to benefit teens in northern Israel.

The United Jewish Communities, America's largest Jewish fundraising group, has already raised $150 million, part of an emergency campaign to collect at least $300 million, and perhaps much more, for humanitarian and social needs.