Reading the recent post by the young woman assaulted in Jerusalem was heartbreaking. She wrote bravely, honestly, exposing in excruciating detail the traumatic incident at a time when it must still have been raw and painful to her.

As a mother, whose youngest child is in Israel on a program as I write, it tore my heart.

As a professional, whose role includes me actively and wholeheartedly recommending people to send their children on Israel programs, it made my blood run cold.

Despite the public circulation of the article, I am acutely aware of the young woman’s right to remain anonymous. All I’ll say about her is that I am aware that her program provider did respond immediately and provided support which was timely, sensitive and appropriate.

Sadly, such an incident could have happened here. It could happen in Glenhuntly Road; it could happen backpacking through Europe and yes, it can even happen on the streets in Jerusalem.

I’m not going to respond to the content of the article, rather the specific question that I’ve been asked since, about how young people on programs and their leaders are equipped to deal with situations that arise and how they are supported in the event of any kind of incident.

The Zionist Federation of Australia is proud to represent Masa Israel programs – the framework for supporting long term Israel programs in Australia. Masa Israel Journey is a partnership between the Government of Israel and the Jewish Agency for Israel. Masa not only provides grants and scholarships to make programs more financially accessible. It also accredits both program providers in Israel and the programs themselves. There are standards for content, for accommodation standards and of course, for safety and security.

The young woman assaulted was walking in a public street, in a major city, in broad daylight on a Saturday afternoon. Perfectly reasonable behaviour. She wrote herself that until then, she’d felt safe walking on the streets in Jerusalem, as a young woman, alone. As she should. Should programs prohibit young adults walking alone in the street in daylight in free time – I think not. Unfortunately, the question of how to prevent perpetrators attacking women on the street is beyond our scope. What we can address however, is how our program participants are briefed and prepared and of course how providers respond when an incident takes place.

The ZFA, along with Masa Israel Journey, the Australian Zionist Youth Council, the Jewish Agency for Israel and Israeli program providers take the issue of participant safety and security extremely seriously. The AZYC has been working on a comprehensive program, including policies, training modules and action protocols, to ensure youth movements are safe, healthy and secure for participants. Under the AZYC banner, all seven Australian Zionist youth movements are accredited under the Safeguarding Children program and every leader undergoes comprehensive training on how to deal with a range of health, safety and security issues – including sexual abuse. Whilst gap year programs are for young adults and don’t fall under the safeguarding children program, the principles and culture of maintaining a respectful, safe and healthy program remain.

Israel programs vary in how they present and brief participants in relation to these issues. Many of the larger group programs run sessions for their participants whilst still in Australia, focusing on how to keep safe on programs, while travelling and generally. Once in Israel, each program runs sessions on keeping safe and secure as well as making sure participants know who to turn to in the case of health, safety or emotional issues. Group leaders are equipped and approachable and programs have professionals on call to provide psychological support as required, in addition to any medical treatment that may be needed through the course of the program.

Unfortunately, no program, institution, organisation or society can prevent every incident from occurring, particularly incidents like this which occur off-program. What we can take responsibility for is to make sure participants are in a healthy environment where they feel safe to disclose these incidents, and that if anything unfortunate happens, that program providers support them. The test is how effectively they respond.

Such incidents are rare and the collective experience is not statistically strong, thankfully. Whenever an incident takes place – medical, mental health, or security – the priority is always on the well being of the participant, ensuring they are taken care of, that communication is open and that they get whatever professional support they may need.

Neither the ZFA, the program providers nor even we as parents, can prevent every bad thing from happening. What we can do is to prepare our participants, our students and our children to be able to identify when they need to be vigilant and how to support and look out for each other. We need to ensure they know they have someone to approach to disclose about incidents or concerns they may have. We need to ensure support is available when required.

The post of the program participant on her traumatic experience is a salutory lesson – a sad indictment on society where being trusting and open can be risky – in any city, at any time of day or night.

Has my position on the safety of Israel programs changed? No, not at all. I believe, with full heart and conscience, that a long term program in Israel is the best experience in terms of personal development, Jewish identity building, community connectivity and leadership that any young Jewish adult can have. As parents, we need to let them go, prepared and resilient. Let them experience all the positive wonderful things an Israel gap year program provides which can’t be equalled any other way. Let them build their Jewish identity and return to Australia as strong, confident leaders of our community – people who will contribute to a safe, secure and healthy environment for the coming generations.

Article by Author/s
Ginette Searle
Ginette Searle is the Executive Director of the Zionist Federation of Australia

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