Thursday, May 28 2020
Israel continued to open further in the last few days with restaurants, bars and pools opening yesterday. Additionally, some hotels have begun to open their doors as well. The few hotels that have begun to open have reported good occupancy rates for Shavuot. Others have set dates in June for their openings. While these developments are welcome and especially the news about hotels opening, we have no further official reports to share regarding air travel developments in the last few days.
We would like to remind you again that refunds are guaranteed if we cancel and if we choose to run you will be given additional days to make your personal decision while refunds will still be guaranteed. So, you need not worry about the June 1 deadline for refunds we had previously set.
We would like to wish everyone who has been following our blog a Chag Sameach. This will be our last post for now as early next week we expect to make our official announcement regarding the summer. It is our hope that the transparency of sharing the factors we have taken into account has helped during this period of uncertainty. We will be in touch next week! Chag Sameach!
Tuesday, May 26 2020
As we reach the week of our deadline, we continue to see frequent updates that we analyze. The trend from recent weeks continues with social distancing limitations being relaxed at a more rapid pace than travel restrictions. As we’ve said all along, every day counts and we hope for continued progress to be made in the next few days before we need to make our decision. Ultimately, it appears that the guidelines for international travel will be what our ultimate decision will be based on.
We continue to intend to have a decision by June 1, and we hope these updates keep you informed of the issues going into that decision. If we decide to run the trip, you will have a number of days after our announcement to make your personal decision with an extension of the full refund offered during that entire period. Below are the updates from this past weekend.
Social Distancing Restrictions
Israel continues to rapidly loosen restrictions on day to day life in the country. In a very significant announcement for our needs, it was publicized that bus capacity has been raised from 20 passengers to 46. That is a number that Mach Hach can comfortably work with even with no further easing of limitations. And, the expectation is that in the not too distant future the government will drop all limitations on bus capacities.
In addition, the government began to allow greater access to cultural activities moving forward. Limitations on the numbers of visitors allowed into museums were decreased. In addition, various indoor stage shows, concerts and the like will be allowed to open starting June 14. The increased access to culture is obviously significant for our itineraries this summer.
There were two significant updates in the area of travel over the past few days. On Sunday, the Interior Ministry announced that yeshiva students from overseas who had been learning in Israel for the year could now return to Israel. They will need to quarantine for 14 days upon return. This is limited to individuals who already had what’s called A2 visas, which are long term student visas. Hence, this would not apply to Mach Hach campers. Additionally, Mach Hach will not be running if a quarantine is required upon entry. However, this is an important development because it is the first time that Israel is allowing foreigners into the country since the onset of the pandemic.
Yesterday, representatives of the Ministry of Health, the National Security Council and Homefront Command toured Ben Gurion Airport. The goal of the tour was to assess how the airport will be functioning now under new guidelines. The team reviewed various models for allowing foreigners to visit Israel but did not come to any conclusions. It is a good sign to see that the government is now turning its attention to travel but still is a big question if decisions will be made in the time frame we would need to run our trip.
Thursday, May 21 2020
Israel Status Update
As we described earlier this week, the two major issues we are assessing in making our decision for running Mach Hach are: social distancing restrictions and international travel. As with every week nowadays, there were multiple updates in Israel this week which we would like to update you about.
Social Distancing Restrictions
Due to continued low numbers of new infections, Israel has been able to continue opening society. To give you some context, last week Israel averaged about 22 new cases a day, the first half of this week it dropped into the teens, and yesterday into single digits. So, even as the country has opened, there has been excellent control over new spread.
Earlier this week, the government announced new relaxations of multiple regulations. Many of these were ahead of schedule compared to the plan that was originally laid out by the Prime Minister only a few weeks ago. As of yesterday, all houses of worship, including shuls, were allowed to open their doors. Beaches became open to the public as well. Additionally, during the morning and afternoon rush hours, buses were now allowed to operate at full capacity (and without the 20 person limit that exists the rest of the day). This is a great sign because we will need to be able to use more full buses this summer. This is a great step in that direction.
As of May 27, restaurants will be open for sit down eating. Additionally, swimming pools, hotels and youth programming will start on that date as well following various guidelines. It was further announced that on June 14, banquet halls could begin hosting events once again.
The positive momentum in this area is clear and accelerating. The trajectory continues to be one in which, barring a spike in cases, there will be few limitations remaining come July and August. This bodes well for the quality of the program we can run if we can get the campers into Israel.
The area of international travel remains a mixed bag for our purposes. As previously noted, foreigners are currently not allowed into the country. Earlier this week, the ban was extended to June 15. Likewise, the requirement for Israeli citizens returning from overseas to self-isolate for 14 days upon return was similarly extended.
That being said, a sign of early steps to open air travel is that the Corona quarantine hotels previously required for Israeli travelers returning to Israel have been shut down and Israelis now self-isolate at home upon arrival. In anticipation of increased travel, a number of airlines have announced that they are restarting their Israel routes. Most significantly for us, Delta announced that it will open its JFK-Tel Aviv route in early June. Lastly, there was a government meeting this week which discussed removing the quarantine requirement for those who travel to five local and low-risk countries, including Greece and Cyprus among others.
So, on the one hand, there have not been any decisions made about the entry of Americans into Israel yet at this stage. But, at the same time, this is clearly an area of the economy which is starting to receive the government’s attention and we hope that the pace of developments for the industry quickens.
How is Mach Hach assessing the situation?
Mach Hach continues to follow all leads and use all connections to gain further clarity as to the future decisions of the government. This includes using Bnei Akiva’s connections as well as those of our logistics company, the Israel Experience.
In addition, we have joined a network of other Israel summer tours who have joined as a group to make our joint case to the government. This group represents thousands of campers still interested in visiting Israel this summer. We are having joint meetings with various Israeli officials and sending written communications to others. We will leave no stone unturned in our attempt to open Israel to our campers this summer!
Tuesday, May 19 2020
How will this summer be different from other summers?
No doubt many of our families are wondering how this summer may look different from previous summers. Even if Israel is in a stable place and the program can run, we do anticipate a certain amount of change from a typical summer. All issues are being discussed and will be decided in consultation with medical professionals. Below are some things you may look out for.
We do not anticipate large scale changes to the touring portion of our trip. Hiking trails have already opened, beaches open this week and museums will open over the next couple weeks. So, the vast majority of sites on our itinerary should be open well in advance of the start of our trip. It is possible that some may be closed to us or have certain restrictions in place (group sizes) for our visits. On the plus side, after two strong years of rain in Israel, the Kinneret is full and all the water hikes this summer will be amazing!
The more significant changes will be if we use the capsule system we spoke about in our last blog post. Once our buses are considered capsules, there is a need to distance from others, including other Mach Hach buses. This would negate all inter-bus programs for the summer, including programs such as Shabbat Mach Hach, Adventure Week and the Free Weekend. While these decisions still need to be made, they will be guided by best medical advice and government regulations we receive.
There is a lot of discussion about how food services will open in hotels once they open their doors. While these will be regulations set forth by the government as time progresses, some possibilities include:
1) Closing buffets and having individual portions served.
2) Not having multiple groups in a dining room together.
3) Using only disposable dishes and utensils.
While these will be national guidelines and not our own, we wanted to prepare you in case our meals have a different feel this summer.
You may find some new items on your packing list for this summer to help with overall hygiene. While Mach Hach will also have these supplies, individual campers could be asked to pack their own as well. Things like cloth masks, Purell and cleaning wipes are all potential new items for this year’s packing list. And, as with every summer, don’t forget plenty of sunscreen. We have lots of sun here in Israel!
While we continue to analyze all aspects of our program and implications for the summer, these are some of the issues which have already come up. As you know, everything about society at the moment is still a developing story and various regulations will change between now and the summer. However, we hope this sheds some light on some potential changes for the summer.
Monday, May 18 2020
What are the factors involved in Mach Hach’s decision?
Many parents may be wondering why Mach Hach is waiting so long to make its decision. The answer is that although tremendous progress has been made in Israel, there are still a few hurdles we need to cross before we can confidently and safely offer this trip. That being said, Israel has been opening its society in rather quick fashion and there are certainly scenarios which would allow us to run Mach Hach this summer. Every week and every day counts and we are trying to buy enough time to see if some positive trends can reach a point to allow us to proceed.
First, let’s start with benchmarks which have already been hit in Israel. The important point to understand is that Israel is at a very different point in its epidemiological curve than North America at this point. Over the last seven days, Israel has averaged 22 new cases a day. The drop in numbers continues even though Israeli stores began to reopen soon after Pesach and schools partially reopened two weeks ago. Tomorrow, all grades return to school. Israel has very low rates of infection at the moment and is largely open for business with further dates set for opening museums, restaurants (for sit down eating), theaters and just about everything else that is currently closed.
Understanding that all of this has opened in the last month, gives you a sense how quickly things can change here. So, what are the key issues which still must be addressed before Mach Hach can decide to run the trip? The two major topics are air travel and social distancing. Below is an explanation of what is currently problematic about each and what would be possible resolutions that would allow Mach Hach to run.
While Israel is opening up, there are currently various social distancing regulations in place. This would create obvious logistical and programmatic problems for Mach Hach, including but not limited to how many campers could sleep in one room or travel on a bus together. Additionally, the idea of social distancing in a camp setting would be nearly impossible.
There are two potential trends which could make the social distancing required of us to be minimal. The first is the general trend of relaxing regulations overall in Israel. As described, society has opened significantly in the last month. The start of Mach Hach is still two months away. It is conceivable, and even probable barring setbacks, that many more regulations will be eased by then as the number of cases continue to drop. As such, Israeli society as a whole would have far more limited social distancing requirements this summer.
The second trend is the idea of capsules. Large yeshivot in Israel have begun reopening by separating their students into capsules. The students come into yeshiva for two weeks at a time without going home and are assigned to a smaller subset of students who only interact with one another and distance from the other students in yeshiva. In this way, the Israeli government treats each capsule as a sort of nuclear family that does not have to socially distance within the capsule. On Mach Hach, each of our buses could potentially act as such a capsule of under 50. Should the Ministry of Health define our groups as such, then each bus would have to stay socially distant from the outside world but not from one another. Interestingly, similar options are being discussed for American camps as well.
This is perhaps the most obvious obstacle standing in our way. Given that cases are so low in Israel at the moment, the government is rightly being very cautious regarding the reopening of air travel. No tourists have the ability to enter without special permission. Yet, there is much discussion surrounding this issue and how best to reopen air travel. Ben Gurion Airport has released new guidelines for the airport and a number of international airlines have announced that they are restarting their routes.
There are pretty widespread reports that in the near future Israel will be reopening travel to a few European countries who, like Israel, have successfully contained the spread of the virus. This “safe zone” would allow for travel between these countries without any need for quarantine. Although North America would not be included in such a program, all travel developments are good ones from our perspective.
The most likely avenue that would open up air travel to/from North America would be a model that includes testing for all incoming tourists. A research report on reopening air travel to Israel that was released last week described certain countries who have begun to implement such operations. Using testing to screen all passengers before joining a flight would minimize the risk of spreading new infection in the country and would allow air travel to reopen more broadly.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Bnei Akiva is using all its connections to try to ascertain what developments can be expected in the near future. The Israel Experience, the logistics company that we use in Israel is the largest of its kind and as a subsidiary of the Jewish Agency has access to many “insiders”. We are constantly monitoring the situation and will only decide to run the trip if we are fully confident that the above issues will not be a problem this summer.
As we approach our June 1 deadline, we will make a decision largely based upon these issues. If as we approach June 1, there are government discussions underway regarding the above and delaying our decision and refund deadline by a week may allow these issues to be resolved, then we would extend our deadline. Otherwise, we will be working with our June 1 deadline. Additionally, there are certainly plausible scenarios where we are forced to cancel on June 1 but new developments over the course of June allow us to run a program in August. If things develop as such, we would consider doing so and offering an abridged trip in August for those still interested.
Welcome to the Mach Hach Blog
Friday, May 15 2020
Welcome to our Mach Hach update blog. As we go through the next couple of weeks, we will use this page as a way to give insight into our discussions and thought processes as we proceed towards our decision regarding the summer. We will try to touch on many of the issues we are grappling with at the moment although all final decisions will only be announced through our official email communications.
In this first post, we’d like to more fully explain the current process we are in for the next couple of weeks. While there has been a lot of positive momentum in Israel, there are still some key questions that need to be answered by the government surrounding travel and health protocols before we can decide that we can run this program. In the interim, we are trying to buy as much time as possible for some of these positive trends to develop while also protecting parents’ tuition payments through the decision making process.
As such, we are acting on two parallel tracks. On the one hand, we are preparing everything we can so that should we be able to run the program, we can put everything into place in a short period of time. We are working with our logistics company to make all ground preparations in Israel. And, we are continuing with collecting payments and forms so that deposits with vendors can be made in short order after a decision is made.
At the same time, we have guaranteed full refunds through this period of uncertainty. In the lead up to June 1, if we decide we can run the trip, we will make a full presentation of all program changes, health protocols and future refund schedules that will be implemented for the summer. This will take place through written communications and Zoom calls. Parents will then have all necessary details to make an informed decision. Families will be given a number of days to opt in or opt out at that point based on these presentations.
There are certain scenarios under which our deadline and therefore the refund guarantee may be extended for a short period if we feel that the extension could be the difference between being able to run the program or not this summer. But, as of today, June 1 remains the deadline we are working with.
In our next post, we will give a small glimpse into some of the issues involved in making our decision for the summer.