When the fighting erupted between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, Rabbi David Straus found himself in a quandary: how to deal with leading a group of more than 80 congregants on a trip through the Jewish state while the country was at war.
Straus and his contingent from Main Line Reform Temple, Beth Elohim in Wynnewood were one of several local Jewish groups there when the incursion first started. Despite such a potentially nerve-wracking situation, Straus said that he and his group remained calm.
"People took their cues from everything around them," he noted. "They didn't see the Israelis fearful, they didn't see their rabbi saying we needed to go home, and they didn't see tour guides saying they shouldn't go places."
The attacks into Gaza broke out on Dec. 27, and most local groups visiting the area were there between Dec. 20 and Jan. 4.
One element that helped, said Straus, was seeing a few familiar faces along the way. Not only was his group traveling together as congregants, he said, but they bumped into groups from Adath Israel in Merion Station and Congregation Or Ami in Lafayette Hill while in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
"If you didn't look at newspapers or watch the news in hotel rooms at night," said Straus, "the only evidence you'd have from our perspective was that — from where we were up north — we saw tanks being shipped down south on trucks."
He was quick to add that most people in the group didn't have the context to know whether the shipments were normal traffic or if it was something unusual.
That was echoed by Kelly Dash, whose family was traveling with a group from Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El in Wynnewood.
She explained that her husband works in insurance and risk management and, for the sake of his own sanity, tried to ignore the news.
"We knew what was going on from other people talking … but not specifically from picking up a newspaper or putting on CNN," said Dash. "You've got to remember, we had such a crazy, busy schedule, it's not like you're sitting in your room with the opportunity to watch TV. It's not like you have a lot of downtime."
She said that for the most part, the group's itinerary was not affected by the fighting.
"We were never in any danger or in any areas that were in danger of being attacked," she said. "The craziest thing is knowing this is all going on and knowing what a small country it is — it's 40 miles wide and however many miles long, [yet] we didn't feel unsafe. There's so much military presence, and everywhere you go, there's soldiers and a lot of security, and you know the intelligence is so superior, so you don't really walk around feeling 'Oh, my God, something could happen to me!' "
Interesting or Scary?
While some adults felt safe, that feeling wasn't universally shared, particularly among the teenagers from Congregation Rodeph Shalom in Center City's confirmation class, which was in Jerusalem when the fighting began. About 20 people were on the trip, which was led by Rabbi Michael Holzman.
For many of the students, it was their first visit to the Jewish state; that included 16-year-old Daniel Ceisler.
"When Israel started bombing back was when it started getting interesting," said Ceisler. "I say interesting; others would say scary."
"Some of the people on the trip were terrified, because this is nothing anyone's ever experienced before," said Ceisler. "At any moment, you have to ask yourself how far north we are, how close to the Gaza strip are we. Every bit of smoke we saw could have been a suicide bomber, are those Katyusha rockets — you have to keep an eye out for everything, and people were scared to go to crowded places."
Like other groups, the Rodeph Shalom students were kept out of places that might put them at risk — which, in this case, meant skipping a visit to the Western Wall.
The students got to see some of the area near it, but were unable to put notes in the wall or attend services there, reported Ceisler.
He also kept up with the news as much as possible, and said that since some parents were worried, Holzman sent regular e-mail updates home to keep them informed.
"I've always felt that they would be taken care of over there, and I still think that someone is safer in Israel than walking the streets of Philadelphia," said Larry Ceisler, Daniel's father. "I also thought, once the Israelis started, that they're over there at a good time. It's an important time, because they get to see the essence of what Israelis face on a daily basis, and what true adversity is."
Replied Daniel: "I was just amazed at the passion with which they defend their country. They have a draft, and they have a sense of national service. They all have to work to protect their country — and that's not something we have in America. Every day is a struggle."
Taking part in the actual struggle is Yonaton Cooper, the son of Beth Hillel-Beth El Rabbi Neil Cooper. While the rest of the congregation's Israel delegation returned, Cooper stayed on to spend time with his son — who, thanks to a minor injury, was sidelined from the immediate fighting, according to Dash.
While many learned of how the fighting began from the news or reports from rabbis and tour leaders, Adath Israel member Alice Simon and her family found out a bit differently — and it resulted in a minor panic.
The Simons and another family were in Jerusalem visiting the Arab shuk on Shabbat — it being one of the few things in the area open at that time. Simon, who was visiting Israel for the first time, said that what should have been the market's busiest day was subdued. The two families were eating lunch when a Christian family from Texas approached them and took the adults aside to break the news to them.
She became more than a bit nervous. "Two families, with kids 7, 9 and 11 in the Arab market — and I'd just found out the Israelis bombed Gaza," said Simon. "I was freaked out! I was scared; I didn't feel safe. I wasn't sure I should go to Ben-Yehuda Street that night."
The family did end up attending Saturday-night post-Shabbat festivities on the famous street, but Simon said that she worried about safety in public places.
"You never know whether the retaliation is going to be in the city or not. That's the issue: You don't know how people are going to retaliate. Were they going to strike the market in Tel Aviv? Shabbat's over; were they going to go to Ben-Yehuda Street? Because that's how Hamas has struck back in the past, is to try to [scare] everybody and try to kill innocent civilians."
That fear was shared by Rabbi Eric Goldberg of Shir Ami-Bucks County Jewish Congregation, who was leading a group of 10 religious-school students through Israel at the same time, although Goldberg decided that the kids should skip a Saturday outing to Ben-Yehuda Street.
"It was not that we felt there was any issue of a Hamas rocket or anything happening in terms of fighting," he said. "The issue would be if someone living close by decided to commit a homicide bombing, and we didn't want the kids to be there."
Adath Israel Rabbi Steven Wernick said that his group took the attacks in stride: "We didn't have any panic, didn't have anyone wanting to leave; everybody stayed calm and rational and asked the right questions anyone would ask in those circumstances, but they were satisfied with the answers."
In fact, the Simons felt safe enough to stay in Israel after their group left and even visited Eilat, in the south of Israel — something many members of the Main Line Reform contingent also did. Both groups also made a day trip into Petra, Jordan.
Wernick said that those visiting during such a time often end up seeing Israel at its best.
"Once you start learning about the reality on the ground, it gives you a different perspective," said the rabbi. "It gives you a different point of view from CNN, which only shows the blood and the gore and nothing else."
Straus echoed that: "There's a heightened sense of the reality of the neighborhood Israel lives in, and the real-world situation Israelis confront every single day. To live through that and see how people experience that is very much a part of what being in Israel is all about. It isn't a place you go to tour — you go to Paris or Rome to tour. Israel, in the most profound way, is a pilgrimage, and you're coming home."