Philadelphians visiting Israel get a firsthand account of what living with the threat of attack actually means, while others with upcoming trips debate whether to cancel.
Jessica Edelson woke up early Tuesday morning, ready for a long flight. She was excited to see cousins, to meet other American high school students, and most importantly, to return to Israel as part of a Jewish youth organization trip.
“You feel right at home in Israel because everyone is so welcoming there,” said Edelson, a 14-year-old who visited the country three years ago and sings in HaZamir, an international Jewish high school choir.
She and her mom, Michelle, drove two hours from their Blue Bell home to JFK Airport in New York and waited in the check-in area. The flight was to leave at 6 p.m.
The first reports emerged around noon that air raid sirens were heard in Tel Aviv as Hamas fired rockets from the Gaza Strip. The leaders of the national BBYO trip asked the group to move to a room downstairs as they decided what do. After 2 p.m., they broke the news to the more than 30 students anxiously awaiting their departure: The trip had been canceled for security reasons.
“My first reaction was for the safety of Israel," Edelson said. "I knew that BBYO would only cancel the trip if there was something really bad happening."
Something really bad is happening and yet, it's something that also has become an ordinary part of life for many Israelis. Palestinian militants have launched hundreds of rockets into Israel this week; the Israeli Defense Forces continued air attacks on suspected terrorist targets in Gaza; and people around Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and other Israeli cities have hurried into bomb shelters at the sound of warning sirens.
American Jews ordinarily hear about this sort of escalation in the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas in the news or perhaps in phone conversations with friends or relatives living there. But it’s summer, a popular season for travel to the Jewish state, and there are many people in the Philadelphia area who, like Edelson, booked trips to Israel before the fighting started. Some of them are now deciding whether to stay committed to their plans or stay home. Others are already in Israel, getting a firsthand account of what living with the threat of attack actually means.
“I think in these times you see people who are committed to not only vacationing but experiencing the richness that’s part of Israeli life, which is to make the most out of every minute and to take precautions when necessary,” said Joel Fish, a Mount Airy sports psychologist whose brother is a psychologist in Jerusalem. “It’s experiencing that Israeli life is a package deal on a daily basis.”
Rich Herman, an ear, nose and throat surgeon, had never visited Israel before he and his wife decided to participate in a group trip with his Reform synagogue, Congregation Beth Or in Maple Glen, this summer.
In years past, he said, they had passed up opportunities to go because it was hard to get time off work or find care for their then-young children. Plus, he said, fear “was always a little bit in the back of my mind. I wanted to see Israel, but it always seemed like it was a bad time."
On Tuesday night, Herman and his wife, Hollie, had walked around the Old City in Jerusalem and watched a light show at the Tower of David, the ancient citadel. They were nearing the entrance of their hotel when they heard an unfamiliar sound.
“For a second you’re like, ‘What is that?’ We started to see other people in the streets running for cover,” he said.
They hurried into the lobby. The threat of rocket attacks is more acute and common in southern cities such as Sderot than in Jerusalem — which is more than 50 miles from Gaza — but, Herman said, the hotel employees calmly guided them into a large room underground that is used as a shelter.
“You felt like you wanted to send a message to your kids and were thinking about what are other people home that may be watching this on the news thinking? But we felt that we weren’t in any real imminent danger.”
Herman returned to his room once the all-clear was sounded. The next morning, he stepped outside to see life going on as though the sirens had been a false tornado alarm, rather than warnings over two rockets that had struck just outside the city.
“Everyone is out having breakfast, people are in the shops and walking around," he said in a phone interview. "Life is very much normal."
Meanwhile, 50 miles to the northwest, Tel Aviv residents and visitors have also been adjusting to the rockets. At about 1:30 a.m. Thursday, a plane arrived at Ben Gurion Airport from Greece carrying leaders of Jewish federations from around the country. Among them was Naomi Adler, the CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, and other Federation staffers.
They had been in Athens to offer support for Jews living in a country with an unemployment rate over 25 percent. North American federations have provided funding to keep the country’s only Jewish day school open.
“We’re there when a need arises,” said Adler. She applied the same sentiment to Israel.
“It’s extremely important for people to understand that the Jewish federations are there for them and for them to physically see us here,” she said.
On Thursday morning, Adler had just gotten out of the shower at her hotel in Tel Aviv when she heard the sirens and ran to a shelter on her floor. She said it was crowded with guests in bath robes, looking at their phones “to figure out what was going on,” and hotel workers “who looked really tired.”
After 10 minutes, they heard an announcement “that they could go back to their routine.”
“The irony," she said in a telephone interview, "is that this experience has become part of the normal routine here."
That doesn't mean that trauma just evaporates in the Mediterranean climate. Orly Benshoshan was living in the southern city of Netivot during the first Gulf War when chemical warfare, not rockets, was the most urgent threat. She said a gas mask was always within reach.
“That was horrifying for me,” she said. “I could not take it anymore so I came to the United States.”
Now a Hebrew teacher at Perelman Jewish Day School, Benshoshan traveled back to Israel on Tuesday to visit family. Her brother was preparing to pick her up at the airport, driving Netivot on a route that would have taken him through Beersheva and Ashkelon — prime targets for Hamas. She told him not to come.
She instead went to visit family in Meirav, a kibbutz near Mount Gilboa in the North. Some of Benshoshan’s other family members have since come from the southern region to join her. They will spend Shabbat together and plan to drive back to Netivot on Sunday. Despite her past anxiety, she said she is not deterred by the latest threats.
"I want to show that I did not forget where I came from and to show my support," she said.
Back in Philadelphia, Congregation Ohev Shalom Rabbi Jeremy Gerber has received nervous emails from members scheduled to travel on the synagogue's "food and wine tour" of the country in August. One traveler, he said, sent him an email with the subject “Ashkelon," asking, “Is this a place we need to reconsider?”
Gerber said he's trying to break from the more standard tourist itinerary in Israel — and hopes to have other trips with a particular focus in the future — to “encourage congregants that it’s not a place you just go once and check off your bucket list, but a place you have a relationship with.”
Before he talks about return trips, though, he has to get congregants there the first time.
“What happens if there’s an air raid while we’re there and we have to run to a shelter?” he said. “It would certainly make the trip feel very different than going to Jamaica but it teaches us to feel a tiny glimmer of what Israelis deal with everyday. Our tour company is going to take care of us and we'll be home safe and sound, but they live with this every day.”