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Growing Up in Israel: No Two Experiences Are Quite the Same

June 5, 2008 By:
Aaron Pasman
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From left: Sarit Sade, Sorin Siegler and Bella Schafer were among the panelists at a Drexel University forum on growing up in Israel. The event was part of the 10th anniversary of Drexel's Judaic Studies Program.

After this particular war, the bumper stickers read, "I stayed in Tel Aviv."

Leah Goldman was 14 years old during the first Persian Gulf war in the early 1990s, and living through it is one of her strongest memories of growing up in Israel, especially the message on that sticker. Unlike many others in Tel Aviv, her family stayed in the city throughout, despite the fact that Iraqis were launching Scud missiles into the coastal metropolis.

"Everything was closed," she said. "There was no minyan, no supermarket."

But one of the most significant closures was her school, which shut down for a month. During a recent forum at Drexel University that dealt with the experience of growing up in Israel, Goldman described listening for the sirens, and said that, after a while, they came so frequently that her family chose to sleep in a sealed, protected room, rather than being awakened and having to rush for shelter in the middle of the night.

The forum was one of the final events celebrating the 10th anniversary of the founding of Drexel's Judaic Studies Program.

Goldman, an early-childhood Jewish educator, was joined in an intergenerational panel of five by college student Roy Reuveni; former academic liaison to the Israeli consulate Sarit Sade; Drexel professor Sorin Siegler; and Bella Schafer, a Jewish educator, psychotherapist and member of the Israeli army's first female officer's unit.

Goldman recalled that her school reopened after a month, and she reflected upon the experience of walking there wearing a gas mask in case of attacks.

"We were overjoyed" when the war ended on Purim, she recalled, not only because there were two reasons to celebrate, but because no one had been killed, despite the fact that missiles had landed in the middle of the city.

Right Place, Right Time

"I'm very proud to have been born in the right place at the right time," said Schafer, another one of the panelists.

Though many generations of her family have grown up in Israel, Schafer said that most of them are also American citizens, thanks to the continued renewal of citizenship granted to her great-grandfather in the 1870s.

She grew up in a very Zionist family, she said, and learned English at a young age and also attended an Orthodox school. After graduation, she had to do one year of national service before being admitted to university, so she worked on a kibbutz founded by her youth group.

"They needed somebody who would always be in the library -- what could be better?" she said.

Schafer's 19th birthday in November 1947 turned out to be the same night that the United Nations approved the partition plan dividing Palestine between the Jews and the Arabs.

When Israel's War of Independence began, Schafer said that she didn't want to join the women's group of the army, so she and two others were taken to court. While the other two were sent to work with amputees, Schafer was forced to join the first female officer's unit.

"It was very hard," she said. "The only thing I was good at was shooting."

There were personal tragedies as well.

Schafer's brother was killed in 1949, just after she was sent to Haifa to serve as a translator for the Israeli navy.

This, at least, was a job she was familiar with -- she had served as a translator at the United States Embassy a few years earlier.

One thing Jews should know about Israel is that it's much easier to be Jewish there than in the states, said Reuveni, who called it more of a lifestyle there than anything else.

"There's a lot of work you've got to do in America" to be Jewish, he said, including practical considerations, to say nothing of maintaining Jewish identity.

Siegler echoed that sentiment, saying that while he hadn't been particularly religious growing up in Israel, since immigrating here, he'd joined a synagogue and become more of a practicing Jew in order to maintain his religious identity and hold on to his heritage.

Despite the political turmoil, "Israel is way safer than the United States," said Sade in response to an audience question.

She said that, prior to the Second Lebanon War in the summer of 2006, she worried that, in the wake of globalization and an ensuing loss of tradition, Israelis were "losing everything" the country had fought for.

As part of such a reference, she cited such deleterious influences as iPods, night-clubbing and the mix of English and Arabic slang.

But during the war, she said that she saw a news report in which an amputee said, "I'd give my other leg for Israel," which brought home to her that people were still connected to the land.

Sade said that despite all the changes over the past 60 years, Israel has still managed to turn out generations of people who have good values.

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