We were doing vacation things on our family summer getaway to Israel when the fighting began.
We’d climbed Masada to watch the sun rise, and floated in the Dead Sea. We’d pretended to be ancient Romans by running around the hippodrome in Caesarea, and ate fish and baklava in Acre.
“Are you going to cut your trip short?” an expat gallery owner in Rosh Pina asked us. We replied that we’d give it a few days, and we did think about it. But we didn’t go home early.
I received texts and emails from family and friends. “Maybe you should come home,” they said. “Why put yourselves and the kids at risk?” Of course we’d never intentionally put our family at risk to continue a vacation, but we were staying with my sister and her family, visiting aunts and uncles and cousins. How could we leave family we already missed terribly, when life here seemed to go on almost as usual? How could we tell them, “So sorry for your war, but thanks for keeping the lights on in Israel?” So we stayed.
Not speaking Hebrew fluently is a serious handicap during a huge news event for a media control freak like myself, even in a country where most people speak some English, or in a city like Ra’anana that is nicknamed Little America. The English news sites gave updates on rockets and events, but if we were alone, we couldn’t fully understand the instructions for what to do posted on television, or the announcements afterward. We were dependent on our Hebrew-speaking family, when they were with us, and had to just do what they did. We felt like children.
During the past month, the kids have gone from panicking at the first sounds of the siren to calmly slipping on the flip-flops they keep at the door and heading down to the bomb shelter, to see neighbors and play with their pets.
The mood during the sirens is always relatively optimistic, and the usual barrier of putting yourself together before seeing others has been removed.
During one early-morning siren, the kids petted the neighbor’s dog while everyone stood around in the pajamas.
During another siren where my sister and I, on our way to a day of shopping, had to pull over and run into a neighboring apartment building, one young guy greeted us cheerfully in his underwear while a few older couples chatted about non-war things such as what their grown kids were up to.
Day to day, things didn’t feel horrifying (at least until we turned on the news), but they didn’t feel sure-footed, either. There was a sense that anything could happen, but mostly we were safe.
We were insanely grateful to the IDF and for the Iron Dome missile defense system, for keeping us safe and making civilian security a priority.
And after that first week, when it was obvious we weren’t going home, we ventured out a bit more. We went to the beaches with bomb shelters, we stayed on the bigger highways, but like Israelis, we went about our lives – even if I did pray every time I got in the car that the sirens wouldn’t go off while we were on the road.
And often people we met would say the same thing. “You’re still here. Kol hakavod [Well done]. But why?” I usually said something about not wanting to leave family I never got enough time with anyway, and how the in the Center we felt safe. We weren’t in the South, where sirens were going off throughout the day with 15 seconds or less to get to shelter. We didn’t have tunnels being dug into the neighborhoods where we were staying. And while we didn’t personally know the soldiers fighting for everyone’s safety, we knew our family and friends were suffering and we wanted to be here with them.
But there was something else.
On our way to Israel we had a layover in Amsterdam, which gave us an opportunity to see Anne Frank House – since Naomi, our eight-year-old, had just finished writing a biography on Anne Frank for school. Then, later in our trip, we visited Yad Vashem where, among many things, the kids saw their great-grandmother’s name listed in the directory of victims.
“This couldn’t happen again, right?” Naomi asked as we left the museum. I’d reassured her that things were different now.
Except that here was our Jewish state still fighting for peace and safety. And here in the Middle East, innocent people were still being killed because of politics.
And here was a chance to understand the story in a different way than we would if we were just reading American press reports, or interacting with Facebook feeds.
In a small way, staying was our response to the anti-Israel news reports and posts in our social media feeds, to the anti-Semitic protests still happening in Europe over the past few weeks, and to the musicians and celebrities that our children look up to who have taken an anti-Israel stand without knowing the whole story. Staying was a way to show our kids that even though anti-Semitism isn’t a part of our everyday lives at home, it still exists.
We’ve mourned the loss of life on both sides, especially the children, but the unreported attacks on Israel by Hamas in the past years are horrific.
They’ve become so common and disturbingly familiar in Jewish history.
After a few weeks, we felt invested in the situation. We cheered during the first cease-fire attempt and were hopeful during the next ones. The kids helped their cousin pack cookies to take to the soldiers, her friends, headed to the South. If what we could do here was teach our children to look at the story in a different light, to feel a connection to their culture and heritage and see what the State of Israel continues to work toward 66 years since its birth for all Jews, then we wanted to do that.
On the way back to Ra’anana from Jerusalem the evening after our trip to Yad Vashem, we saw a fire burning in a field off Route 5.
“Is that a factory?” our 11-year-old asked. But we all knew it was a rocket burning down in a field. Nobody had been hurt, but the billowing of smoke just minutes from highly populated neighborhoods and as visible from the highway as the shopping centers, was a toxic reminder that there is still a lot to do – in Israel and back in the US – to reach peace for our people.
And that reminder is why we stayed. The writer is a marketing and strategy consultant living in Seattle with her husband and three kids. She is planning many more trips back to Israel with her family.