Yael's corner: Starting school

Rivlin at Haredi school in Jerusalem, August 16, 2015 (photo credit: AMOS BEN GERSHOM, GPO)
Rivlin at Haredi school in Jerusalem, August 16, 2015
(photo credit: AMOS BEN GERSHOM, GPO)
My middle son is going into first grade and my mama-bear instincts are in full swing.
“Only the best for my baby,” I remember my parents constantly saying when I was young. And suddenly, walking around my precious son’s future school campus, I found myself murmuring the same sentiment. But I wasn’t referring to fancy furniture for the classroom or special swing sets for the play area. I was referring to the bomb shelter.
My son has been waiting for months to see his new school, yet between my busy schedule and my denial that he really is growing up, we didn’t take that emotional visit until just a few days ago.
“Is today the day, Mama?” my sweet boy asked me, as he opened his sleepy eyes in bed with a huge smile already on his face. “Yes, my love,” I answered him.
“Today you’re going to meet your teachers, see your classroom, and get to know your new school.” In a rush of excitement, my son was dressed, fed, and out the door in just a few minutes. “First grade – woohoo!” he called out, as we walked, hand in hand, to the car.
But once we were on our way, the trip to his new school brought up more than just excitement and joy.
“Mommy, I’m scared to take a bus by myself because of what happened to Eyal, Gil-Ad and Naftali [teenagers killed by Hamas last summer]” he said quietly, the fear apparent in his voice. Taken by surprise, I took a moment to gather my thoughts. “I’ll wait with you for the bus and you’ll never be alone. No one is going to do anything bad to you,” I said, with all the confidence I could muster. With a deep breath, I pulled over the car, held my son’s hand tight, and lovingly reminded him of the foundation of our faith. “We must forever remember what happened to those three holy boys – and everyone who gave their life so that we can live safely on this land. But we must never let it scare us.”
While he was safely embraced in my hug, I walked my son through a “day in the life” of a first-grader, and made sure to highlight that there will always be adults watching over him, making sure that he is safe.
With sadness that innocence is taken too young from the children of Israel, I returned to the driver’s seat and continued on to school.
As we entered the school campus, a burst of joy and a positive feeling took hold. Finally, I felt like I found a place where my baby – who has lived in Israel through two wars and numerous “code red” sirens – could finally just be a carefree child.
I stood at the entrance of the school and felt like I was watching a scene straight out of a childhood movie. Beautiful colors and murals covered the buildings, children laughed and played in the soccer field, classes sat in the grass with their study books and it was clear the children were engrossed in their learning, enjoying the session. Teachers passed us in the halls, smiled, and continued on, children gave my son high fives, and singing from different classrooms filled the entire building.
We took a wonderful tour around the school, exited the building into the warm summer sun, and just as I sighed a deep breath of fresh air, the “code red” sound, signaling a possible incoming terrorist rocket, went off on my telephone. Within a few minutes more beeping began.
Tugging at my shirt, my son looked at me deep in the eyes. “I love this school,” he said, “but I want to know where the bomb shelter is before I come back again.”
With a gentle hand, my son’s future first-grade teacher walked him to the bomb shelter and pointed out how it is located right next to the first-grade classroom.
I stood speechless as I took in the absurdity and sadness of the situation. In silence, I bitterly stared at the entrance to the bomb shelter, desperately yearning, with tears in my eyes, for peace.
I wish we didn’t need bomb shelters here in Israel.
Yet if there was ever a bomb shelter depicting hope, this was surely it. The outside wall at the entrance to the shelter was covered in a beautifully painted mural depicting children frolicking in the rolling hills of Israel, studying Torah, with the Temple in Jerusalem built directly in front of them. There was a sentence from Psalms written in big letters: “I have chosen a path of faith.”
“Only the best for my baby,” I said with a half-smile – just as my parents had said to me years before – as we departed my son’s school campus and made our way back home. But I wasn’t speaking about special clothing, food, or the physical items many parents allude to when they lovingly declare those words to their youngsters. Rather, I was referring to the spiritual values that my husband and I work so hard to instill in our children, and the comforting knowledge that those principles are mirrored in Israeli society as a whole.
I pray with all of my might that my son will never need to set foot into the bomb shelter we saw. And I wish with all of my heart that my children didn’t even need a bomb shelter on their school campus. But the sad reality is that they do. And I’m just glad that the entrance is emblazoned with comforting words emanating hope and strength.
As I returned home from this emotional visit, it was clear to me that it’s not only first-graders who can take away deep lessons from elementary school. During times of fear, change, and uncertainty, I too will now inscribe these ancient words on my soul: “I have chosen a path of faith.”
The writer is senior vice president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews.