The Weintraub Israel Center, in partnership with Tucson Hebrew Academy and local synagogues as part of its school twinning program, sent a group of educators to Israel this week. On Tuesday, the group was visiting the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona’s partners in Hof Ashkelon and Kiryat Malachi, which is near the Gaza border, when Islamic Jihad and Hamas launched over 120 rockets and mortars at several Israeli southern communities. This was the largest flare-up in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in four years. The educators — Maya Nona Bakerman (Or Chadash), Mari Bangoura (Chaverim), Emily Ellentuck (Tucson Hebrew Academy), Brie Finegold (Temple Emanu-El), Crystal Lucha (Tucson Jewish Community Center), and Kim Spitzer (Anshei Israel) — and program coordinator Adi Olshansky, a native Israeli living in Tucson, collaborated on the report below.
As we gathered at our first morning in the partnership region over a delicious Israeli buffet, we knew we would soon meet our partner teachers with whom we had Skyped all year long. After a walk down the beach and a last round of coffee, we drove to 138 Hill, a hill that had played a huge role in the Independence Day War. This hill was also chosen by the partnership to plant trees and create a nature area for all to connect to the land. It was finally sinking in that we were really in Israel. The idyllic orchards and surroundings gave no hint as to the hostility that was literally on the horizon in Gaza.
Next stop was Kibbutz Yad Mordechai, where a tour guide told us about its history in the small museum. We were hearing about its namesake, Mordechai Anielewicz, who as a young man risked life and limb to lead the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. Then a siren went off, and we felt a loud boom.
The feeling was totally foreign. The tour guide laughed and said “Hamas is welcoming you.” We weren’t sure what was happening. We stayed in a safe spot where we continued to learn about the history of the kibbutz. The building around us was reinforced to withstand attack. Without saying it directly, the demeanor of the tour guide was that missiles weren’t going to stop us. We were continuing, just not in exactly the same path. Uneasy, but glad to be with people who seemed prepared and calm, we heard Adi Shacham [the partnership’s People2People coordinator in Israel] and Adi Olshansky busy making changes to our plans to make sure we were all safe.
Our host families came to pick us up to stay with them for the evening. Some of us were to be hosted by families in the southern part of our partnership region nearer to Gaza, where the missiles were coming from. We were asked if we wanted to stay further away. Some said, “If you can stay, I can stay” to their hosts. Others decided to stay further north. The hospitality we were shown was incredible — one host had just become a grandmother, and she made time to take two of us to dinner at another host’s home, even while her extended family was visiting to see the baby. The table was full of delicious fresh salads, fruits, and desserts.
After a delicious Kosher meal with other teachers, some of whom had come to Tucson last December, we carpooled home. All of us learned a new word, “mamad,” the safe reinforced room within the home or kibbutz where we stayed. We all woke up at some point in the night to a siren telling us to go to the mamad. You have anywhere from 15-30 seconds to get there. But after a few moments, we returned to bed.
As teachers or as parents, we thought about how we would handle this with a young child. Some of us thought about whether our parents would hear the news and be worried. Would things escalate even more? We were surprised that what we were experiencing was not featured more in the news. Then we realized that maybe we shouldn’t be surprised.
The next day, when Adi [Olshansky] asked us how we were feeling, some of us spoke about having a responsibility to take back our experience and relate it to others, some talked about having a newfound understanding, if only a little bit deeper than before, of the lives of our Israeli friends.
We all noticed that our Israeli hosts were saying something like “I’m sorry this is happening while you are here.” And we understood that they wanted us to feel safe, but also we knew that this was a possibility when we came. We all felt that our hosts should not need to say “I’m sorry” because they didn’t create this situation. Many of us feel like our experience in Israel is one from which we can learn and grow. We know Israel is a tumultuous place with a varied landscape: beautiful fields of fig, olive and nectarine trees, welcoming Jewish people, and also tensions and hostility. The bitter comes with the sweet, and we don’t need to pretend that there is only one or the other. So our hosts didn’t need to say “I’m sorry.”