Every time he heard warning sirens, Judd Liebman ’12 calmly made his way to the fortified safe room in the Tel Aviv building where he was working. In northern Israeli cities including Tel Aviv, the warning meant people had 90 seconds to get to safety before a rocket might land.
“There were sirens two to three times a day, waking us up in the middle of the night or the morning, or during Shabbat dinner, so that wasn’t that scary because we kind of got used to it,” Liebman said.
Liebman spent 10 weeks in Israel this summer as part of Birthright Israel Excel, a summer program for college students that includes an internship with a prominent Israeli company.
Liebman was one of many Harvard-Westlake students staying in Israel during a summer of violence sparked by the deaths of three Israeli teenagers in June. Hamas, the Islamic militant group that controls much of the Gaza Strip, took responsibility for the killings in August.
Erica Jaffe ’15, who traveled to Israel with the B’nai B’rith Youth Organization, witnessed the reaction to the killings firsthand.
“I went to the Western Wall the next day, and I saw protests and people screaming, and it was all terrifying, so we left pretty much as soon as we came,” Jaffe said. “But when we were there, it was scary.”
Following the teenagers’ deaths, Israel invaded Gaza, and the two sides began exchanging fire that continued for most of the summer. At the end of June, three Israelis kidnapped and killed a Palestinian boy.
These events occurred in the middle of Jake Sonnenberg’s ’11 trip to Tel Aviv, where he was also in Birthright Israel Excel. Like Liebman, he became accustomed to the frequent sirens, and though his family members back home were worried, they did not seem overly concerned, he said.
“Obviously it’s tough for parents to have their kids in a situation that can seem so scary from so far away, but I think they also understood, especially after talking to me and hearing about my experiences, that it’s not quite as bad on the ground in Israel as it seems,” Sonnenberg said. “Life goes on, especially somewhere like Tel Aviv. People still go to work. People still go to the beach. You just have to always know where the closest bomb shelter is.”
As a part of the Birthright Israel Excel program, each student was paired with a current or former Israeli soldier. Sonnenberg’s 27-year-old partner was called to a reserve in Gaza, where he was critically injured in an incident that claimed three Isreali soldiers’ lives. After enduring several emergency surgeries and spending four days in the intensive care unit, he is on his way to a full recovery, Sonnenberg said.
“It really showed just how awful the conflict can be,” Sonnenberg said. “That a young, healthy man studying to be a lawyer gets pulled up and has to go fight and is so seriously hurt in a conflict that doesn’t really show many signs of being resolved any time soon.”
Nina Woythaler ’16, who spent a month in Israel through the North American Federation of Temple Youth, felt relatively safe due to the protection of the Iron Dome, the Israeli air defense system that intercepts and destroys missiles.
Although some participants went home because of parents’ concerns, Woythaler never considered cutting her trip short, she said.
“There was a little bit of fear,” Woythaler said. “It was there. People would talk about it. People would be asking counselors questions. Parents would be contacting them and telling them the news, and the kids would get a little worried. In the end, it’s all very abstract, and I guess the unity that was there in the country made us feel like we could stay there, because everyone else was there going through it with us.”
Both Jaffe and Sonnenberg agreed that the conflict fostered a sense of unity.
“Just walking down the street, people would say, ‘Pray for Israel,’ to us, or, ‘I’m praying for our safety,’” Jaffe said. “It was strange but nice to hear.”
Sonnenberg said neighbors got a chance to know one another.
“One of my coworkers at the office told me that one of the highlights of her bomb shelter experience in her apartment building was that she could finally put faces to the names of all the Wi-Fi networks in her building,” Sonnenberg said.
In addition to a strengthened community, Liebman also noticed another significant change: a clear shift in political views.
“It’s funny because there is such a two-sided, pluralistic debate in Israel when there’s peace,” he said. “There’s always a desire for a two-state peace resolution. There’s always a desire for Gaza for self-determination and to survive as a separate entity. When the conflict began, you could really see a shift toward more right wing policies. Not only policy, but also rhetoric.”
Sonnenberg felt that his time in Israel helped him understand the realities of war.
“It’s really easy to see a report on TV of some disaster in Iraq or Afghanistan and not really have it hit home that these are people who have families and friends and communities,” he said.
Though he is an American Jew, like Jaffe, Sonnenberg and Woythaler, being so close to the conflict encouraged Liebman to recognize the valid arguments on both sides.
“[Visiting Israel] definitely made me understand the pluralist aspect of every conflict,” Liebman said. “To say, ‘We need to carpet bomb Hamas’, or to say, ‘It’s all Israel’s fault,’ is really not productive. Everything has two sides to a story, and we don’t have all the facts. It’s unfortunate to know that there are many innocent people being killed, and it’s also unfortunate to know that Hamas wants Israel wiped off the face of the earth.”