It hadn’t really sunk in yet that I was actually going to Israel – this time with my family, until I arrived at Kennedy Airport and saw the El-Al plane on the tarmac with the blue Israeli flag on the tail. You get caught up in life’s events, the good, the bad, the confusing, and don’t really have the time to contemplate such an amazing journey. My two sons were busy with college studies here in the States, I lost my mother in March, my wife lost her mother in January, and it seemed as though everything that could fall apart in the house . . . was!

So, when my wife’s brother planned a Bar Mitzvah for his son in Israel in June, and invited us – we went; making the reservations for the 10-day tour that accompanied the celebration, doing so mechanically, by rote – “uh huh,” not giving much thought to it because we were so occupied with the above-mentioned “stuff.” My wife’s father and sister from California, along with her children and other relatives from the West Coast were coming too. Joining us were my wife’s relatives from Israel, and my wife’s brother’s in-laws from Israel as well; his wife being a Sabra. It was to be a grand “trip of a lifetime.”

My last visit to Israel was 40 years ago, two generations, in the summer of 1974; an 8-week trip arranged by the American Zionist Youth Foundation. (AZYF). That trip left an indelible impression on my adolescent Jewish psyche because it combined touring with 4 weeks of work on a kibbutz, and without question gave me a stronger Jewish identity and love for our history and culture. Everyone told me about my upcoming trip: “You will be amazed, and you won’t recognize the country!” I was certainly curious to see what they were talking about.

We arrived, however, at an inauspicious time in Israel. The day after we got there, they had just found the bodies of the three murdered Israeli teenagers, and tensions in the country were rising. In Jerusalem, we saw mounted police dispersing crowds of angry Jewish demonstrators, marching down the streets, calling for revenge. To make matters worse, an Arab teenager was kidnapped and later found dead as well, so now there were angry demonstrators in the Arab sections of the capital, as well.

As tourists, who made use of the sidewalk cafes and various eateries at night and rode a private tour bus during the day, we felt unscathed by the unrest that was around us and sometimes we could actually hear it, while we were in Jerusalem. In fact, one evening while we were eating outdoors at a burger restaurant on Ben Yehuda Street, a loud protest of mostly religious Israeli teenagers moved down the street with signs and chanting slogans against the Arabs. The mounted police I mentioned earlier, broke up the demonstration “rather peacefully,” exhorting the demonstrators to “shuv La-Bayit!” or “go home!”

The next day, perhaps our 3rd or 4thday in Israel, we were in Tel Aviv on some free time from the tour. I remember that my wife and I were eating at a falafel stand close to Dizengoff Street, a few blocks from our hotel, which was on Ha Yarkon Street. It was about 7:30 in the evening, and traffic was normal.

We were seated on a park bench right next to the stand, enjoying our sandwiches and drinks – our sons were in another part of town with their cousins, doing the same thing. Seated next to my wife and myself was a young Israeli woman with a toddler. She was occupied, both with her own food, and wiping half of a sandwich off of her young son’s face. My wife and I watched and smiled; it wasn’t that long ago we were doing the same thing with our boys.

Suddenly, out of nowhere came a loud, mournful, wailing siren, which could only mean one thing – we were under attack! It was surreal, like something from a newscast, a movie, or a story I heard from someone else. At first, I froze, looked at my wife in disbelief and just sat there. Then the Israeli woman stood up, looked down at us and yelled “Bo! Bo!” which means “Come! Come!” She grabbed her son and started running across the street to an apartment building on the corner. Quickly, we followed suit, along with the two guys working the falafel stand, and two other customers, seated on a bench next to us, and eating as well. The six of us ran up to the glass doors of the aforementioned apartment building. A man, who we found out later lived on the first floor opened the door for us and let us in. He pointed to underneath the stairwell, which he said would be safe. If you can’t get to a shelter in time, and we didn’t see any, that’s what you’re supposed to do – get underneath a concrete and steel staircase (which most buildings in Israel have – they’ve learned from years of experience).

Three Fajr-5 missiles from Gaza explode over our heads in Tel Aviv. Photo By Steve Shalot

Three Fajr-5 missiles from Gaza explode over our heads in Tel Aviv.
Photo By Steve Shalot

In the street, we saw cars stopped, their doors opened, and the drivers lying on the ground nearby, with their hands over their heads. We saw a mother, next to her white SUV, lying spread-eagle over her young daughter. That was a sight, which I will never forget.

So there the eight of us stood; plus the toddler who was held tightly in his mother’s arms. The siren lasted about two minutes, but it seemed forever, and we could hear distant “booms” overhead; it wasn’t just one missile, but several. The missiles fired from Gaza by Hamas had finally reached Tel Aviv, after several days of attacks farther south in towns like Sderot, and Ashkelon. The fact that missiles from Gaza reached us in Tel Aviv, meant only one thing – they were the Iranian-made, long-distance Fajr-5’s, which means “dawn” in Farsi. They seemed like anything but the peaceful images conjured up by the word “dawn!” Welcome to Iranian sarcasm!

Growing up in the United States, Long Island to be precise, I had experienced my share of anti-Semitic taunts in school, and decidedly pro-Arab professors in college. These incidents just strengthened my Jewish identity and pride, and unlike my grandfather and his father, and his father’s father, all the way back through history in Eastern Europe, who experienced pogroms, and the Holocaust, I at least was comforted in the knowledge that now Jews had a place of our very own, where we could live and were free to express our Judaism – Israel, tiny Israel. To be sure, there were problems; years of wars, terrorist attacks, international pressures, but we had our Homeland, a place where you could become a citizen just by saying “I am a Jew, and I’m home.”

But this summer was different. Instead of going about my life in America, and reading about attacks in Israel, wars, etc., and saying “Isn’t it a shame what’s happening there, we should support Israel!” we were actually there. Now, the difference was that I was a Jew under attack in the Jewish nation . . . I was as much a target of the enemy as a Jew living in Sderot, or an IDF soldier on patrol near the border. For the first time in my sheltered existence, I shared in the fate of my people. I could see it in the eyes of the young mother underneath that staircase, in the faces of the man who let us into his building, the falafel guys, and the two other customers.

My family and I were involved in other missile attacks as well through the course of our stay. During one attack, we were in our hotel along the beach, and my wife was in the shower as the siren went off! It was almost comical as I implored her to “just wrap yourself in a towel and come out! No one cares how you look! We have to GO!!” I had a moment of dark humor when I wondered if it would be my destiny to die while arguing with my wife over how she dressed for an air raid! She managed to throw on some sweats, and with her hair wet and straggly, we made it to a 2nd floor stairwell, where we sheltered with a Dutch journalist and her two friendly German Shepherds, who were content to lick their way through the siren.

Just by accident of time, I could have been here in June, 1967, or Yom Kippur in 1973, or on a refugee ship viewing Eretz Israel for the first time as it approached the shoreline; this is to say, I felt part of. Part of me was scared a bit, to be sure, but I also felt pride – pride in the Iron Dome system that kept us relatively safe, pride in the men and women of the IDF who would soon exact the revenge of the Jewish nation on those who sought our destruction, pride in the resilience I saw in my people as they went about their normal lives and dealt with the emerging situation.

The love affair with this country, which began for me in 1974, now blossomed into a full-scale attachment, an “engagement” if you will. Now, after being home in the United States a few months, I say the name “Eretz Israel” with a sweetness that rolls off my tongue, a pride and a devotion that I never would have had, had I not been there in the summer of 2014. It is the same for my two sons, who had similar “siren experiences.”

When we were ready to come home, and we waited in the hotel lobby in Tel Aviv for the bus that would take us to the airport, I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of guilt – at leaving these people behind. The ground invasion of “Protective Edge” had not started yet, and my brother-in-law who stayed longer because he and his wife had an apartment in Tel Aviv, told us the missile attacks just got worse as the war went on. I can only imagine. A chunk of debris from a missile, he later told us, fell in the street just feet from his 4 yr old son.

The hotel clerk, a young woman in her twenties looked at me as I checked us out, and she implored me, with her eyes as much as her words: “You won’t forget about us here, will you?” If I could give her an answer now I would say that I think about the country and people I left behind every single minute of every single day. Just a week after we got home, my wife and I proudly went to the Rally For Israel at the United Nations in New York; we carried Israeli and American flags, which were bound together in a show of solidarity, and gratefulness for the country, which has been a steadfast friend of Israel and the Jewish people. I hope to visit Israel again soon – hopefully in a time of lasting peace, but vigilant for whatever comes.

My wife and I at Rally For Israel in NY

My wife and I at Rally For Israel in NY – Photo by Steve Shalot