On Tuesday evening at approximately 10 pm, as I walked home from the Shalom Hartman Institute where I am spending two weeks studying and learning, the sirens sounded throughout Jerusalem. I was midway between the Institute and the apartment I rent in Jerusalem’s German Colony. I had never heard these warning sirens before except to indicate the minute of silences observed on Yom HaShoah and Yom HaZikaron. I heard two booms. I quickened my pace, but still paused to look both ways before crossing the busy thoroughfare of Emek Refaim, finally making it back to my apartment in a few minutes. Then I thought that perhaps I should go downstairs to the miklat, bomb shelter. I joined others in the basement outside of the locked shelter. After waiting there the required ten minutes we said our good evenings and returned to our apartments.
I have since learned that I handled my first missile attack incorrectly. It takes a Hamas rocket approximately 90 seconds to reach the Jerusalem area and so as confident I might have been about my quickened pace I was actually supposed to dart into a nearby building. Now I have read the guidelines issued by the Home Front Command: “When the alert siren or an explosion are heard, it is necessary to complete the process of protection, depending on the time available to you and to act according to the following instructions… If outside– enter the closest building, depending on the time available. If there is no building or cover/shelter nearby, or if you are in an open space, lie down on the ground and protect your head with your hands.” Oops! I have also, much to my staff’s delight, secured a key to the bomb shelter.
Truth be told the threat of injury or harm from a rocket here in Jerusalem is minimal. Apparently for Hamas’ rudimentary rockets to reach Jerusalem the explosive warhead must be removed so they can travel the greater distance from the Gaza Strip. This is not to minimize the threat these rockets represent to the citizens of Southern Israel, in particular to the town of Sederot, where the sirens offer only a 15 second warning. There the situation is intolerable. It is also becoming increasingly difficult in other cities.
Still these rockets do not represent an existential threat to the State of Israel. They are instead instruments of terror. And I refuse to bow to terrorism. I refuse to allow it to seep into my heart. The battle against terror is more a matter of faith than a struggle of armies. It is that simple.
I believe that while terrorism might seek to destroy life, its greatest danger lies in destroying our way of life. Our governments are empowered to protect our lives, but it rests in our hands to safeguard our precious way of life. I admit, in retrospect, perhaps I sometimes take this principle too far. My heart does still remember the fear of March 2002, when I was here during the height of the second intifada, and when there were multiple terror attacks throughout Jerusalem each and every day. For months after my return my heart would race when a bus would idle nearby as I walked New York’s streets. And yet I continued to walk the streets. It took some time for my way of life to return, but it did nonetheless. Perhaps that memory is what protected my heart as I casually walked the streets a few evenings ago.
On Tuesday afternoon, I joined some friends and colleagues for an afternoon beer. During our time together a friend from Israel was called up and told to report to his army unit somewhere in the South. I remain far more concerned for his well being, as well as that of his fellow soldiers, than I do for my own safety. There is little doubt that the situation will escalate and that the IDF will soon enter Gaza with greater force. One should loudly declare for all to hear that it is remarkable how restrained Israel’s leaders have been. I doubt this can continue much longer. Israeli lives are at stake. A way of life may very well be under siege.
Yesterday I decided to walk throughout Jerusalem’s streets. I wondered what the day after the sirens would be like. I made my way to the newly renovated First Station. It was once Jerusalem’s primary train station, completed by the British in 1892, connecting this city to the Jaffa port. It had long ago fallen into disrepair but is now a beautiful plaza filled with restaurants and vendors, musicians and performers. This year a beach playground was added. I do not require a pretend beach. There may be no sea here, but it feels as if it is the ocean’s breezes that soothe the soul.
And then as if at the beach I happened upon a group of nursery school students, holding hands, smiling, giggling and singing songs. At the station I stepped into a music school’s performance. There I found young girls dancing, costumed in their white ballerina outfits. Their parents stood around with their iPhones taking pictures and videos. Curiously they danced to Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. (They played a version that did not include the culminating canon fire.) Obviously the children had practiced their dance for weeks, and perhaps even months, and so despite the music’s theme, they danced their dance and the assembled group clapped with joy.
Israel is far more vibrant than the simple colors with which we portray it. We wish for Israel to live up to our idealized images. It is either a needy victim (Israel is under attack! Send your support now.) Or it is a mighty hero (Look at the brave soldiers! Pray for their welfare.) But this is only a small part of the story. A society is so much more than these images. Life is not lived in hyperbole. This place is far more complicated and far more nuanced than our visions suggest.
Last night my colleagues and I gathered for a festive evening of song. We sang: “Ki va moed—God, You will surely arise and grant compassion on Zion,for it is time to be gracious to her;the appointed time has come.” (Psalm 102:14) Then again part of the pull of this place is that our songs feel different here. They resonate with greater fervor sitting in Jerusalem. Every line takes on an even deeper meaning. This week we will chant the Torah’s words, “And the Lordsaid to Moses, ‘Ascend these heights of Avarim and view the land that I have given to the Israelite people…’” (Numbers 27:12) This week I am privileged to be here, in this land. Hyperbole? Perhaps.
I realize the picture from afar might be one of despair. But here the air only stirs the soul. No sirens can ever diminish that stirring of hope that I discover here every summer regardless of the circumstances and despite the situations. Yesterday I saw with my own eyes what to untold generations was only a prayer, the words of our wedding prayers come to life: I heard “…in the streets of Jerusalem the sounds of joy and of happiness, the voice of the groom and the voice of the bride, the shouts of young people celebrating, and the songs of children at play.”
You would not imagine this if you only looked from afar. Up close I sense the worry as well, but when here I also see the joy and the wonder—and the life.