“When you hear sirens, get off the street, find the nearest building, then wait and be calm.” These are the instructions I received upon arriving in Israel in the heat of July 2014. It was not exactly how many 17-year-olds spent their summer break.
Living a month on the ground during Operation Protective Edge challenged and changed my identity. With the intensity of the conflict ever hanging, Israel’s struggle for safety became my own. Through this, I discovered what it means to be a part of something greater than myself.
I had visited Israel several times before, but only during periods of relative peace. After those trips I returned to a place of peace: a comfortable, suburban community where my Jewish identity and belief in Zionism were never seriously questioned outside of an academic environment. But at such a critical time for Israel, this trip was much different.
With the first air-raid siren, I discovered the difficulty of “wait and be calm.” I quickly found shelter in a stranger’s basement and waited in the darkness for the incoming missile to be intercepted. As I looked around at those taking cover with me, I saw several young Israeli men who looked not that different from myself. Yet, in that moment, I realized there was an enormous distinction between us.
A few weeks later, I would safely fly home, thousands of miles away from the conflict. But they would not. Any of those young men could any day be called to fight and perhaps die for their country, and for the safety of the Jewish people. I had never before imagined having to defend that which I cared about to that extent.
About two minutes later, the rocket exploded upon Iron Dome’s interception and the muffled boom filled me with fear. But the young Israelis were not afraid. On their faces I saw only strength and determination. Seeing this conviction drew strength in me.
At the all-clear signal, I emerged with another realization: the experience I just had is a daily reality for the Israeli people. Rocket fire and threats of terror are unfortunately normal and expected for Israelis. Every day is a struggle against those who wish to annihilate them and their beliefs.
I knew this before. This was certainly not the first time I had thought of it, but it was the first time this truth was real for me. It is one thing to see headlines or to read stories, but it is entirely different to have a first-person experience — to actually be there in the moment.
For the rest of the summer, every loud noise reminded me of air-raid sirens. In fact, I found myself in a bunker several more times. Through each experience, I acquired a greater share of responsibility for Israel and for the safety of the Jewish People as whole. My newfound solidarity was deeper than nationalism, it was a collective survival instinct. I could no longer choose to be passive when Israelis are not given that choice.
So when I did eventually board the plane to fly thousands of miles home, I took my concern for Israel’s safety with me. During my senior year of high school I began educating myself on the issues. I attended my first AIPAC conference, and joined the Israel club at my high school. I attended rallies for Israel, and helped organize pro-Israel events in my local community.
After enrolling at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, I contacted pro-Israel student leaders on campus. I became involved before even graduating from high school. Later, during freshman year of college, I found my pro-Israel home with Illini Public Affairs Committee (IlliniPAC). I eventually joined the executive board, and I now serve as our President, along with my amazing co-President Hayley Nagelberg.
In a few days, I will be returning to Israel for the first time since the 2014 war. I have had a yearning inside of me to visit ever since I left. It feels good to be going back. I plan on enjoying my time in Israel, then getting right back to work strengthening Israel on campus.
I will forever remember the fearless faces of those young Israelis. They remind me that making a difference demands more than having an opinion; activism requires action. Pro-Israel advocacy is now a central part of my life. For me, like for the Israeli people, standing up for what you believe in not a choice, but a duty.