The longest 5 days of my life started with the longest 90 seconds.
It took longer than I would have thought it should for my brain to calibrate the sound and the required action.
Was it the sound of Simchat Torah celebration? Perhaps some Israel-only practice I wasn’t aware of? It took only a few more seconds to realise that indeed it was an Israel-only practice, albeit the one you are warned of growing up in the diaspora and the one you never wish to experience.
Bleary-eyed, I opened my bedroom door and found both my roommates, Sam and Avigal, equally perplexed at their doorways. I asked half-jokingly “do you think that’s something we need to worry about?”
Yes, it was.
Confused as to where our neighbours were, we sat at the bottom of the stairs, listening to Iron Dome interceptions overhead, walls shaking. Although it was Shabbat, we turned on our phones.
First point of call, contact family and friends. News spreads too fast to not tell them we were ok.
We began reading headlines to each other, our adrenaline-filled voices shaking and higher pitched than usual. The words “surprise attack” was read aloud and, having listened in my Israel history classes at school, I say “this probably means we’ll go to war.”
I’m not sure how we decided when it was ok for us to go back upstairs, but once there, we Googled safety responses for sirens in Israel. The further 7 or 8 sirens throughout the morning gave us a chance to put these skills into practice.
By the fourth or so siren, we had become naively blasé and deemed our front doorway the safest space in our apartment – enclosed space, no windows. As our response grew more lax, we remarked with fascination the speed at which one can get used to something.
As we continued to read the news, the energy in the apartment became slightly frenzied, unsure what to do or what to think, we began our war experience with my personal favourite coping mechanism – humour.
We laughed a lot that day and I don’t think we really even started crying until the next.
The repressed familiarities and routine-lessness of Covid lockdown began to set in as we gathered on the couches with our coffees, sharing the horrific headlines and stories we had awoken to. Blinds closed to protect the windows in case of more sirens, we just sat together, phones in hand, update after update rolling in.
200 Israelis dead, some mention of a terrorist attack on a peace rave down south, pictures of missing civilians beginning to fill our newsfeeds.
I messaged my Israeli friends and their replies laid the groundwork for a shocking new reality that we quickly had to come to terms with. Everyone reported that a brother, husband, son, father, boyfriend, cousin, uncle and countless friends had been called up to the army.
I only had to worry about myself. Each of them and their entire families now had someone they loved on the frontline. I received a teary voice message from a recently married friend detailing her husband’s leaving and how his family had now taken her in indefinitely. I cried while I listened.
It was a quiet morning in Jerusalem, the absence of sirens gave the day prior a dreamlike quality. If you put your phone away, for a second you could convince yourself it didn’t happen. There was a strange sense of camaraderie on the streets. Each nod at a stranger, each interaction with a shop assistant, laden with understanding – we are in shock, we are heartbroken, we are under attack, but we are shocked, heartbroken and under attack, together.
Sunday was the day we found out about Hersh, the son of our wellbeing counsellor at Pardes, Rachel. He had been at the peace rave and they had not heard from him since Saturday morning when he sent two text messages in quick succession – “I love you” and “I’m sorry.” For the Pardes community, it was now personal, this war had attacked one of our own.
Some friends came over that afternoon. We sang, we cried, we tried to talk about things other than the news, one left to donate blood – already a necessity after just 24 hours.
The numbers kept growing, fatalities and injuries on both sides. I refreshed the live updates until my eyes could no longer stay open.
Class was on as usual, in person. As many classes as possible were moved downstairs for ease of access to the miklat (bomb shelter), though a siren-free day on Sunday made us somewhat comforted and quietly confident. Jerusalem is too far, it’s not worth their while and they don’t want to accidentally destroy anything that they care about.
It was this false sense of security that made 12pm that day all the more shocking.
My teacher was wrapping up a class on Zoom and was wishing us a peaceful day ahead when a calm but urgent voice piped up from behind a face-less rectangle on the screen – “for those of you in Jerusalem, there is a siren sounding now.” An alert on his phone had beat the siren itself.
“Alright, there you go, good luck everyone” I heard my teacher eerily say as those of us around the building swiftly exited the frame.
About 40 of us gathered in the miklat, chairs were passed around and the singing began. There were tears and hugs and the constant refreshing of newsfeeds. But mostly, there was a feeling of togetherness, of love and of shared sorrow.
At lunch we spoke about pressure from our families to leave and the shared feeling of wanting to stay. I tried to quash my mum’s quickly growing anxiety over the phone – “don’t worry mum, we were all in the shelter, it was actually very moving, things are pretty normal.” She felt otherwise and she was right. Nothing about this was “normal”, nothing about trying to remain calm whilst descending three flights of stairs full of people within the 90 second timeframe of the siren is fun, nothing about it is something one should actually want to be a part of. And yet, it is a terrifying reality of the experience of living in Israel, the specific experience I had left home for this year. How could I not be here to experience this along with the good stuff? How could I not be here along with the rest of my friends, my newfound community and the country I had been taught to love.
The second siren came soon after 5pm and again we assembled in the miklat. My roommate Sam had left class early to volunteer and as the siren sounded I messaged her, “are you ok?” The immediacy of her reply settled me, but I had a tiny brush with the dread of not knowing where a loved one was as terror overcame our city. I thought about the millions of people that know this feeling during every waking second.
That night I helped Sam make packages of sanitary products for soldiers and we lamented the added burden of menstruation that no soldier needed right now. Israeli music played loudly and there was a strong sense of community in this apartment full of strangers, bonded by their desire to do anything to ease their sense of helplessness.
The thunderstorm that night felt like unnecessary salt to the wound. I awoke at 3am to the sounds of thunder rolling overhead and found that online, half of Jerusalem was awake with me, triggered and unable to sleep. A short time later, from a different room I heard the faint sound of the siren alert coming through my roommate’s phone, her siren notifications accidentally left on for the whole country. Panicked, I checked my phone. Nothing. I was safe, but this was the moment I realised the gravity of the situation. Throughout the night, there were people trying to kill us, real people sitting at the other end of a long-range missile launcher, hoping for the destruction of a building, a community, a family.
I called my mum at 4am. I struggled to get full sentences out and just cried to her on the phone.
I wasn’t crying for fear of my own safety, I was crying for my friends in the army, for everyone I now knew and loved in this country who had people they constantly feared for, for the soldiers themselves, for the communities that were being bombarded day and night and that were hiding in their homes from terrorists on their streets.
I wasn’t crying for myself, but I see why a loving mother on the other end of the phone would panic.
I wasn’t crying for myself, but I see why she was trying to convince me to leave.
I wasn’t crying for myself, but there was a small part of me that was, for the decision I had to make that was weighing so heavily on me. To stay or to go.
Through sobs at four in the morning on the phone to mum I had told her I would really consider leaving, but now, in the morning light, the feelings of guilt, shame, privilege and embarrassment that I had expressed the night before had only increased. Since Sunday morning when my parents first floated the idea of me leaving, the impending decision had weighed heavily and constantly on my mind. It was not lost on me that as a non-Israeli, well-off, tourist with no real skin in the game, the fact that deciding whether to jump on a plane to somewhere in Europe where I could be safe, comfortable and “wait it out” was my biggest concern, indeed compounded the feeling that I needed to stay.
It is so hard to try and explain this to anyone who hasn’t had the experience of living in Israel for an extended period. We were in the middle of a war and yet, it was also just another morning getting ready for class – making breakfast, drinking coffee and walking to Pardes. It was the same Jerusalem. It was quieter, it was heavier, even the weather matched the mood, but it was still Jerusalem, a completely different picture to the horrific images posted everywhere on social media and news outlets across the world. That war was happening, the thought of what was going on only a few cities away made me sick, but that war was not my experience of the first few days of the war.
My experience of the first few days of the war was twofold, on one hand it was scary, we had felt the real effects on the ground of war, we feared for our safety, though in no way comparable to others around the country. We were close to people who had already been devastated by its impact and we felt the grief of a nation everywhere around us. On the other hand, there is nothing like being in Israel in a time of crisis. There is no stronger community. Community WhatsApp and Facebook groups advertised spare rooms for those fleeing the South, people converted their homes into collection points for donations, non-kosher restaurants kashered their kitchens to cook meals for soldiers, young children delivered flowers to people in their community living alone. Hundreds, if not thousands, of people showed up to funerals and shiva houses of lone soldiers that had no one else to attend.
Though everyone I spoke to tried to assuage the guilt that was clouding my decision of whether to stay or leave, I couldn’t help but feel the moral superiority that seemed to be being projected. Quite possibly, I was the one doing the projecting. I was ashamed of my privilege to be able to leave in a time of crisis, to duck out when times got tough with the hope of reappearing when it all blows over. Equally, I hated making my parents so anxious. Hearing them on the other end of the phone sounding so concerned, so full of love and trying to come to terms with the situation themselves with the added burden of having a daughter in the country.
So that morning, through tears, I agreed on the phone to dad that I would leave. I would get on a flight to London a few days later. His immediate relief was palpable. I called mum and told her the plan. On some phone call or other (I don’t remember quite when), she had suggested that she was happy to take the decision out of my hands if I needed. Though this was not quite that, though I had agreed to leave, I had acquiesced, and whether they knew it or not, it was out of a strong sense of duty and respect to my parents.
The rest of the day was a haze, I couldn’t concentrate, I looked terrible, tears welled at seemingly benign moments. I got a message from a friend on the way to his base “I wish I could see you before I go, I will see you when this is all over.” I felt so heavy, everything felt like a hard task, for a couple of hours I shut down and just didn’t speak.
I watched on as friends created from nothing a whole distribution center for collecting and packaging goods for soldiers on the frontline and felt an unjustified and cruel pang of jealousy for not thinking of it myself, for not being the kind of person that in times of distress, first thinks of helping those that really need it.
That night, my roommates and I melted on the couch. We watched an American news interview of Rachel and her husband speaking about her missing son, we heard in horrific detail what they knew. We literally sobbed in each other’s arms until we wore ourselves out and got ready for bed.