The time had come to make a decision: should I or should I not go to Israel? I had consulted everyone from my best friend to my rabbi. Most of my friends advised me not to go, saying things like, “Just wait, there will be a better time to visit Israel.” Even my mom admitted that she was nervous about me going. But on August 13, 2014, I flew to Israel in the midst of its fifty-day war with Gaza.
I chose to go for several reasons: I love Israel and was eager to return after my last trip two and a half years ago; I had already set aside the time and made all the preparations; and I thought that I might learn something (though I had no idea what) by going during a time of conflict.
I was not particularly concerned about my safety; I knew that Taglit-Birthright Israel would do everything possible to keep my peers and me safe. My main concern was that the trip might not be as fun or meaningful under the circumstances.
With these worries in mind, I touched down in Ben Gurion Airport on August 14. My group, originally supposed to be forty people, had dwindled to just twenty, as the other Americans decided to heed the advice of their nervous relatives and stay home. My fellow Americans and I, exhausted from our travels, stepped out of the airport and into the hot Israeli sun to shyly greet the six Israeli soldiers who would be traveling with us. Despite being sweaty and tired, we were irrepressibly excited to begin our ten-day journey in Israel.
We hopped on our bus and drove to Tiberias, where we spent the first leg of our trip. In the first six days, we explored the streets of beautiful and spiritual Tzfat, overlooked Syria from the Golan Heights, had a boisterous kayaking adventure on the Jordan River, rode camels, saw the sunrise from the top of Masada, and floated in the Dead Sea. We heard about Israel’s history, borders, and culture. We learned about the IDF, both from our guide and from our Israeli peers. As we explored Israel together, our group of twenty became extremely close. By the third night I knew I had made best friends, both American and Israeli, with whom I would stay close for many years to come.
Throughout these first six days, I never gave a second thought to my safety. I never once felt like I was in a dangerous situation. In fact, I did not even feel like I was in a country engaged in a war.
On August 19, our group traveled to Jerusalem, where we said the Shehecheyanu (a blessing of praise to mark a first occasion) and celebrated with delicious challah, music, and dancing. It was a beautiful moment of happiness, and not a single member of the group was thinking about being nervous or scared to be in Israel. Each person was contemplating how lucky and excited he or she was to be in one of the most incredible cities in the world.
However, that night, the war barged in on our trip for the first time in a very real way. Most of us were listening to music and chatting in one of the hotel rooms, when suddenly two of my Israeli friends stood up and told everyone to follow them. I hadn’t even realized that a siren had gone off, writing the noise off as part of the music or TV. We filed out of the room and followed our Israeli friends into the hotel’s staircase, which was made of reinforced concrete. We spent about ten minutes there. I was initially surprised by how unafraid I felt, but I realized that I had learned so much over the past several days about Israel’s army and security systems that I felt incredibly safe.
When I think back on that night, I do not think of fear or anxiety; instead, I think of my group-mates looking out for one another, proving the strength of the bonds within our group. During those ten minutes my new friends gathered around one particularly nervous girl and gave her reassuring hugs. One of our Israeli friends, an Iron Dome soldier, explained the situation and how little danger we were in. Other members of our group made jokes and laughed. Glancing around at the sleepy and somewhat stunned faces of my peers, I did not see terror; I saw happiness to be together.
That was the only siren I experienced during my ten days in Israel, and one of the only times during the trip that I felt truly confronted by the war. Before embarking on the trip, I had concerns that the conflict might impede my experience. Now, I firmly believe that going to Israel at this time only made the trip more meaningful.
Upon returning home, I wrote, “I think that what I love most about Israel is the strength of the country and its people.” Being in Israel under these circumstances allowed me to see this strength firsthand. The people of Israel do not let the conflict surrounding them diminish their lives. They joke with their friends and go out on the weekends. They enjoy relaxing Shabbat dinners with their families. They serve their country with pride.
To my friends at home who told me there would be a better time to go, I would say that this was perhaps the best time to visit Israel. I now have a better sense of what my Israeli friends experience on a regular basis and what this country has been faced with since its birth. I had the privilege of witnessing the tenacity and resilience with which Israel deals with its difficult reality.
Israel is a place of beauty, vibrancy, and love, even in a time of war, and that is true strength. I feel lucky to have seen the strength of this country and its people, and I cannot wait to return.
Rachel Zuckerman is a sophomore at Princeton University. She grew up in a suburb of Philadelphia, PA.