TEL AVIV – They had come to celebrate this big life event for their kids and suddenly found themselves in the midst of a war.
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But the parents and children participating in this organized bar- and bat-mitzvah family tour to Israel nonetheless appeared to be happy campers as they followed their guide around the streets of Tel Aviv on this sweltering summer morning.
Had they considered altering their plans or spending the day back in the safety of their hotel after experiencing two air-raid sirens in less than 24 hours, not to mention the loud booms of rockets being intercepted and blown up in mid-air? Not a chance, they respond.
A group of 35 parents and children, they arrived in Tel Aviv on Tuesday after spending a week touring the rest of the country. Members of Conservative and Reform congregations from New Jersey, Washington and Maryland, they were part of a family tour organized by Israel Tour Connection.
Like many of the other foreigners out and about this morning in Israel’s second largest city – targeted for the second times in 20 months by Hamas missiles – they couldn’t quite seem to figure things out. How could this be a city under attack, many were wondering, if the buses were running as usual, children were out in the streets, the shops were open and the cafes were full?
The first missiles to hit Tel Aviv caught the bar- and bat-mitzvah celebrants lounging out at the Carleton Hotel swimming pool on Tuesday evening. “Suddenly we heard a siren, but it was very faint,” recalls Cara Kasler from Springfield, New Jersey, as she and other members of the group gather around the Yitzhak Rabin memorial near the main city square. “We pulled the kids out of the pool, and then we heard a big boom,” she recounts. “There was a little hysteria but not a lot.”
One of her fellow travelers corrects her. “There was no hysteria,” he says. “We were just nervous.”
Phyllis Rosen, from Seattle, hadn’t heard the siren that went off earlier that morning, but she suddenly saw a bunch of people running outside and looking up at the sky. “I’m not feeling anxious about what’s happening here,” explains Rosen, who is here on this trip with her 13-year-old son Julius. “But I am feeling anxious about how all our friends and family back home are taking this. They’re being fed all this propaganda on the news, and they don’t realize that it’s actually quite safe here in Tel Aviv.”
This is 17-year-old Jay Sirot’s first trip to Israel. Asked if he was scared when he heard the first siren the night before, the New Jersey native replies: “Not at all.”
“Excuse me,” interjects a young teenage girl within earshot. “You were running down the hall screaming at the top of your lungs.”
“OK, I did run,” Sirot corrects himself, “but I’m definitely feeling very good about how strong Israel is and about all the support it’s getting abroad. The Iron Dome system has also given me a sense of confidence.”
His father, Steve Sirot, notes that earlier this morning the group had visited Independence Hall in Tel Aviv, where Israel’s Declaration of Independence was read. “That had special significance for us because it made us all realize how wonderful this country is and how important it is that it exists,” says Sirot, as his fellow travelers respond with a round of amens.
Neither was this what Rachel Levin had signed up for. A teacher from Chicago, she happened to have arrived in the country earlier this week to participate in a first-ever international conference for Israel educators sponsored by the World Zionist Organization and the Israeli government. She and her co-participants were having dinner in a restaurant in the trendy Neve Tzedek neighborhood of Tel Aviv when the air-raid sirens sounded. “I was pretty shaken up,” recalls Levin, “mainly because I didn’t expect anything like this to happen in Tel Aviv. In the south of Israel, yes, but not in Tel Aviv.”
Levin, who has visited Israel every year for the past 10 years, had until now managed to avoid any wars or military operations. “So when I heard the siren, my stomach dropped,” she recounts. “I kind of looked around to see what other people were doing, and it was just amazing because there were people who got up and led us all to the shelter.” When they returned to the restaurant a few minutes later, she says, they were treated to drinks on the house. “We all said a l’chaim and talked about how this experience was a great way of putting everything in perspective,” she recounts. “For those of us involved in Israel education, it also made this place very real to us.”
Wearing shorts and sneakers, but no shirts, S. and Tony, both in their thirties, make their way down the promenade along the beach just a few hours after the morning missile attack on Tel Aviv. A gay couple from London, this is their fifth trip to Israel. They request that their full names not be published since S. is originally from “one of the neighboring Arab countries” and news of his sexual orientation would not go down well with his family.
This is not his first experience with missiles in Tel Aviv; he was here in November 2012 as well. “Since I come from this region, this stuff doesn’t really scare me,” he says. “I condemn the attacks, definitely, but you also have to look at the big picture. I have no sympathy for Hamas, but I feel really bad for the innocent people in Gaza."
The sirens earlier this morning found them both sound asleep in their hotel room. “The cleaning lady was knocking frantically at our door, but we didn’t understand her because she was speaking in Hebrew, and by the time we got up to go to the shelter, everyone else was already on their way back,” recounts Tony. “Since then, we’re back to our routine, having a nice jog and trying to get a tan.”
A few blocks away, Miriam Blanchette and Ingela Stenborg, two young Swedish women who have come to spend the week vacationing in Tel Aviv, are in recovery mode. “We were in a store yesterday evening when we first heard the siren, but I wasn’t sure that that was it,” relays Blanchette. “Only when we saw all these people across the street running for shelter did we understand.” By the time the sirens sounded again the following morning, she says, they were already pros. “The sirens woke us up, we went to the shelter, and then when it was over, we went back to sleep.”
Because their friends and family in Stockholm are so concerned about them being in a war zone, Blanchette says she made sure to update her Facebook status letting everyone know that “the people in Israel are super-friendly and nice, and I feel like I’m well taken care of.”
They have no plans to cut short this vacation, which they’ve been looking forward to for a long time, says Stenborg, but one thing does cause her great concern. “I’m just worried that they might close Ben-Gurion airport, and then we’ll be stuck here.”