Life in a war zone: Birthright in a new light

Before my Birthright trip, when I pictured Israel, I saw myself riding camels, visiting the Western Wall, hiking Masada, floating on the Dead Sea. … I never imagined rockets exploding in the air, running barefoot to a bomb shelter or sirens wailing in the streets of Jerusalem. But on my trip I’m not just seeing the touristy view of Israel; I’m getting to see the constant struggle to survive that Israel must fight every day, all while people live their normal lives, for the most part without fear.

It’s July 12, day six of my Birthright trip, and in our hotel in Jerusalem today, we experienced our second siren. My roommate was in the shower, and I pounded on the bathroom door, shouting, “Hannah!” as loud as I could, wanting to run more than anything. She came out in her towel and, without a word, we held hands tightly and bolted down the hallway. 

Our guide, Daron, told us you’re not supposed to take the elevator, so we ran down the stairs flight after flight from the fourth floor with all the people in our hotel, mostly Orthodox Jews and other Birthright kids. Our guide also said that in Jerusalem, you have  1 minute and 15 seconds, maybe a minute and a half, after the siren sounds to make it to the shelter before the rockets would hit, and we realized we didn’t have time to make it all the way to the shelter, which is in the underground mall beneath our hotel. So we just stayed clumped together in the stairwell, Hannah clutching her towel, Orthodox women around us talking loudly in Hebrew, until we were allowed to leave after five or 10 minutes. 

On our run down, we heard two booms and felt sure rockets had just struck the city, but no one else seemed concerned. None of the Israeli soldiers on my trip seemed afraid — they walked casually down the stairs today while the rest of us pounded down them. They were more worried about their friends, some of whom are going to fight in Gaza and will be in direct danger soon. But I was scared. Later, our guide told us the booms we heard came from the Iron Dome deflecting the rockets, doing its usual miraculous job of preventing Israeli casualties even as Gaza pounded us with hundreds of rockets over the past few days. Every police siren we hear, every car alarm, every shout on the street makes us jump, wondering if it’s the siren and if we’ll be running for our lives again. 

But these moments of fear are few, and I’ve spent most of my time here enjoying the country. People here don’t let the rockets stop them from living their lives. We have visited the Western Wall, rafted on the Jordan River, walked through the quiet streets of Jerusalem on Shabbat and eaten our fill of falafel every day. Life goes on, and though the TV news reports all the fighting and the fear and the danger here now, I hope people back home in the U.S. know that Israelis are going to work, eating out, doing all the normal things we all do. They’re just doing it with the occasional and horrifying interruption of a siren warning them that a rocket might hit. 

The unity of the people here is like the U.S. after 9/11 — everyone is threatened, and everyone comes together, getting strength from one another and refusing to live in constant fear, no matter the circumstances. As frightening as it’s been at times, I’m glad I got to be here now, to see the resilience of the Israeli people and to feel like I finally understand what this tiny but powerful country is up against. It may not be the typical Birthright experience, but it’s a powerful one, and one I’ll never forget. I won’t miss running barefoot toward the bomb shelter, but it did help me appreciate how lucky we are in the U.S. to not know what that’s like, and how hard it is for us to fully understand a conflict that’s so distant unless, like me, you find yourself in the middle of it. 

What a time to be in Israel!

Cora Markowitz is an Angeleno about to become a sophomore at Kenyon College. She wrote this on her cell phone from Jerusalem.