When I woke up Friday, Nov. 16, and checked my cell phone, there were three missed calls and an urgent message from my daughter, Elana, in Israel. I knew something was wrong.
“Mom! There was a missile. It exploded about a mile from us in Tel Aviv. We ran into a store and the ground was shaking. I have never been so scared in my life.”
She was crying. “All of my friends are calling and texting to see if I am coming home. ”
Ever since her eighth-grade trip to Israel in 2006 with the Nathan Bohrer-Abraham Kaufman Hebrew Academy of Morris County in Randolph, Elana had been intent on doing a study-abroad program in Israel during college. Following two years of college-level Hebrew, she is now 20, a junior and international business major at Washington University in St. Louis — and spending the semester at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzliya.
Up until that mid-November week, she was having a “dream” experience: engaging classes in entrepreneurship and Mideast history, relevant work experience with an Israeli business website, frequent opportunities to navigate daily life in Israel, and terrific new friendships with peers from Israel and around the world.
My husband, Mark Widmann; daughter Sara, 15; and I already had plans to visit Elana Thanksgiving week (our son stayed in the United States with friends). When Elana called, I told her we would be in Israel soon, that we would assess the situation together and decide whether she should stay. Just hang in there.
I knew she did not want to give up on her semester in Israel, and I did not want her to either. I have spent most of my adult life living and working in the Jewish community, and unflinching support for Israel — especially in times of crisis — has been deeply ingrained in me since my own Israel experiences as a teenager. But now I am a parent, and my child is living in a country that was essentially at war, with an enemy firing missiles indiscriminately at the civilian population. Am I somehow compromising my child’s safety because of a Zionist sensibility?
When I spoke to folks outside our Jewish communal world, they looked at me like I was crazy. Their expressions said: “You’re flying to Israel — now? Why not just fly her home?”
When we arrived in Israel Nov. 20, two days before Thanksgiving, the situation, of course, seemed much calmer than what I saw as I obsessively watched CNN and the network news. On the IDC campus students and professors rushed to class and worked on laptops, the streets were packed with cars and pedestrians, and our hotel was buzzing with delegates to a pharmaceutical convention.
We learned later that the “boom” that had terrified Elana the previous Friday was the sound of the Iron Dome defense system exploding a missile fired from Gaza. Like other foreign students — and Israelis — Elana ultimately felt secure thanks to the Israel Defense Forces and the remarkably accurate Iron Dome.
The first night, we took six of Elana’s closest friends — from Israel, the United States and Europe — out to dinner. My husband and I were so impressed with the mature level of discourse on the Israel-Gaza situation, Mideast affairs, and their own aspirations. It was a reminder, as well, of how deeply a military crisis seeps into Israeli society. Every young woman at the table — including Elana — spoke of friends or boyfriends in the IDF who were now sleeping in tanks at the front.
My husband and I exchanged knowing glances. Only eight months before, a major focus for our daughter’s life was the theme of the next sorority mixer. Clearly, her worldview was changing.
The day before Thanksgiving, we took a tour of the “Jaffa Underground Museum,” learning about sieges of the city throughout history. When we emerged into the daylight, the tour guide said somberly: “There was a terrorist bomb on a bus in Tel Aviv. It feels like we are going back 10 years. Please be safe.”
We had dinner plans that evening in downtown Tel Aviv, only blocks from the bombing site. What’s the protocol for such things? We got our answer quickly and confidently from our dinner guests, Clifford and Minna Felig, long-time family friends who made aliya 20 years ago: “Not a problem. We’ll see you at 8.”
Two of Elana’s roommates, Sara from Madrid and Amanda from California, joined us for dinner. They had spent the day in teary conversations with their parents, debating whether to leave Israel. Cliff and Minna — with their familiar American accents and Israeli calm — reassured Elana and her friends. If you don’t feel comfortable taking the buses, then take taxis for a while, they told the young women. Be careful, but not fearful. Cliff told them: “Terrorism does not mean violence; it means fear. If you do not fear, the terrorists cannot win.”
At 9 p.m., as our entrees were being served, the cease-fire went into effect. Elana and her friends decided they would stay in Israel.
For the rest of the week, we were able to enjoy family time together. We rode horses on the beach in Netanya, visited museums, and had a respite at a resort in the Galilee. On Friday evening, less than 48 hours after the ceasefire, we watched the diminishing sunlight over the valley and the Sea of Galilee. Never have the words “Shabbat Shalom” held so much meaning for me.
We all felt confident in Elana’s decision to finish the semester at IDC. I knew she was staying not only because doing otherwise would seem unsupportive to Israel; she was staying because, at this stage in her life, this was the right place for her: a country she loved, a place that was providing her with personal growth and maturity and a broadened perspective on the world, a place of wonderful and enriching experiences and friendships.
And yes, she would be safe — or as safe as one could be in any city in our crazy world.