Rachel and Mark Steinberg’s recent trip to Egypt got off to a blissful start — sight-seeing and shopping in Cairo, a visit to the pyramids, a romantic cruise down the Nile.
But their vacation came to a screeching halt as civil unrest broke out against Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak while the Ocean Township couple was en route to Alexandria on Jan. 28.
When their flight landed, officials ushered the Steinbergs, both 63, and their group of 28 Americans into a room, where they were locked in — for their own protection — from 4 p.m. to 6 a.m.
“They turned off all the lights and closed the window shades,” said Rachel in a phone interview from Athens on Feb. 2. “We couldn’t see anything, but we heard gunshots throughout the night. We had no phone or Internet service, so we couldn’t contact our families to let them know we were safe.
“We heard afterward that about 31 people were killed in Alexandria that night.”
(Human Rights Watch reports that 52 people were killed in the unrest in Alexandria between Jan. 28 and Feb. 8.)
Early the next morning the Steinbergs and their Tauck Tours group were flown on a chartered flight to Cairo, where they were locked into the Fairmont Towers Hotel for two days until a flight could be arranged to Greece. They spent five days in Greece before departing for their flight home.
The couple spoke by cell phone with NJJN from a restaurant in Athens, as they anxiously awaited their departure for the United States.
“We’re going to have quite a story for our next seder about our modern exodus out of Egypt,” said Rachel, who works as director of the East Brunswick Senior Center. Mark is an attorney with a private practice in Neptune. They are longtime members of Temple Beth El (now Torat El) in Oakhurst, where Mark is a past president.
“We see these things on TV and never think they will happen to you,” said Rachel. “We were watching the action unfold on CNN as it was happening just outside our hotel. It was like something out of a movie.”
The popular upheaval and widespread demands that Mubarak step down after 30 years of autocratic rule made the Steinbergs “really appreciate the freedom and democracy we have in America,” said Rachel.
‘Nerves on edge’
After a few days of relaxation in Greece, the Steinbergs were still unnerved from the traumatic experience. They disconnected the phone abruptly at one point, only to call back apologetically 10 minutes later, to say they had been in a dark alley trying to hail a taxi.
“Although we know we are now safe, our nerves are still on edge. It hasn’t sunk in yet,” Rachel said.
As to experiencing any anti-Jewish feelings during their fractured stay, Mark wrote in an e-mail, “We did not feel any anti-Semitism from the Egyptians before or after the crisis.” Those serving the tourist industry, he said, “were apologetic for the situation and indicated that most Egyptians were not participants in the protests.” They treated all the tourists the same — “no matter their religion and, for sure, with names like Steinberg, Cohen and Horowitz, it was obvious” who among the group were Jews. He added that no matter the outcome of the upheaval, he hopes “this will not be a detriment to Israel.”
Whenever they could, the Steinbergs checked in by phone and e-mail with friends and family back home.
“There were a couple of really tough days when we didn’t hear from them,” Mark’s mother, Esther “Bunny” Bloom of Long Branch, told NJJN. “It was very nerve-wracking for them, but they all bonded together and kept each other’s spirits up.”
The Steinbergs were visiting Egypt for the first time, with their friends Erwin and Susie Cohen of Manhattan and the Cohens’ daughter, Sheryl Horowitz of Manalapan.
“During one of their calls from Egypt, they said that from now on they would only visit national parks,” said the Steinbergs’ daughter, Lisa, an associate TV producer who lives in Manhattan. The couple also has a daughter, Amy Brochstein, an attorney who lives in Ocean Township.
“It was just scary knowing they were over there and that we couldn’t do anything about it,” said Lisa, four days before her parents were scheduled to arrive home. “You can be sure I will be…driving to their house when they are home safe and sound. I just really want to see them.”
After the Steinbergs’ return, safe and sound, to New Jersey, Mark e-mailed to NJJN that the couple was “glad to be back in the USA,” and that for now, future travel will mostly be confined to this country. “We will stay out of the Arab world for a while.”