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New Jerseyans in Israel carry on despite conflict
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New Jerseyans in Israel carry on despite conflict

Max Mallet of Fair Haven was in the middle of a Hebrew lesson in Ashdod when his ulpan teacher got word of imminent Hamas strikes on Ashdod. Mallet and his fellow participants of the Israel Teaching Fellows program were asked to return to their apartments and prepare to evacuate.

The group was halfway to Tel Aviv by van when they heard that a rocket had been intercepted over Ashdod not long after they had left the southern Israel city.

“It was the first of many to come,” said Mallet, who teaches English at an Ashdod elementary school as part of the fellowship. He is a member of Congregation B’nai Israel in Rumson.

Mallet stayed with friends in Jerusalem, returning to Ashdod four days after a cease-fire ended the latest round of hostilities between Israel and Hamas. He blogged about his experience as part of a volunteer project with the International New Media Center in Jerusalem, a joint program between the Jewish Agency for Israel and MASA Israel, which brings young Jewish adults to Israel for work, volunteer, and study programs.

“I think Israelis handle hardship better than they do back home,” Mallet said. “It’s not like Mexico fires rockets at Houston, or Canada lobs missiles at Detroit. We just don’t go through that. But while I personally value the life of an innocent person in Gaza and an innocent person in Israel exactly the same, I think the international community is incredibly foolish for largely siding with Gaza.”

Most former New Jerseyans living in southern Israel do not have the privilege of being evacuated during conflicts.

Dr. Aryeh Kontorovich lives in Be’er Sheva, where he is assistant professor of computer science at Ben-Gurion University. He grew up in Plainsboro and lived in West Windsor, Princeton, and East Windsor, where his parents live, and earned his undergraduate degree at Princeton University.

Kontorovich lived in the former Soviet Union for the first 10 years of his life, which contributed to his belief that Jews living outside of Israel are “at the mercy of their hosts, who are not always hospitable,” he said. He made aliya in 2007. “Living in a Jewish state, I feel safer than anywhere else.”

Nevertheless, Kontorovich described Hamas’s latest attack as “very disheartening.” The university closed until after the cease-fire, and he and his wife and young children were holed up in the house for a week. His brief forays outside — to pray at his synagogue or pick up essentials — were interrupted several times by warning sirens. Some missiles fell within a dozen yards of his shul.

“We weren’t so much fearful for our lives because the reinforced rooms are built to withstand missiles,” Kontorovich told NJJN. “It was just the constant feeling that we were being targeted that was so disturbing.”

Hamas, he said, his voice rising with emotion, was not shooting “at a military installation; they were shooting at civilians from behind a human shield. They sent several missiles at a time just to make interception difficult.”

When concerned NJ relatives called for updates, Kontorovich struggled over his responses. “A part of me wants to say it’s not as bad as it sounds, but another part of me says it is as bad as it sounds. It sounds crazy, and it is crazy. Can you imagine having rockets fall in parts of New Jersey?”

While the cease-fire enabled him and his family to return to their normal activities, it’s certainly not a relief, he said. “This is the end of a cycle that is bound to repeat itself in another few months or a year.”

Around 8 a.m. on Nov. 17, former Livingston resident Rochelle Safir D’Antonio was milking her goats on her farm in southern Israel when she heard the screech of rockets overhead.

Second later, two missiles landed to her left, and a third fell to her right, missing her and her 16 goats by about 550 yards. As the smoke billowed above, D’Antonio huddled protectively around her bleating goats.

Although D’Antonio and her animals suffered no injuries, the stress of the constant barrage of missiles on the Eshkol region where she lives — about six miles from Gaza — left lingering effects.

“Rockets were falling two to four times a day. It was impossible to sleep. And when they didn’t fall on the Eshkol region they spread the love around and fired it somewhere else,” said D’Antonio, who moved to Israel in 1976. “I have developed a thick skin after living here so long. But many of my goats prematurely stopped producing milk from the shock.”

Former New Brunswick and Highland Park resident Gila Paran lives with her husband and three children in Ashkelon, where she is a psychiatric nurse at the Barzilai Medical Center. She is a graduate of Rutgers University’s Cook College.

“We don’t have enough safe spaces in the hospital, so when there’s a missile alert the patients are not safe,” said Paran, who moved to Israel in 1984. “In two days, we had to have 30 patients in our ward transferred to other hospitals or released.”

While Paran worked with patients suffering from acute stress reaction, the emergency room was flooded with people injured in attacks (including a man who had to have a leg amputated). Others suffered from cuts and broken bones from falling while running to shelters. An elderly woman sustained a hematoma after a blast caused her to fall out of her wheelchair.

As the attacks on Ashkelon escalated, the Paran family dog, Nachman, ran away. “He came back two days later, after there was a quiet night with no attacks,” she said. “But he’s scared and doesn’t go out of the yard by himself anymore.”

For 21-year-old Tali Beker, who made aliya from Livingston two years ago in order to join the IDF, living on a kibbutz in southern Israel has significantly more ups than downs, she said.

This is the fifth time she has experienced attacks since moving to Kibbutz Hatzerim, near Be’er Sheva. “People ask me if I regret moving to southern Israel and joining the army, and I tell them ‘100 percent no,’” said Beker, whose mother, Leah, is a teacher at Golda Och Academy in West Orange and the director of education at the family’s Livingston congregation, Temple Beth Shalom.

When she spoke to NJJN, Beker was just two weeks shy of finishing her two-year army service. “Coming to Israel made me open my eyes to life and become much more independent. We experience a lot of things here that we can’t even explain to our friends and family back home,” she said. “You can’t imagine the meaningful discussions you have while spending a night with all your friends in an underground bomb shelter. It brings us so close together. While I love to visit my family in New Jersey, I can’t even imagine living outside of Israel again.”

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