Back home after a six-day visit to Israel, Rutgers Law School students recounted the lessons they learned in social activism, child welfare, and — thanks to rocket attacks from Gaza — public safety in wartime.
The eight students, all from the Newark campus, spent March 11-16 at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, under a cooperative arrangement among Rutgers Law, BGU’s Department of Social Work, and its Community Action Unit.
On April 17, they discussed the lessons of their trip at a forum on the Newark campus.
While they managed to witness innovative BGU programs in child welfare and substance abuse, they also found themselves having to run for shelter after frequent alarms warned of impending rocket attacks from Gaza, some 25 miles away.
Jordana Mondrow, a mother of four from Bergenfield who had lived in Israel for a year, said that among the group, she was the person “most visibly affected by the sirens.” Arriving at BGU amid reports of tension between Israel and Hamas, “I had a knot and a ball of tension in my chest,” she said.
She heard the first siren on March 11, after being on campus for just an hour. Mondrow headed to a safe space where, she said, “you are pretty well assured that if something happens to the building, by being in that fortified room you will be safe.”
They stayed overnight with Israeli roommates in a working-class apartment complex built in the 1950s, where residents share underground shelters between buildings.
If they can get there in time. Awakened by an alarm at 3 a.m., Mondrow ran into a hallway outside her fourth-floor room.
“You stand there in the stairwell against a concrete wall, hoping that the shoddy building is going to stand up to any impact that might occur if a rocket hit, and you stare at people in their pajamas.
“It was a very humbling thing,” she said.
“We were overwhelmed by how supportive the Israelis were,” said Joy Durham of Passaic. “Even if they were fearful, they calmed you down. Everyone was very quiet and respectful of each other’s space. Fear is very universal.”
After one siren, “we all looked around, waited for 60 seconds, and then went out to do the rest of our tour,” said Durham. “At that moment I recognized that you have to keep moving. You do what you have to do and then go to the next thing.”
To Jason Bost of Belle Meade, responding to alarms was a lesson in Israeli grace under pressure. The second time he heard the siren, it was followed by the sound of a missile landing somewhere nearby. “This time there was an explosion,” he said. “It shut life down for an hour. Then an hour later we got in the car and went to the grocery store like nothing happened.”
No injuries were reported in Be’er Sheva during March’s attacks, although a rocket struck the courtyard of an empty school on March 11.
Israelis “are living this pretty much every day of their lives to the point where it is commonplace,” said Tim Pedergnana of Hoboken. “They know the timing of everything. It is a part of their being. It is amazing.”
‘Feel the energy’
Pedergnana said the most impressive part of the trip was a visit to the Negev village of Kfar Adiel, where BGU students work with at-risk children.
“When we walked in we could feel the energy and the collectiveness among all the people who were living there. The community was built by the people who were living in it. They were vastly connected to it. I fell in love with this place,” he said.
Mondrow spent time at private home in a Bedouin village, where a family is quietly raising African refugee children who entered Israel through Egypt without their parents.
Because of the stigma the Bedouin foster parents would face from other members of their insular community for taking in outsiders, coupled with a distrust of the Israeli government and its social welfare programs, her visit “was highly secretive,” Mondrow said.
As an addiction counselor before she became a law student, Durham had a special interest in a drug treatment center she visited.
“What I was struck by was that across nationalities and borders they still have the same impact of addiction, of homelessness, of missing fathers, and kids who are in and out of treatment. There is a lot of recidivism,” she said.
“One major concern is that people come from different backgrounds — refugees, Israelis, some Bedouins, some Russian immigrants — and dealing with the different cultures is not easy. But it solidifies the idea that addiction is addiction. When you are hurt, you are hurt. It doesn’t matter where you are. I thought that was really striking,” said Durham.
Asked about conversations with his Israeli contemporaries, Boris Zaydel of Wayne said, “They want peace. They are concerned about the uncertainty arising over the Arab Spring. They are concerned about the possibility of a preemptive strike on Iran. Their opinion was ‘whatever keeps this nation safe.’”
Zaydel and his fellow law students said they are anxious to keep the exchange program with BGU alive and possibly host some Israeli students in Newark next fall.
Among those attending the forum was Max Kleinman, executive vice president of United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ.
“We have been supportive of the School of Social Work program at Ben-Gurion University, and we would want to play a facilitative role” in future contacts between BGU and Rutgers Law, he told NJ Jewish News.
“There are more start-ups in Israel than anyplace in the world except the United States,” Kleinman added. “Clearly there is a tremendous role there for lawyers in terms of entrepreneurial law, copyright law — the whole nine yards. Maybe the law school would want to take a look at how that aspect of Israeli society can also serve as a way for the law to channel its students and professors to work with colleagues in Israel. There are all sorts of possible linkages.”