by Audrey Levine
This past summer my family and I were fortunate to spend two wonderful weeks in Israel. Since my son Evan celebrated his Bar Mitzvah during the year, we wanted to visit Israel as we did with our daughter when she celebrated her Bat Mitzvah in 2008. Traveling with us were my mother-in-law and our adult nephew.
We planned an exciting itinerary including the natural crater Mactesh Ramon in the Negev, the Dead Sea, Masada, the desert oasis Ein Gedi, Jerusalem, the northern parts of Israel including the Galilee, a jeep ride in Golan, the ancient city of Safed, the Crusader fortress at Acco, Haifa, the Roman city at Casearea and Tel Aviv.
We arrived in Israel on July 6 and headed to the south for three days. What we found out the next day was that on the evening of our arrival, the rockets had begun to fall. Soon after, Operation Protective Edge began. We were fortunate that our itinerary took us south at the beginning of trip, before things really escalated. We almost felt like the rockets were following us. On the day we participated in an archeological dig, a rocket fell nearby that evening, hours after we had left the area. This happened a couple of times on the trip. Yet, while in the south we were able to visit everywhere we had planned to go. If our trip had first gone north, we likely would not have done as much in the south.
Next, we headed to Jerusalem for 4 days. When we checked into the hotel, they informed us that there was a safe room on every floor and to go there if an alarm sounded. Again we were fortunate that the two times the alarms sounded while we were in Jerusalem, we happened to be at the hotel and it was very easy to go to the safe room. We weren’t out in the streets or other locations, having to quickly search for a place to shelter. We stayed in the safe room for 10 minutes, joking with the other hotel guests that we were all glad we weren’t in the shower when the alarm went off! It was actually a fairly relaxed atmosphere, but after those two experiences, there were several times on the trip when my son asked our guide, “if an alarm goes off now, where would we go?” She explained that the rockets would come from the south, so we would crouch down on the north side of a nearby wall, or lay down flat if we were in an open area. Evan was mentally staying prepared, as Israelis always have to be. It was a lesson for all of us – and yet, none of us, including my 13 year old, were worried for our safety. The Iron Dome gave us incredible piece of mind. I have heard it said, and I completely agree, that in addition to saving Israeli lives the Iron Dome has saved countless Palestinian lives. Imagine the likely response from Israel if the Iron Dome was not shooting down the rockets headed toward populated areas.
While in Jerusalem we toured the Old City, climbing the ancient walls, wandering in the underground tunnels and praying at the Kotel. We visited Yad Vashem (the Holocaust Memorial), the Israel Museum containing the Dead Sea Scrolls, shopped in Mahane Yehuda (the “shuk”) and visited the graves at Har Herzl (the Military Cemetery). We ate our share of falafel and shwarma!
After an amazing four days touring Jerusalem, we headed north to the Galilee and Golan Heights. Throughout the trip, our tour guide Hannah stayed informed and kept us informed. On the day we drove north from Jerusalem to the Galilee, she said to me, “the bus drivers always know what’s going on.” She approached a couple of bus drivers and asked them which way they would drive north, on the coast with the rockets or through the West Bank. They told us the West Bank was quiet that day, so that’s the way we went. She also told us that when she is leading groups, she never has the radio on in the van; on our trip, we always had the radio on in the van so that Hannah could listen for war updates throughout the day.
While on our jeep ride in the Golan Heights, we met some reservists who were called up and stationed near the Syrian border. It was fascinating talking to them. In many cases, the IDF moved the active military to Gaza and had the reservists take their places in other areas around Israel! That is what these reservists were doing.
We were extremely fortunate that our itinerary was only minimally affected by the war. We woke up each morning and over breakfast discussed with our guide the recent developments and whether we needed to make any adjustments to our itinerary. With two exceptions, the answer was no. First, we decided not to go to Rosh Hanikra (on the border with Lebanon). Lebanon had shot off a couple of rockets the day before and we decided not to go that far north. We did still go to Acco, but decided those walls have been standing a long time and could protect us! The main change that we made was that we decided not to end our trip in Tel Aviv as planned, and instead went back to Jerusalem. My husband and nephew, who are both attorneys, were able to arrange a tour at the Knesset and at the Supreme Court building. I had been unable to arrange a tour of Hadassah Hospital when we were there the week prior, but called when we decided to go back to Jerusalem and was able to reserve a tour. I was pleasantly surprised when it was a private tour for just my mother-in-law and me. But after thinking about that, it is likely that it was a private tour because there weren’t many other tourists in Jerusalem! We saw a huge difference in the number of tourists from the first week of our trip to the second!
My family and I are Zionists and have always felt a significant bond with the State of Israel. I have traveled to the country five times; my husband and I met in Israel when we were in college; our daughter Samantha celebrated her Bat Mitzvah in Israel on the CBI choir trip in 2008 and spent a month travelling there during the summer of 2013.. She plans to return to study there during her time in college. Surprisingly, our trip this summer affected me in a way that is different than any trip before. My love for and commitment to Israel have never been stronger! We arrived on the day the rockets started falling and left the day after the ground war began. The situation in the Middle East has been on my mind constantly for the last few months and I pray daily that there will soon be peace and stability in the region.