Former Scholar Athlete Reports On Summer Trip to Embattled Middle East

letter-from-israelBy Jamie Smith

You hear the siren. You have a moment of panic, and then you run. You’re told you have 10 seconds. The bomb shelter is too far.

Stairs are the second best option. You dive under the stairs. You whisper along with everyone else.

“It will be okay. The rockets haven’t killed any civilians yet, and there have been hundreds of them. We are safe.”

Then a security guard says we can move to the shelter. You sit there for 15 minutes, hugging all of your friends because you know you are safe now. 

This summer, when I was in Israel on a scholarship from Hadassah with the Young Judaea Jewish teen group, we experienced one siren.

Despite that, I felt safe in Israel.

Yes, there was a war going on and, yes, my phone beeped every time a rocket was fired (which was a 10 to 100 times a day), and the app showed where they landed.

But somehow I still felt like nothing could happen to me. For that, I have the Israel Defense Force and the Iron Dome to thank.

Besides, we were staying in “safe” areas. We were in the north most of the time, which is out of reach of the rockets from Gaza, and the rest of the time we were in Jerusalem.

Of course, we didn’t let that one siren affect our entire month-long trip to Israel, so we did all the usual touristy things and saw all the religious sites.

We rode camels, hiked Masada at sunrise, floated in the Dead Sea, visited Tzfat, and went to the kotel (Western Wall).

But the highlight of the trip was an opportunity we had to talk to Arab Israeli teens. First we covered the basics: names, what you like to do, music, TV shows – the usual teen stuff.

After that, we started talking about God.

It was fascinating because many of us American Jews didn’t necessarily believe in God, but almost all of the Arab Israelis did.

One mentioned that her next-door neighbor didn’t believe in God so she assumed a demon was living inside her.

Finally, we moved on to the toughest conversation. We all agreed that the main thing we wanted was peace.

The awkward part came when the Arab Israelis told us some interesting conspiracy theories concerning the three Israeli boys who were kidnapped and killed leading up to the war.

I realized how much our news source affects our opinions, and how amazing it was that Arabs and Jews could have a good, interesting conversation together even though people from our different groups are fighting a war.

Another, equally fantastic experience came just a day later, when we talked with Jewish Israeli kids and teenagers who had just been relocated away from their families in Ashkelon (a heavily bombed area close to Gaza).

We didn’t get to talk for very long, but they did show us a few videos on their phones that they had taken of missiles.

It was crazy just to watch. I couldn’t imagine being there in person to see the explosions in the sky right before my eyes.

We asked why they hadn’t moved to bomb shelters and they said they weren’t worried. This happens all the time.

Imagine that your daily life involves probably three sirens a day. Everywhere you go you have to think about where you will go when you hear the siren.

Do you have 10 seconds here? Or 30? Even 90, if you’re lucky.

Although we were mostly kept out of danger on our tour, everywhere we went, we knew where the bomb shelters were and how long we had to get there.

When we landed at JFK airport in New York, one of my friends asked, “Where would we go if there was a siren?”

There was a long silence as everyone noted the location of windows and stairs.

Then, we all realized we were in the U.S. now. There would be no siren.

Jamie-SmithJamie Smith, the 16-year-old daughter of Di Sobel and Greg Smith, is a junior at Henry Clay High. An excellent swimmer and honor student, Jamie was Lexington Family Magazine’s Scholar Athlete in August 2011.