I arrived home Friday morning after a 10-day trip to Israel. I had been traveling with a group of donors to my organization, and I was co-leading the tour in preparation for taking over the tour program in the coming year.
When I left the U.S., I assumed the following questions would summarize the stress that would overtake me on tour: Will I be a good leader? Will I know the answers to the questions the tour participants raise, and if I don’t, will I know where and how to get them? Will I be able to give directions? Will they like me?
All normal worries to have as you move into a new job.
What I wasn’t expecting was this:
At approximately 6:40 pm on Thursday evening, as I and my group were making our way downstairs to the Tel Aviv hotel lobby after a stimulating final wrap-up session, we were suddenly being pushed by hundreds of guests who appeared out of nowhere, all storming the stairs to get down to the lowest level.
We could hear air raid sirens outside, and the hotel announcement system declaring “please make your way down to the lowest level.” I had my incredibly heavy luggage with me, as I was planning to leave for the airport several hours later. This made it hard to get down the escalator nimbly. I was starting to shake, even though I didn’t know yet what was happening.
We crammed into some sort of passageway to the ballroom, and then were told that we could go into the ballroom and that we would be safe there. The hotel had a staff person try to make an announcement once we were in: there was good news and bad news. The bad news was that we had to be in there because the air raid sirens were going off all over Tel Aviv and two missiles had hit nearby; the good news was that we were safe in the ballroom, and that the hotel would provide food and drink.
I guess if you have to be caught in an air raid, in a country on the brink of war, a fully stocked hotel is the place to be. Within seconds, the bar was opened and wine was being poured freely.
After a week of tour leading, and stress about so many issues and details, and with the ability to be able to go home and see my family as planned now in question, I couldn’t hold it in any longer, and I started to cry. And immediately worried that I had put my credibility as a leader into question.
After about 15 minutes of confusion, we were told we could leave and “resume our normal evening.” So we did. Our group boarded our bus and went out to our lovely farewell dinner at the home of a Jewish/Arab husband and wife team in the ancient port city of Jaffa. Given that we were in an ancient home, we had the comforting but surreal feeling that it could withstand whatever assault the evening might still bring.
We dined and drank, made our way to the airport, and flew home without a hitch.
But I have to say, I feel like a changed person from the person I had been 36 hours earlier.
Thirty-six hours earlier, I had friends and family in Israel – colleagues from my work who, like me, believe in the prospect of peace and security in Israel and the need for a democratic solution. I had family who disagreed with me politically, but who love me anyway, for I married their beloved nephew.
And while we can talk and learn from each other, I have always felt like I had more to learn from them than vice versa. I have felt that because they live in an unstable region of the world, in a country that faces a real and present threat to its security daily, I am the safe and warm American peering in from the outside.
But today, I feel a bit like a veteran. I feel a kinship towards them I never have before. I suddenly have a small understanding of what it means to be there, and to be scared, and to distrust the future, even the next five minutes.
As I’ve parsed that evening, and my reaction to it, I’ve come to realize that it reminded me of 9/11 – it wasn’t so much that I was in the direct line of attack, for I wasn’t. The fear emanated from not knowing what would happen next.
I rattled around after I got home, doing the mundane tasks needed for re-entry – laundry, groceries, making dinner. It all felt a bit useless. There was a small part of me that wanted to be back there with them, worried and nervous, rather than walking by the much-too-early Christmas trees outside the grocery store on my way in to buy ample food for my family.
But Shabbat dinner called, and so I plunged in for the meal. It’s a night that my family and I give thanks around the table for what we’re grateful for over the past week. This past Shabbat, I had a lot to be grateful for.
First, I was grateful for the outcome of our elections, which already seem so very far away. I was on a plane on my way to Israel when the winner was announced, and I didn’t know until I touched down in Israel that Obama had won. I feel like I missed out on the celebratory mood that must have followed, but am so grateful for the outcome.
Second, I gave thanks for having a first good run on my new job. I feel more confident and ready to really move forward in this new role, despite my teary breakdown at the end.
But third, and most importantly, I gave thanks for having come home safely. I understand that flights out of Israel were starting to get cancelled the next day. I flew out of a tinderbox, an impending war zone. I flew away from the crazy experience of standing in a ballroom in the basement of a hotel in Tel Aviv, which usually feels far away from the pressures of the Israeli south. I flew away from the fear surrounding me, and the sense of not knowing what will come next. I flew away from my own fear.
But it lingers. I feel a new solidarity, kinship, and empathy for my Israeli friends and family. I want to be with them as they move through the next days, trying to make some sense out of what’s happening.
I am caught in limbo – neither here, preparing for an American Thanksgiving and worrying about simple problems, like my daughter’s Spanish grade or signing my son up for his spring baseball team. Nor there, worrying about when the next siren will call, when the next missile will hit, what will happen to the incredible organizations and people who are helping those who can’t help themselves in the face of war.
I step into the next phase of my professional life with an experience that will long haunt me. I am sure it will make me better at understanding my job and the people I work with who live thousands of miles away.
But perhaps it will also push me to think about living my own life, here in safety and comfort, in a different way. A life that suddenly has the gift of more empathy, more appreciation, and more connection to my people, my past and my present.
Photo by RachelSharon vis Flickr