Rivka Hia, 19-year-old Yeshiva University student from Queens, awoke on the night of July 8 to the wailing of sirens. She, along with 30 other Yeshiva University students, was staying in the southern Israeli city of Kiryat Malakhi, about 25 miles from the Gaza Strip.
“When the sirens started going off, signaling rocket fire, they woke us up and we boarded buses to Jerusalem,” Hia said.
Hia is part of the Yeshiva University Counterpoint Israel summer program, a five-week service-learning program during which students run English summer camps for Israeli teens in Southern Israel. Operation Protective Edge, the military campaign Israel launched again Hamas in Gaza, has forced the program to re-evaluate its itinerary.
“Our plans are changing as quickly as the rockets are flying,” said Kiva Rabinsky, the program’s co-director. “Safety is obviously our number one priority, but we don’t want to rob our students of the mission they came here to complete. We told participants they’d return to their posts in the south as soon as possible.”
And they have. Despite continued rocket fire and Hamas’ threat to target Israel’s nuclear reactor in Dimona, the Counterpoint students traveled back to the south on Monday after a four day stay on Yeshiva University’s Jerusalem campus. On Monday, half of the group began running a day camp for Israeli teenagers in Dimona, while the other half bussed to Arad to run a camp there. All students are now housing together in Dimona.
“We chose to relocate all the students to Dimona because it has the biggest bomb shelter,” said Rabinsky.
Though all the students were given the chance to fly home, none of them did. “When we got to Jerusalem, we were given the chance to go home the next day,” said Hia, who is staffing the camp in Dimona. “But not one person chose to go. It’s not time to pack up our bags. We came to Israel with a purpose and a mission, and we intend to complete it. If the Israeli teenagers we work with can live through this, so can we.”
Counterpoint Israel is not the only group of American college students positioned in Israel’s south. Emily Venable, 19-year-old rising sophomore at Harvard University, was in Ashkelon before the rockets began. She, along with 70 other students from different universities, was participating in a Harvard-sponsored archaeological excavation of an ancient Mediterranean seaport.
Their digging site was only three miles from the Gaza border. Of the 70 members who began the expedition, Venable is one of the only 14 who remain. When the rockets began, the group immediately moved north to Tiberias. Several of the staff members went to Jerusalem. Most of the students began to return home.
“This was my first time in Israel, and I didn’t want to leave,” said Venable, who described watching the Iron Dome in action. “I have never felt unsafe this whole trip. Israel’s methods of defense are supremely effective. Though the summer has turned out very different than expected, I haven’t been disappointed.” Venable, who is not Jewish, looks forward to sharing details of her summer with fellow students at Harvard upon her return.
“I came on this trip because I wanted to do something adventurous with my summer, but I’m leaving this trip with great pride and respect for Israel,” she said.
Yael Eisenberg, 18-year-old Yeshiva University student from New Jersey, is participating in another archeological dig close to the Gaza Strip. Accompanied by four other Yeshiva University students as well as other international student groups (from countries including Australia, Canada, Norway, and South Korea), the dig is located on Tell es-Safi, the biblical Gath. Eisenberg is staying on a kibbutz between Ashdod and Ashkelon, less than 25 miles from Gaza.
That equals less than 60 seconds to get to a bomb shelter.
“We are currently digging, and trying to clean the area as much as possible at the end of each day, in case that day is our last on the site,” said Eisenberg. The group has not moved from their original location despite the rocket fire.
Though she said there was “talk of ending the program early,” the group was given permission to continue digging. They are planning to continue until the end of the season, July 25, unless there is a further change in the security situation. The program, which started with 80 students, has been halved. Though only about 40 students remain, none of the YU students have left the mission.
For Eisenberg and her fellow students, running to the bomb shelter has now become routine.
“We go into the shelters three times a day/night on average,” said Sima Fried, a 19-year-old Yeshiva University student from Woodmere, L.I. “At the beginning we were all very nervous, some even terrified, but at this point it’s just what we have to do.” Eisenberg described it as developing a “third ear” for the sirens.
Though they are in a relatively open area, the Iron Dome has been effective at preventing damage.
“This entire experience has been unreal,” said Fried. “I have often seen videos of the Iron Dome, but I never thought I would become a part of the video. The white puffs of smoke from intercepted rockets have become part of the landscape.”
Eisenberg added that the group “constantly” sees fighter jets flying over Gaza.
“I personally feel quite safe here, as the tragedies from missiles have been close to zero,” said Eisenberg. “At the kibbutz we stay within a minute of the shelter, and when we leave the kibbutz I remind myself that there is a higher risk of getting hurt from a traffic accident than from a missile.”
Other permanent changes to daily life? “We have to take showers as fast as possible,” she said.
“My hearing has gotten more sensitive, and I go to sleep in comfortable clothing and shoes in case I have to run to the shelter in the middle of the night,” added Fried.
Young Judaea, the oldest Zionist youth movement in the U.S., currently has two groups in Israel, each with 40 American high-school students. None of the students have left the program. A third group for Russian speaking teenagers was supposed to leave on Monday, but the trip was postponed due to security concerns.
“Since the rocket fire, our students have been avoiding the entire center of the county and the Beersheva area,” said Avital Levine, Israel program coordinator. “When the conflict began last week, we moved the groups down to Eilat. They’ve also traveled up north to spend time in the Golan,” she said.
From her position in the U.S., Levine’s main responsibility is to keep parents calm. “I am constantly reassuring parents that we’re following all safety measures possible,” said Levine. “We’re not at a point where we have to bring them home — if that point came, we would do so. At this point, staff members are keeping students well informed and we’re sticking to safe areas.” Neither of the groups has yet taken refuge in a bomb shelter.
Despite the situation’s uncertainty, there have been unexpected perks of the program changes, at least for some. The NSCY all-boys summer program, Kollel, has been moved to the same northern moshav as the all-girls summer program, Michlelet. A total of four NSCY summer programs are now sharing the campus in the Golan (only one of the four was intended to be there).
“There are strict rules about boys not interacting with the girls,” said Avraham Tsikhanovski, 16-year-old Kollel student from New Jersey. “Boys are on one side of the campus, and girls on the other.”
Still, not all interactions can be avoided. Some boys have been caught on the Michlelet grounds. Though nightly staff patrols have done their best, some individuals have been able to break through.
“Israel has figured out a way to keep rockets from falling, but the advisers still haven’t figured out a way to keep the boys off the girls’ campus,” said one anonymous Michlelet student, laughing. She wished to remain anonymous.