by Gaby Marmur

“It’s not going to be pleasant, but it’s really good!” I said to the bleary-eyed group of my co-participants in the Mechina, the Israeli Reform Movement’s post-high school, pre-army initiative focused on Jewish heritage and Israeli identity. It was 6:55am on Thursday, November 15th, and having initiated our group’s joining in the Rosh Chodesh services in support of the Women of the Wall, that sentence finished my briefing on what we were to do if attacked by ultra-Orthodox men or arrested by police for wearing tallitot and singing aloud at the Kotel.

At the last minute, there had been a question about going, as the day before, the Israel Defense Forces had assassinated Hamas leader Ahmed Jabari and, as a result, the security situation in Israel was escalating. After discussing the safety of going to a protest in Jerusalem, our group decided to attend – but to be understanding if anyone wished to stay behind.

A Teenager in Israel in Times of War

URJ President Rabbi Rick Jacobs (in light blue) met with participants in the Mechina program while in Israel last month.

On Thursday evening, after returning from Jerusalem (where six women were arrested but all was calm on the ultra-Orthodox front) a siren went off in Tel Aviv – the first since the Gulf War in 1991. Having finished my volunteer work for the day, I was sitting out on our balcony, talking to a friend about my worries for my brother, who would be involved if Israel decided on a ground invasion. Suddenly, we heard a loud wail rising up out of what had felt like a relaxed sunset. We both jumped to our feet and ran out of the apartment, meeting up with one of our counselors along the way. As soon as we made it to the building’s staircase, we heard a rather loud boom. Our counselor assured us its source was miles away but recommended we make our journey home as promptly as possible.

Over the weekend, a few of the Mechina participants and their parents voiced their concerns about returning to the dilapidated building, which lacks a bomb shelter. Still, I knew I was going to come back. If the staircase was safe enough for residents of Jaffa and Tel Aviv – including the kids I volunteer with – then it was going to have to be safe enough for me.

We in the Mechina felt we must do something to help people in the south of Israel who were suffering from constant shelling. Beersheva, the home of one of the Mechina participants and one of the cities most heavily targeted by Hamas missiles, was the obvious choice for a volunteer trip. On Tuesday morning, we arrived in Beersheva were greeted by a siren that brought home the reality of where we were. We were divided into groups of three, given an address and a choice of games to take with us, and then off we went to find the shelter and the kids inside it who were anticipating our arrival. Three sirens later, we reached our destination; two of those sirens caught me outside and out of range of a shelter. I can’t say I was scared of the sirens because the whole situation felt too surreal, but in any case, I dropped to the ground, as instructed, and covered my head with my arms.

Arriving at the shelter to which we were assigned was rather shocking. The toilets were overflowing, which caused a putrid smell, and water was leaking into the shelter. There were old men and women lying on mattresses, young kids running around, and their mothers either cooking or cleaning or chatting about the situation. The first thing my fellow Mechina participants and I did was to fix the leakage and clean out the water from the shelter; when that was done, we gathered all the kids to play games. Throughout the day, it became more and more apparent that we were in a deprived area and that these kids were dealing with more than rockets falling on their homes. The most satisfying part of the day was when, after nine hours of coping with one particularly difficult boy who constantly screamed and interrupted, he came up to me and asked me to walk him home because he was scared. It was then that I realized the significance of our coming to the shelter. I was there to do more than just help pass the time; I was someone who provided these children with a sense of security in a time of war. The mothers thanked us profusely, and we headed back to our home in Jaffa.

I am constantly learning in the Mechina. That particular week, I learned that being a young Reform Jew in this year-long program means that we all come back on Sunday and volunteer as usual, even if Tel Aviv is under threat; it means I am supported when I want to go and protest in Jerusalem; it means knowing we should go to Beersheva in the time of rocket attacks. But the biggest message I learned is one I started the week by saying: Things aren’t always pleasant or easy, but they are still important and significant. Maybe even more so.

Gaby Marmur is a member of Kol HaNeshama, Israel’s largest Reform synagogue. She currently lives in Jaffa as a part of the Israeli Reform Movement’s year-long, pre-army program volunteer program.