In country: Sirens, bomb shelters greet Bay Area visitors to Israel

There was evening. There was morning. There were sirens.

Bay Area Jews who recently have returned from Israel — or are still there — say they have never been more in awe of the Jewish state.

Despite experiencing relentless rocket fire from Hamas, and making mad dashes into bomb shelters, none of the visitors cut short their trips. Like Israelis, they chose to maintain as normal a life as possible.

“How amazing are the Israeli people to deal with this?” said Carol Weitz, board member of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation. A member of the endowment committee, she was in Israel last week for a gathering of federation campaign executives. “This is a country born out of strife, and we were there to witness what was really happening in real time.”

She did more than witness.

Boarding a bus at the airport shortly after arriving on July 9, Weitz and her colleagues were shown what to do if a siren sounded: Exit the vehicle, lie on the ground and cover your head. “No more white pants for the rest of the trip,” she thought at the time.

Mere hours later, an early-morning red alert sounded. Hamas had fired on Tel Aviv. Hotel staff quickly guided Weitz and other guests to an interior storage room that served as a bomb shelter.

Israel’s ground war in Gaza is aimed at destroying the tunnels Hamas militants use to carry out attacks and stopping the wave of rockets aimed at civilians. photo/idf youtube channel

“It was jolting,” Weitz said. “About 10 of us stood around not talking, not knowing what to do. The staff handed out bottles of water. It was a little less than 10 minutes when the all-clear sounded.”

Five more times over the course of her trip Weitz would rush to shelters. On her second day in Israel, while she and her colleagues were set to meet with Ethiopian immigrants near Ashdod, the sirens wailed. Their bus driver shouted, “Run, run, run!” Everyone scrambled to a community center across the street.

“My heart was racing,” Weitz said. “As we came out, we saw the smoke where Iron Dome had hit the rocket.”

Iron Dome, Israel’s missile defense system, has proven near miraculous since the outbreak of war. With a 90 percent success rate over populated areas, Iron Dome has intercepted hundreds of Hamas rockets, saving untold numbers of lives.

Carol Weitz

Jonah Coffey-Keyak, 21, is a San Francisco native and Yeshiva University student spending his summer interning at the Israel Project, a U.S.-based pro-Israel media information service.

He was in his Jerusalem apartment one evening last week, eating chicken soup and watching the news. Suddenly he heard an odd sound, a high-pitched whine. Coffey-Keyak quickly bolted down several flights of stairs to the basement shelter.

“I had just come back from a missile defense conference which mentioned Iron Dome,” he recalled. “I thought the 90 percent [intercept rate] was pretty good, but with that other 10 percent, I’ll be cautious and go to the shelter. It would make my mom happy.”

Later in the week, while returning home from his office, Coffey-Keyak heard the sirens wail again. Once the bus pulled over, passengers hurried off and got flat on the ground.

“When I laid down, I did feel a bit helpless,” he said. “I realized the only thing I could do is say Tehillim [Psalms]. The first one that came to mind says, ‘From the depths I pray to you, God.’ ”

Coffey-Keyak then looked up and saw Iron Dome intercept the incoming missile. Shortly after that, everyone got back on the bus, kept calm and carried on.

Not so calm were Coffey-Keyak’s parents back in San Francisco.

In Israel with his family, Oakland Rabbi Mark Bloom spent time shopping, visiting sites and running to bomb shelters in Jerusalem.

“My mom’s been a classic Jewish mother,” he said. “I am reassured every day she loves me very much. I’ve also been reassured by my father, who has a little bit of Jewish mother in him. He checks up on me, too.”

Rabbi Mark Bloom of Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland never had to worry about his sons’ welfare while in Israel. The entire Bloom family arrived in Israel together for a congregational trip as well as some vacation time. They had no idea it would coincide with a war.

The rabbi found it reassuring to have his family in one place while the missiles flew, even if it meant the Blooms were in danger together.

Fortunately, they had downloaded the Red Alert app for iPhone, which sounds a beeping alarm when an incoming Hamas rocket is detected.

“We were there in purpose and in fear,” Bloom said two days after returning to the Bay Area. “With my kids being glued to their devices, my 11-year-old shouting out the names of the places where the bombs were occurring. When he said ‘Jerusalem,’ we were all shocked, then ran down to the basement. It was a moment of pain, sadness and unity.”

Afterward, the family went out to eat on Jerusalem’s popular Ben Yehuda Street and found the restaurants and cafés full.

Sirens, shelters and the sounds of explosions might have been much more traumatic for the Blooms without Iron Dome. During a conversation at a nearby juice bar, Bloom recalled, the proprietor called the missile defense system a “nes gadol,” Hebrew for “great miracle.”

“I believe that, too,” Bloom said. “It made life livable when Hamas was doing everything they could to disrupt life.”

Despite moments of fear, Bloom called his time in Israel “identity-forming for me and my kids. We really felt like we were in it with the Israelis. We felt like we were all in it together.”

Echoing that sentiment was Cantor Meeka Simerly of Temple Emanu-El in San Jose, a native of Haifa who had not been in Israel for four years and visited this month. She was there for three weeks, on a mission with the American Conference of Cantors and visiting family.

In some ways she was lucky. Simerly said that consistently during her trip, as soon as she would depart a city, the sirens would sound. She never once had to sprint to a bomb shelter.

But she remembers a time when she did. As a girl in Haifa, she endured the 1973 Yom Kippur War and the deafening air-raid sirens located not far from her home.

“When you’re very close, it actually creates vibrations in your body,” she said of the sirens. “It’s so powerful. I was so petrified [of the sound of the siren] at night I slept with earplugs [on this trip]. I wasn’t afraid of the missiles; I had full trust in the Israeli defense system.”

That didn’t mean Simerly relaxed. She said the experience of being in Israel while under attack took her back to her former life.

“I right away became the Israeli I was when I left 20 years ago,” she said. “That’s the Israeli who watches TV, listens to the radio constantly, but at the same time doesn’t forget to have fun. The Israeli that goes shopping like on any other day but talks with salespeople about the matsav [situation]. Complete strangers become close friends for a few seconds.”

In addition to falling back into her native Israeli ways, Simerly also developed a newfound appreciation for her country. She marveled at the way Israel managed the tricky geopolitical steps to maximize legitimacy for Operation Protective Edge, its military campaign against Hamas.

She cited as an example a new Hebrew term she learned on the trip: hakesh b’gag, or a knock on the roof. That’s the harmless flash the Israeli military fires on a building in Gaza to warn civilians to flee before a real bomb takes it out.

Michelle Nathanson (left) and Susan Gavens of the Jewish Federation of Silicon Valley talk to an IDF soldier on reserve duty.

“I’m in awe of the Israeli government for the very mature steps they are taking to deal with this,” Simerly said. “They are playing such a great political game. They are taking all the steps needed to be as humane as they can to maintain the Jewish way, to treat the stranger, the civilians, with utmost care. A feeling of solidarity with Israel has tremendously increased within me.”

Sunnyvale resident Aaron Pluemer, 18, had a special reason to travel to Israel last week. As the newly elected international president of United Synagogue Youth, the Conservative movement’s youth organizaiton, he was on the trip along with 250 other USY members. Despite the fact that war had come to Israel, Pluemer said he still felt safe there.

“It’s the same Israel I visited last year and several times before,” he said. “I could see the spirit of everyone around. The high morale was a reflection of the perseverance of everyone in Israel. People get through the hard times. Things like this can happen at any time, but you can’t let that stop you.”

Cantor Meeka Simerly

Because Pluemer is part of a youth trip, organizers have constantly double-checked the daily itinerary to make sure there are no undue security concerns. As of early this week, he said, no changes had been made.

“The Israeli government does what it needs to do to protect its citizens,” he noted. “From having Iron Dome to having shelters and giving frequent instructions so all the Israelis and tourists know what to do if a situation arises — we’re prepared.”

Pluemer contended that Iron Dome has not only saved Israeli lives but Palestinian lives as well. “People are saying thank God we have this system to protect us. Had those [Hamas] rockets hit, then the Israeli response would have been very different.” As of early this week, Pluemer had not had to duck into a shelter. Not so for Michelle Nathanson and Susan Gavens, the director of development and the campaign vice president, respectively, for the Jewish Federation of Silicon Valley. Both were in Israel for a Jewish Federations of North America mission.

They and their 77 colleagues were forced into bomb shelters pretty much every day, sometimes more than once.

On their first evening in Israel, the two were strolling on the boardwalk on the Tel Aviv shore. As they passed a restaurant, the sirens sounded.

“We followed everybody into a shelter,” Nathanson said. “It was bizarre. You could hear the high pitch of the rocket, then a huge boom when [Iron Dome] hit the rocket.”

Aaron Pluemer

Added Gavens: “The people at the restaurant were very calm, got up as if it was an everyday occurrence. There were children as well. [After the all-clear] they walked back to the restaurant. It was comforting. Everyone took care of each other.”

Both women noticed a marked change from the normal bustle of Israeli city life. The streets, stores and restaurants have been emptier. But Gavens and Nathanson wanted to pitch in by shopping, dining out, going to a museum.

Nathanson said the experience strengthened her connection to Israel.

“I have never seen a country comport itself the way Israel does,” she noted. “It breaks my heart that some of these kids in the south [of Israel] are growing up with this kind of environment.”

Added Gavens, while still in Israel (she has since returned): “I have the luxury of leaving in a few days and resuming the quiet life in California, and these people don’t. Their income is terribly disrupted now. I really feel for them.”

Though the world’s attention has shifted to the ground war in Gaza, Hamas has not stopped firing rockets into Israel, nor sending death squads into the country via underground tunnels.

Those efforts have been almost entirely thwarted by the Israel Defense Forces, and that has allowed visiting Americans to continue with their trips, all the while marveling at Israeli resilience.

“I am comfortable over here,” Pluemer said. “There is no place I’d rather be: in Israel, with my peers, having an incredible, meaningful Jewish experience.”


on the cover

photo/ap-dan balilty

Mourners at funeral of Maj. Amotz Greenberg, 45, killed on July 20

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.