The Jaffe family, formerly of Berkeley, on the beach in Tel Aviv before the latest outbreak of violence in Israel.
The Jaffe family, formerly of Berkeley, on the beach in Tel Aviv before the latest outbreak of violence in Israel.

New Israelis from Bay Area experience sirens, shelters for first time

Most Israelis are familiar with the sirens that warn civilians about incoming rockets and send them running immediately for shelter. But for new immigrants who had yet to experience the Israeli-Palestinian conflict firsthand, the past week has provided a rude and sometimes terrifying introduction.

Last October, J. profiled several former Bay Area families who decided to make aliyah, or immigrate to Israel, in 2020. We checked back with some of them this week to see how they have been coping during the intensifying conflict between Israel and Palestinian militant groups that has already left 8 Israelis and more than 100 Palestinians dead.

We also wondered: Has the violence and threat of all-out war caused them to reconsider their plans to build lives in Israel?

Ariele and Or Hershkovits made aliyah from Palo Alto last August so Or, an Israeli-born mathematician, could teach at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Though their immigration experience did not go as smoothly as they had hoped due to bureaucratic hurdles, they quickly settled into their new life with their two young daughters. Less than a year in, the rockets started falling.

“I grew up hearing about the intifadas, so living in a country with terror attacks was much more on my mind rather than this warlike scenario,” Ariele, 37, told J. “I joke with my husband that I signed up for high-tech and hummus, not sirens at 3 a.m. It’s extremely scary when the sirens are blaring and you’re hearing the booms.”

Or and Ariele Hershkovits moved to Tel Aviv from Palo Alto last August.
Or and Ariele Hershkovits moved to Tel Aviv from Palo Alto last August.

The Hershkovitses live in an older building in northern Tel Aviv, and their apartment does not have a reinforced safe room like apartments in more modern buildings. Neither does the building have a proper shelter. Some of the families with young children and animals have been taking refuge in a windowless basement, where the explosions of rockets being intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome system are more muted.

Asked how she has explained what’s happening to her 6-year-old, Kinneret, Ariele replied, “We’ve told her countries sometimes fight just like kids fight, and they throw things at each other because they don’t know how to use their words, so we have to go somewhere safe and let the Israeli army protect us.” She added, “These are things I never thought I would have to explain.”

As a mother, she said she has compassion for innocent Palestinians who are caught up in the conflict. “They’re suffering much more than we are,” she said. “At least I can say that my army is protecting me. I don’t think a Palestinian civilian could say the same thing about Hamas.”

A lawyer who works on research collaborations between hospitals, universities and biotech companies, Ariele questioned the timing of the Israeli government’s attempt to expel Palestinian families from their homes in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of Jerusalem, which is considered one contributing factor to the recent outbreak of violence. “It was one unnecessary provocation after another,” she said. “Let them live where they’ve been living. Why is it worth having millions of parents sitting in shelters, trying to sing to their children over rocket booms? How is any of this worth it?”

Yet the unrest has not made her reconsider her decision to move to Israel. “In my rational moments, I remember that the U.S. has lots of scary things, too,” she said. “California has wildfires. There are mass shootings. But the whole country isn’t exposed to those things at once like this situation.”
Ben Snyder, 35, a native San Franciscan now living in the Ramat Aviv neighborhood of Tel Aviv, described his family’s chaotic experience on Tuesday night, when Hamas militants fired hundreds of rockets toward the city.

Upon hearing the first warning siren, Snyder and his Israeli-born wife Yael Meoded grabbed their sleeping 1½-year-old daughter Ellie and gathered in the apartment building’s stairwell with other neighbors. (Like the Hershkovitses, Snyder and Meoded live in an older building without a built-in shelter.) When the second siren went off in the middle of the night, they hurried to a nearby public shelter.

They spent about an hour inside, chatting with their neighbors while Ellie slept. “Only a few of [the Iron Dome interceptions] sounded kind of scary close,” said Snyder. “The authorities are saying around 90 percent of incoming rockets are shot down. If 90 percent were landing, we would be on a plane back to the United States.”

Ben Snyder and Yael Meoded with their daughter Ellie. (Photo/Vered Farkash)
Ben Snyder and Yael Meoded with their daughter Ellie. (Photo/Vered Farkash)

The following day, Snyder’s classes at Tel Aviv University, where he is studying for a master’s degree in environmental studies, moved online; Ellie’s day care was closed. The family spent that night with Meoded’s relatives farther north (and thus farther from Gaza), returning to Tel Aviv on Thursday.

While Snyder said he has felt more fear fleeing from encroaching wildfires in California and Montana than he has seeking shelter from Hamas rockets, his emotions have fluctuated between frustration and fury during the past few days. “The experience of a rapid evacuation under threat is not completely foreign to me, but it’s different when there’s somebody that’s intending to harm you,” he said. “This is a pretty shitty experience.”

The threat of another full-out war has caused Snyder to reflect on “what is it going to be like being here long term.” He said he’s glad he retained his American citizenship.

Snyder’s parents, Mari and Marc, happen to be visiting their son for the month of May. The couple, who were among the founding members of Reform congregation Shir Shalom in Sonoma, traveled to Israel as soon as the country’s Covid-related travel restrictions were eased. They anticipated spending lots of time playing with their granddaughter. They didn’t envision that some of that time would be spent in a bomb shelter.

On Thursday afternoon, while Snyder and Meoded were at appointments, Mari and Marc were babysitting Ellie when a siren went off. “We had to grab her and hurry to the shelter,” Marc said. “It was not an experience we would like to have a lot more of.” (For her part, Mari said she was impressed by how well-appointed the shelter was, with bathrooms and an air filtration system.)

Mari and Marc Snyder, who are currently visiting their son and his family, inside a Tel Aviv bomb shelter.
Mari and Marc Snyder of Sonoma inside a Tel Aviv bomb shelter.

The couple said their daughter-in-law’s family has been supportive, checking on their well-being throughout the week. “They’re very concerned about us because we haven’t experienced this before,” Mari said.

Now retired from careers in health care, Mari and Marc are in the process of immigrating to Israel in order to live near their only son and granddaughter. They said the past week has provided them with an important, though unexpected, education on what life can be like in the country. “We’ve had some interesting conversations and probably learned more about what’s going on in Israel than we might have otherwise,” Marc said.

Since settling in Tel Aviv last summer with his wife, Jonathan Jaffe told J. he has been more content than at any time during the previous decade he lived in Berkeley. “Our lives here are fantastic,” said Jaffe, who is the head of security for an Israeli insurance company. “We walk to the beach two and sometimes three times a day. We see friends and family three or four days a week. My commute to work is eight minutes by bike, and I enjoy all the people I work with.”

The outbreak of violence has been most upsetting to Jaffe’s 16-year-old daughter, Avi, who attends a boarding school in Hod Hasharon. Jaffe said Avi’s schoolmates were rattled by the rocket barrage on Tuesday night; many cried and vomited out of fear.

Now back with her parents in Tel Aviv, Avi has been subjected to harassment on Instagram by former friends in Berkeley who called her a terrorist after she posted pro-Israel messages on her account, Jaffe said.

“The politically toxic environment in the U.S. is far worse than here, and she is now being subjected to it remotely,” he said. “Despite her maturity, I saw how being attacked in a public forum by people she once was friends with bothers her. That is hard to see.”

Hannah and Michael Piotrkowski settled in Jerusalem last August.
Hannah and Michael Piotrkowski settled in Jerusalem last August.

For Hannah and Michael Piotrkowski, who moved to Jerusalem from San Francisco last August, the past week has been more inconvenient than frightening.

“Israel was just beautifully coming out of [lockdown], and now people are hunkering down again,” Hannah said. “There was a restaurant near the Machane Yehuda shuk that we wanted to try yesterday but it was shuttered. We asked the manager about it being closed, and he said all of his workers were called up to fight in Gaza.”

Hannah, 66, said hearing the sirens took her back to her childhood in 1970s New York City when schools would hold “duck and cover” air raid drills in preparation for a possible Soviet nuclear attack. “The siren is very eerie,” she said. “It means there is something impending that you have no control over.”

She admitted that she wasn’t quite sure what to do when the siren sounded for the first time in Jerusalem, but then she watched a video that her Hebrew teacher sent to her ulpan class explaining how to take shelter in different locations, like at home or on a bus.

As the son of Auschwitz survivors, Michael, 69, said he is happy that Israel has a strong army and that “we aren’t just being led to slaughter.” He said he worried about the prospect of another war between Israel and the Palestinians before moving to Israel but “that was not a reason not to make aliyah.” And the current conflict is not a reason to return to the U.S., either, the couple said.

“We love it here,” Hannah said, “and we wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

Andrew Esensten
Andrew Esensten

Andrew Esensten is the culture editor of J. Previously, he was a staff writer for the English-language edition of Haaretz based in Tel Aviv. Follow him on Twitter @esensten.