UnXeptable founder Offir Gutelzon at a gathering in support of Israel at Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco, Oct. 8, 2023. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)
UnXeptable founder Offir Gutelzon at a gathering in support of Israel at Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco, Oct. 8, 2023. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)

‘I’ve never felt such helplessness’: Israelis living in Bay Area react to war back home

Hannah Zilberstein was halfway into her 14-hour United Airlines flight from San Francisco to Tel Aviv when the captain announced on the intercom that he could not land the plane in Israel due to a “situation.” The plane turned around above Greenland and headed back to SFO.

The on-board Wi-Fi network was disabled, so passengers did not learn about the coordinated terrorist attacks on southern Israeli towns and army bases until they landed Saturday morning local time.

“It was completely shocking,” Zilberstein, 59, said about her flight experience in an interview with J. “People were very stressed.”

Zilberstein was headed home to Hod Hasharon near Tel Aviv after spending the past month in Mountain View helping her daughter, Tal Zilberstein Paz, with her new baby. Zilberstein Paz said she had to explain to her older child, who is 4, why savta (grandmother) was coming back so soon.

“I told him there is a big balagan in Israel, and the plane cannot safely land,” she said, using the Hebrew word for “mess.” “I hope he won’t ask too many questions.”

The women were among two dozen Israelis who gathered at the Oshman Family Jewish Community Center in Palo Alto on Saturday afternoon for a previously scheduled Sukkot event for Israeli families. As attendees began to arrive, some exchanged hugs and gave hushed updates on the status of their relatives in Israel.

“We’re all in this together,” one man said.

To open the event, JCC staff invited the Israelis to sit together and process their emotions about the surprise Hamas assault that has left an estimated 900 Israelis dead and more than 2,000 injured. A Hebrew-speaking psychologist from Jewish Family and Children’s Services helped guide the conversation.

Zachi Rosenberg, who grew up in Israel and has lived in the United States for 29 years, expressed how anxious and disoriented he felt.

“We’ve become desensitized to the rocket attacks because they happen every few years, but this is bigger than anything we’ve seen in a while,” he told J. after the group session. “It’s a 9/11-type feeling, with the mental exhaustion and the physical exhaustion. There are so many unknowns. What will Israel do? Where does this end?”

Asked if he believes a full-scale war between Israel and Hamas will break out, the Los Altos resident and father of four daughters replied, “At this point it’s inevitable, and I’m extremely worried about the next few weeks and months, however long this is going to take.”

Zachi Rosenberg and family (Photo/Courtesy)
Zachi Rosenberg and family (Photo/Courtesy)

Before the Covid-19 pandemic started, there were approximately 35,000 Israelis living in Northern California, with the largest concentration in the Peninsula and South Bay.

“Kvar Kan Silicon Valley” (“Already Here Silicon Valley”), a private Facebook group for expats with more than 6,000 members, has seen a major uptick in activity since the attacks, according to Rosenberg, who is a member of the group. The ERAN crisis hotline, which provides emotional support to callers based in Israel and is partially staffed by Israelis in the Bay Area, has been inundated with calls, according to staff.

Some of the thousands of local Israelis have children currently serving in the Israel Defense Forces as “lone” soldiers without family in the country to support them. Others are looking for flights to Israel so they can personally join the fight against Hamas. Almost all have relatives and friends in Israel who are living through one of the greatest tragedies in the country’s history.

At a vigil at Congregation Shir Hadash on Sunday night, Rabbi Nico Socolovsky said that a number of his Israeli congregants have loved ones who were murdered over the weekend.

“Everyone is still in shock,” Ronit Jacobs, director of OFJCC’s Israeli Cultural Connection program, said at the JCC on Saturday. “I think that as things will become more clear over time, sadly, there will be a lot of mourning in the community.”

In response to the unfolding crisis, UnXeptable, the Israeli pro-democracy group that has organized demonstrations in San Francisco and in cities worldwide since February, announced that it has suspended its protests and shifted resources to support Israelis both in Israel and abroad.

“We are very critical about the government. We have not changed that approach, but our first priority now is helping the people of Israel and the Israel Defense Forces,” Offir Gutelzon, the group’s Palo Alto-based co-founder, said in an interview Sunday. “Our brothers and sisters in arms are fighting and protecting the country, and we are offering support from the rear.”

UnXeptable has already raised more than $50,000 through its fiscal sponsor, the America-Israel Democracy Coalition, he said. The organization is also prompting a separate GoFundMe fundraiser to supply ceramic vests and helmets to IDF soldiers on the front lines — the soldiers have combat gear, but it’s “outdated,” he said. The group is also connecting host families with Israelis who have been stranded abroad.

Gutelzon has relatives who live in northern Israel and are safe for now, although he worries the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah will open a second front in the conflict.

Likewise, Rabbi Tsipora Gabai’s eight siblings and many nephews, nieces and cousins in Israel — including some who live in Sderot and other cities close to Gaza — are also physically OK, though several have been called up by the IDF. In an emotional phone interview, the Kensington rabbi said she dreads the casualties of a protracted conflict between Israel and Hamas.

“I lost a brother-in-law in the Yom Kippur War,” she said. “I lost a nephew, my first nephew Almog, in 2014 in a hit-and-run. I’m not ready to lose any more.”

Rabbi Tsipora Gabai
Rabbi Tsipora Gabai

Gabai, who grew up in the village of Ma’alot in the Galilee, recalled how the army responded quickly when Palestinian terrorists took hostages at the Netiv Meir Elementary School, which was located near her home, in May 1974 when she was 14. Despite the rapid response, 25 Israelis, including 22 children, died in that attack.

“What happened this time?” Gabai said. “People were hiding for hours. Where was the army? Where was the big famous Air Force? Why didn’t they come immediately? I don’t understand, God, please.”

She said she has been watching the news and experiencing a range of emotions, from heartbreak to anger. She has cried while thinking about the families of all the Israelis taken to Gaza as hostages. Most of all, she said, she feels guilty that she’s not in Israel right now.

“I know it’s dangerous, but I want to be with them,” she said of her family. “It’s not a good feeling that I can walk in Berkeley and look at the trees and enjoy the weather while my family are in the shelters, terrified, crying and praying and waiting to hear from their loved ones.”

She added, “I want the world to have more compassion for Israel, and I want all of us Jewish people in Israel and around the world to come together. If we will not, we will be wiped out.”

For Michal and Adam Lapede of Los Altos, the crisis feels close and acute. Two of their daughters live in Israel and were called up to the IDF as reservists; one is in a combat unit stationed along Gaza’s northern border, and one is in a support role. (The young women are 23 and 21, but the Lapedes did not want to share any other details about them for their safety.)

“I’ve never felt such fear, such helplessness,” Michal Lapede, 52, said. “There’s not enough adjectives that I can find for this terrifying experience that they’re going through. When Adam and I were in the army, there was the Gulf War, but not this kind of thing. It’s not even a war. It’s a destruction.”

Adam Lapede, 51, blamed Israel’s leaders for a “total failure” and invoked the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when Egypt and Syria led a surprise attack against Israel.

“The lessons of 50 years ago have been forgotten, and the element of surprise was to [Hamas’] advantage,” he said. “It was a free-for-all for Hamas. It’s unimaginable but it’s real.”

The Lapedes have been in constant contact with their daughters and others in Israel via WhatsApp, and they are following the news nonstop. They said they are trying to stay strong for their children, including their 17-year-old who lives with them.

As for Hannah Zilberstein, who was on the flight that was diverted back to San Francisco, she said she does not know when she will be able to go home. Many flights to Israel have been canceled since the outbreak of violence. On Monday, Delta cancelled all flights to Tel Aviv through Oct. 31.

“My mom’s always welcome, and it’s good for us that she’s here,” Zilberstein Paz said. “But she has a small business, a yarn shop, and she was supposed to open it back up on Sunday. It’s all so overwhelming.”

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.