Destruction in Israel after Hamas rockets strike (Photo/Israeli Consulate General - Press Office)
Destruction in Israel after Hamas rockets strike (Photo/Israeli Consulate General - Press Office)

Bay Area Jews in Israel describe fear, anger, resolve

On Shabbat morning, Jonathan Esensten was preparing to take his five children to synagogue when an air-raid siren blared. Quickly, he ushered his kids into their apartment’s reinforced safe room and prayed that his wife, already in synagogue to celebrate Simchat Torah, was safe.

Moments later, the family heard muffled booms — presumably the sound of the Iron Dome air-defense system — shooting down rockets fired from Gaza.

“It was totally unexpected. It took me a moment to realize what was going on,” said Esensten, who worked as a physician and scientist at UCSF School of Medicine before making aliyah in 2021. The situation became clearer when his wife, Raquel Gardner, arrived at their home in Givat Shmuel near Tel Aviv. Municipal workers patrolling their town advised her and others to stay indoors.

Jonathan Esensten
Jonathan Esensten

When Shabbat ended and Esensten turned on the news, what he heard was grim. 

“The feeling was very similar to how I felt after 9/11. I was in college at the time and remember the total shock and horror that something like this could happen,” said Esensten, who is 41 and the brother of J. culture editor Andrew Esensten. Yet Hamas’ brutal, multi-front assault against Israeli soldiers and civilians “was even worse,” he said.

“It was astonishing that there were families, children, many, many abducted by Hamas as hostages,” he said. “That is a new trauma. It sounds like my family’s stories of pogroms in Russia more than 100 years ago.”

But Esensten said he and his family also feel determined.

“Wherever you are in the world as a Jew, you risk being attacked by terrorists. I feel we’re exactly in the right place,” Esensten said. He and his wife are now hosting a family of five from Ashdod, which is about 12 miles from Gaza. They were visiting Bnei Brak for the holidays and are too terrified to return home.

Gabriela Bernstein, who is 18, was spending Shabbat in Tel Aviv when the first air-raid siren wailed.

“It was my first weekend away from my program,” said Bernstein, a San Franciscan who is on the Aardvark gap year program in Jerusalem.

Gabriela Bernstein
Gabriela Bernstein

“I woke up at 6:30 in the morning to the sound of sirens and went to the communal bomb shelter. We stayed for 10 minutes and then I went back to bed. An hour later, we went to the shelter again, still in my pajamas.” By the third siren, Bernstein was dressed and started texting friends and family.

Because some of her roommates observe Shabbat, Bernstein contacted another program participant in Jerusalem to make sure they were all OK. After being advised to shelter in place until Sunday morning, Bernstein spent more time in the Tel Aviv bomb shelter on Saturday night as additional sirens wailed.

Bernstein said that experiencing war has been “really scary,” especially because of the uncertainty over what will happen in the coming days, or even hours. Many of her fellow gap year participants have decided to fly home or spend the next week or longer out of the country.

“I’ve been saying goodbye to some of my roommates, my friends,” she said. “I’m hoping I’ll get to see them again.”

Bernstein said she plans to stay in Jerusalem, where — except for some sirens on Saturday and Monday — she said she feels safe and calm. She advises people back in California not to panic.

“You can support soldiers and everyone in Israel, but ultimately, all we can do is take it day by day,” she said.

Adie Paz-Priel, who is 52 and director of membership at Congregation Beth Sholom in San Francisco, was full of anticipation when she flew to Israel on Oct. 5 for her nephew’s upcoming wedding. Everything has changed since Saturday.

Adie Paz-Priel
Adie Paz-Priel

Although she grew up in Israel and served in the Israeli Defense Forces during the 1991 Gulf War, “I hadn’t spent time in a bomb shelter since childhood,” the Mill Valley resident said. The Gulf War required staying in a room sealed against a potential chemical weapons attack, though not in a reinforced bomb shelter.

“The main difference between past military operations and the current one, she said, “is the fact that terrorists [were] running around in Israeli towns, the fact that so many were killed so quickly.”

Paz-Priel feels for her nephew and his fiance, who have postponed their Oct. 20 wedding. The Miami couple — he’s fully Israeli and she has Israeli roots — don’t want to endanger their families and friends, many of whom were planning to fly into Israel for the event.

“But more importantly, they said, ‘We can’t celebrate when so many people are being killed. We’re sad, but it’s nothing compared to what countless families are going through,’” Paz Priel said.

“I’m very proud of them,” she added.

Lauren Dellar, who moved from San Francisco to Israel 30 years ago, is weathering the war by trying to help others.

Since Saturday, she has invited neighbors without access to bomb shelters to take refuge in her home’s reinforced safe room in central Jerusalem. During the first round of sirens on Shabbat, a pregnant neighbor,  toddler son and their dog stayed in her shelter as a series of sirens roared through the nearly empty city streets.   

For Dellar, the anxiety she is feeling isn’t for her personal safety. 

“It’s the agony of not being able to reach out and do more for others,” said Dellar, who is 62 and a nonprofit professional who worked for the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund for many years.

Among her responses now, Dellar is helping raise money to build bomb shelters for Kaima, a trio of nonprofit educational farms near Jerusalem and in northern Israel that employ teens and young adults at risk. Since the war has made it unsafe for the teens to work in the fields, which provide food to 2,800 needy people, adult volunteers have stepped in.

Dellar said the war has instantly ended the polarization inside and outside Israel that she’d witnessed since the start of the year over the Israeli government’s policies.

“People are coming together as Israelis,” she said, “and now there is a diaspora-Israel connection.”

Former East Bay resident Yitzhak Santis, who is 65, made aliyah 12 years ago from Newark to Kibbutz Hannaton near Nazareth in northern Israel.

Santis, a former director of Middle East affairs for the Jewish Community Relations Council Bay Area, is now a senior writer and analyst for the pro-Israel organization StandWithUs. He has been posting to Facebook nonstop since Hamas began its rampage.

“I am overwrought,” he said Sunday. “There’s no fighting up here in the north, but I live a mile from a major Israel Air Force base. Jets take off for bombing runs in Gaza very frequently, we can hear them. I’m watching one right now, coming in for a landing.”

A day later, Lebanon-based Hezbollah launched mortars at Israel. The IDF killed terrorists who entered Israel from Lebanon, and Israeli helicopters struck targets inside its northern neighbor.

Santis has four daughters, two of whom live in Israel. His 22-year-old is a combat medic who has been called up for reserve duty. She’s serving near Gaza to evacuate civilians from the areas around the border.

Yitzhak Santis and his wife, Anat Harrel
Yitzhak Santis and his wife, Anat Harrel

“A lot of us at Hannaton have kids who have been called up,” he said. “So there are a lot of anxious parents.” 

On Oct. 8 he wrote on Facebook: “Here I am, a longtime supporter of Israeli-Palestinian peace begging our flying killing machines to do what they’re designed to do. Maybe tomorrow or next week my heart will open to casualties in Gaza. But, not now. Not yet.”

The fear in the north, he said, is that Hezbollah might launch an all-out war. 

“The IDF is beginning preparations to evacuate communities on the northern border,” he said. “If Hezbollah attacks, it will be a massive, massive war.” 

Santis, who lived in the U.S. during the 9/11 terror attacks, said the Hamas invasion “feels a lot like that — the sheer scope of the attack and that it’s by Islamic fundamentalists, attacking primarily civilians.”

He and his wife picked up his 33-year-old daughter, who lives in Tel Aviv, on Sunday morning, to bring her back to their kibbutz. The streets of Tel Aviv were eerily empty, on a morning that is usually the busiest day of the work week.

“It looked like Yom Kippur,” he said. “Thousands have been called up. Others are staying inside, or leaving the city. It’s surreal.” 

The reality of the intensity and nature of the situation — the slaughter of children and the elderly, the hostage-taking, the scope of the infiltration — is still sinking in. 

“This changes everything,” Santis said.

Former J. editor-in-chief Sue Fishkoff contributed to this report.

Michele Chabin

RNS correspondent