Marissa Halbrecht sat chatting with friends in a Tel Aviv pizza joint last week when suddenly she heard an unfamiliar wail: a civil-defense siren warning of a possible missile strike.
It was a sound not heard in Tel Aviv for 20 years.
“My friend said he thought it was just an ambulance,” Halbrecht said Nov. 16. “I said I didn’t think so. The music [at the restaurant] shut off and everyone realized it was a [warning] siren. We were shocked it was actually happening in Tel Aviv.”
Halbrecht, 32, is a San Francisco resident and active in the Jewish community. On a six-day AIPAC mission, she was just one of many Bay Area Jews who happened to be in Israel last week when it launched an air offensive in Gaza that elicited intensified rocket fire from Hamas.
“I had never experienced [an air-raid siren],” said Halbrecht, who has visited Israel numerous times. “I began shaking. It’s a shock. You don’t know if there’s a missile coming down. My friend took me home, and we watched the news, but all night I was shaky.”
It wasn’t the last time the sirens would sound in Tel Aviv. The very next day, the warning sounded while Halbrecht was in a café. Staffers waved to her to come with them, and together the crowd hustled into an adjacent shelter.
A few minutes later, they heard an explosion.
“In some ways, Tel Aviv was a bubble before the first missile hit,” she said by phone from Israel. “As long as the news wasn’t on, everyone was living their lives. But after that first siren went off, people were skittish. It changes reality.”
For Evan Muney, who moved with his wife and children from Berkeley to Israel nearly four years ago, the situation meant mobilizing quickly. “As soon as the missiles intensified from Gaza, we immediately took it upon ourselves to do what we could do,” he said.
As part owner of Camp Kimama, an Israeli overnight camp in the Upper Galilee, Muney, 45, decided to bring kids from the beleaguered south up to the north for some much needed respite.
He saw it as the least he could do.
“It was a no-brainer to come up with the concept,” he said. “We have a campus up north, so what can we do? It’s such a given here that people do whatever they can. People from every community in this country out of missile range have opened their doors to take people in. It’s second nature.”
Last weekend, Muney and his Camp Kimama colleagues located 85 children, ages 7 to 16, from the Beersheva area and transported them north to the camp. He expects to have a total of 110 kids staying at the camp. He said they will stay indefinitely, until the fighting stops.
He said around 25 staffers volunteered their time to work at the camp and care for the children, some of them identified as at-risk youth. Though Muney coordinated with the government, the respite camp is being funded entirely by donations.
So far, up at Camp Kimama, the kids are doing fine.
“They seem to be having a great time,” Muney said. “They have undergone incredible stresses in their life. It’s wonderful to see the relief on their faces.”
Muney and his family live in the city of Modi’in, halfway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. So far their neighborhood has not come under rocket fire, and no sirens have sounded.
But daily life definitely has changed since the outbreak of the fighting. The kindergarten class in his daughter’s elementary school was being held in a bomb shelter this week, and in his own home, Muney has made sure the safe room is ready.
“It feels different,” said Muney, who served in the Israeli army and visited Israel frequently before making aliyah. “I won’t say I haven’t asked myself if it’s irresponsible on some level to have voluntarily brought my family to a place that could potentially put them in danger, and yet I feel it is a manageable danger. What comes out even more so during wartime [is] a magnified sense of community that is stronger and more apparent.”
For the past three months, Molly Cornfield, 22, has been living in Tel Aviv as a Masa fellow — one of 14 Bay Area young adults now in the program — interning with a small high-tech company. Masa Israel is a program that brings thousands of young adults to Israel for immersive experiences.
The last week was quite immersive. “Very eye-opening,” Cornfield said. “I was having fun before, but all of a sudden things got more serious.”
Cornfield spent her teen years in Palo Alto, where her parents still live. As a student at UCLA, she was active with pro-Israel advocacy, but it wasn’t until her Masa internship that she felt truly connected to Israel.
One thing she likes about the Israelis she has met is how they scoff at danger — perhaps as a mechanism to cope with fear. Even after that first siren in Tel Aviv, Cornfield said her friends’ impulse was to laugh it off.
“In Israel, the way to deal with it is take it lightly, be cynical and make a joke,” she said, adding that she doesn’t feel in danger. “I’m not worried for myself. Whatever anxiety I have is for the State of Israel. Statistically, the risk of being injured by rockets [especially in Tel Aviv] is so small.”
Still, she said, even though many of her Israeli friends and co-workers downplayed their personal risk, they “are affected by this. Everyone’s going to the [army] and serving the country. That’s a moving experience for me.”
Philanthropist, real estate investor and Jewish community activist Moses Libitzky also found himself in Israel during the escalation. The Piedmont resident had been part of a mission with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, traveling with former ambassador Dennis Ross and meeting with high government officials.
Then, with Shabbat approaching on Nov. 16 in Jerusalem, Libitzky heard the wail of a siren.
“I stuck my head out the window,” he recalled, realizing right away that was probably not the best thing to do. “I wasn’t quite sure what was happening. It was a red alert, but I had never heard that in Jerusalem.”
Libitzky observed that life has gone on normally for Israelis outside of the besieged south, though most people are glued to the news.
What he does find alarming is the international coverage of the fighting, which he feels favors the Palestinians.
“In an attempt to be balanced, [the media] create an equivalence between this terrorist group and Israel, which is trying to protect itself,” Libitzky said. “It strikes me watching [international cable news] how all of a sudden everyone’s hypersensitive, counting every injustice on either side. Rockets were falling for months [on Israel] and the international community didn’t even notice.”
From his vantage points in Modi’in and the north, Muney said on-edge Israelis at least had been comforted by worldwide Jewish support.
“Everyone I know gets messages of support,” Muney said. “Just hearing ‘We’re praying for you’ actually really helps.”